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September 7, 2013

Wisdom needed to close budget gap

The Daily Star

---- — Otsego County, looking down the barrel of a projected $7 million deficit for next year, finds itself in the same situation as many businesses in our area and around the country.

With expenses expected to rise and income flat or barely improving, what can be done to stay afloat?

The first answer is usually to trim the fat. Reduce expenses by getting rid of employees and freezing or even reducing the salaries of those who remain.

The problem with that — besides the human toll of people losing their livelihood and the increased load on retained workers — is that there is only so much a county or employer can cut until things become untenable.

In other words, it’s silly to talk about trimming the fat when you have already hit bone.

“It gets harder and harder because we’ve cut and slashed everything for the past four or five years,” said Rep. Donald Lindberg, R-Worcester. “What else is there to cut and slash?”

Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. insists his department could not bear any reductions, including the idea brought up in 2012 of reducing the number of road-patrol deputies.

“I have nowhere to cut,” said Devlin, adding that response times to calls for service are already longer than they used to be. The department, he said, is already among the most under-funded in the state, and if deputies are laid off, “the people are not going to get the response they deserve.”

Beyond the sheriff’s department, Otsego County employees are among some of the lowest paid municipal workers in the state, according to a recent government report. 

Which brings us to the second thing companies and municipalities do to get into the black. They cut services or don’t provide the product they used to when they had more resources. 

There will be a well-deserved hue and cry if the county were to get rid of one of the two meals-for-seniors programs in Oneonta, as was suggested last year. Less onerous, but still inconvenient, would be closing the Oneonta Department of Motor Vehicles office.

A great deal, of course, of the county’s deficit would be taken care of if a buyer could be found for the Otsego Manor. The county nursing home — precious to many of those who reside there or have relatives there — is for sale. The painful decision to seek private ownership would mean about $5.5 million in savings if it is purchased.

Balancing the county’s books won’t be easy, even if the Manor is sold. Union contracts, Obamacare, pension obligations and state tax caps are all expected to complicate matters.

Seeking a balance of cost savings and reduced services will require wisdom and understanding amid what is certain to be considerable special-interest lobbying. We wish the board well, because its task certainly won’t be easy.