By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Legislators preliminarily agreed on Thursday to have Sheriff Michael Schiff hire five temporary deputies to replace a substantial and relatively rapid loss of patrol officers.
“We just lost three people within the last three weeks,” said Legislator Gene Benson.
At Legislator Cora Edwards’ behest, the associated costs (including salaries) were capped at $75,000.
“Don’t ask me to vote on a resolution if there’s no cost attached,” she explained.
Ultimately, the vote in the Executive Committee was unanimous (minus absent Legislator Kathy LaBuda), with the full, official vote scheduled for this Thursday.
Schiff seemed confident he would not exceed that cap, noting that existing weapons and uniforms will be used to equip the new officers whenever possible. They’ll each be paid $26.77 an hour for up to 90 days of work.
But Schiff wasn’t so confident that he’ll actually find five qualified people (typically, retirees) to fill those slots.
“In the summer,” he recalled of a prior attempt, “we were only able to find two.”
“So do we keep doing 90 days and 90 days and 90 days?” wondered Benson. “Are we throwing a Band-Aid on an open wound and not closing it?”
“Yes,” admitted Schiff, “but we can’t do any better for now.… I can’t think of any other fix at this point.
“We have to have long-term solutions to these problems,” he urged.
Schiff has told legislators at past meetings that higher salaries in neighboring police departments are largely to blame for the exodus of deputies, and some legislators have indicated they’ll discuss the salary issue during the upcoming formation of the 2013 county budget.
In the meantime, Personnel Officer Carolyn Hill said the deputy sheriff Civil Service exam will be held next month, giving the county a fresh list of applicants to choose from by January.
Anyone hired for that position, however, will have to first attend a state training academy that begins in March.
Legislators on Thursday briefly discussed the oft-proposed hiring freeze policy for vacant positions, then opted to leave it to November’s Executive Committee meeting.
Legislator Kitty Vetter first brought it up at Thursday’s Government Services Committee, earning support from fellow Legislator Alan Sorensen.
“I think we do need a coherent policy,” he agreed.
“I agree with both of you,” replied Benson, “… but I believe it should be on the Personnel or Executive Committee [agenda].”
“Trying to do an absolute hiring freeze really doesn’t work,” opined Legislator Jonathan Rouis, who pointed out that the county recently needed to hire a Health and Family Services commissioner.
“... We have to be prudent not to fill anything that’s not necessary,” Rouis acknowledged, “but at the same time, we’ve got a job to do.”
County Manager David Fanslau, however, reiterated his wish that legislators not fill vacancies through the end of the year, to give him and his staff time to formulate a tentative budget and time for legislators to review and vote upon it.
“This is not a policy,” he noted. “It’s just asking to defer action.”
Legislator Cindy Gieger has long been a proponent of freezing hiring, though she agreed a firm policy could be difficult to adhere to.
Since January, she said, “we’ve filled $2.4 million worth of vacancies.”
Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson offered to bring it up next month during the Executive Committee meeting.
However, he cautioned, “We have a lot of people very short in their offices, and we need to make sure they don’t fall apart while we figure this out.”
Teamsters union rep Sandy Shaddock had another suggestion convene a panel to review the county’s millions of dollars’ worth of external contracts.
“Why is it coming back on the workforce?” she wondered. “… I think some due diligence needs to be done there before you cut bodies.”
Back to tax-exempts
In a conversation that re-emerges almost every year, legislators again talked about passing resolutions to urge the state to reform the tax-exempt property rules.
With approximately 20 percent of land in the county off the tax rolls, Gieger said it’s a “hot-button issue” for townships as well as county government.
“The numbers are unbelievably unsustainable,” she lamented. “… We’re county legislators, and we need to make a message.”
That message came in the form of two resolutions one imploring the State Legislature to reform tax-exempt rules, the other asking the governor and state legislators to limit property tax exemptions to only the land and buildings actually used for tax-exempt purposes (i.e., religious or nonprofit purposes).
Officials pointed out that if all non-governmental tax-exempt property was made taxable, the county could reduce taxes by nearly 15 percent.
Problem is, said County Attorney Sam Yasgur, state judges over the years have interpreted the laws in a manner more generous to the tax-exempt organizations than the taxpayers.
Nevertheless, he agreed with County Treasurer Ira Cohen (a noted tax-exempt reform proponent) that the county “should be pushing the envelope on cases where we have a chance of winning.”
Legislator Sorensen, however, argued for a different approach: getting the state to agree to let Sullivan County set its own tax-exempt policy.
Gieger advocated for banding together with other upstate counties suffering with a 20 percent or more tax-exempt burden, giving more heft to state lobbying efforts.
In the meantime, Cohen said he’s been drafting specific reform legislation for the state to consider, with which he invited legislators to assist.
They thus agreed to hold off on sending more resolutions to the state until Cohen finishes his draft.
Past efforts have failed to spark state action, but several speakers agreed popular support is growing.
“With the economy the way it is,” Cohen remarked, “people are recognizing more than in the past the importance of putting properties back on the tax rolls.”
“I’ve got to tell you, the people are waiting for something, and we’re their voice,” urged Gieger.