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October 12, 2012

Local officials contend with tax cap

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — Officials from counties throughout the region say they are grappling with difficult decisions on spending and staffing levels as they seek to craft balanced budgets and keep property tax increases to a minimum.

A month ago, Otsego County officials faced a budget deficit of $5.6 million. But by pressing agency department heads to look for savings, the total gap is now down to about $3 million, county Treasurer Dan Crowell said.

In Delaware County, meanwhile, Board of Supervisors Chairman James Eisel Sr. said he fears the county will have to pass a spending plan that exceeds Albany’s 2 percent tax cap imposed last year. That’s largely because the board wants to give county workers raises after holding their pay flat for the past two years, he said.

While final numbers have yet to be crunched, Eisel, the town supervisor of Harpersfield, said he expects the budget package, once adopted, will require only a modest increase in taxes for Delaware County property owners.

Schoharie County Treasurer William Cherry said property owners in his county will experience a tax increase of 2.8 percent as a result of the county spending plan, which will be made public next week.

“That is still under the New York state tax cap because there are extra mitigating factors, such as retirement costs” that the county is obligated to pay, Cherry said.

Chenango County officials are expected to attempt to adopt a 2013 county budget in late November. County officials have said they are facing escalating pension obligations for employees.

The Chenango Board of Supervisors last month voted to give non-union county employees a 2.5 percent raise.

In Otsego County, Crowell said he expects the county budget for 2013 will comply with the state tax cap even though the tentative spending plan increases the budget for 2013 to about $129 million, versus the $117.3 million package that was adopted for the current fiscal year.

Crowell said the expected spending boost includes “pass through expenditures” — sums he explained that are largely reimbursed, such as telecommunications grants. While they increase expenditures, he explained, they are offset by revenue increases.

He also said county officials are aiming to shrink the size of the county workforce. Most of that will be through attrition, he said, though he noted a small number of layoffs are expected.

He said final decisions have yet to be made by the county Board of Representatives on the jobs that will not be refilled, other than a highway department supervisory position that became vacant with a recent retirement.

Staffing levels at the Otsego Manor nursing home have been reviewed, he said, noting: “But we do have to have a certain size staff on legally in order to honor our certificate of need” from the state. The board last month voted to sell the Manor to the highest “responsible” bidder to spare county taxpayers from spiraling deficits being filled with county funds.

Crowell said some savings have been realized by rescheduling staffing at the Otsego County Correctional Facility. In addition, some paving projects and planned county vehicle purchases have also been scrapped, he noted.

The county will also see a savings of about $40,000 by programming county computers with open source software, saving on the license fees incurred when Microsoft programs are used, he said.

County services not mandated by the state, he said, tend to become an “area of focus” during the budget season because of major restrictions that shield state-mandated programs. The county department heads, he said, have been cooperating in the effort to shave costs.

“We have got a great group of department heads,” Crowell said. “Everyone understands we’re all in the same boat. No one is protecting turf.”

More savings, he said, are expected to be found from efforts to restructure the county public defender’s office and retooling the in-home services program run by the Office for the Aging.

The Otsego County budget is expected to be enacted in early December.

For Schoharie County, the devastating flooding that caused millions of dollars in property destruction last year had a silver lining in the form of federal and state aid that will allow the county to build a new jail in the coming year.

Currently, Schoharie is paying Albany County more than $500,000 a year to board its inmates until the new jail is built.

But once Schoharie opens the jail, Cherry said, it will have a wing for female inmates, which will become a revenue source as it takes in women prisoners from other counties. Cherry said the female wing could end up producing an annual revenue of about $800,000.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state are expected to kick in the approximately $11 million that it will take to construct the jail and install flood mitigating measures around it, Cherry said.

The county budget that will be released Monday will not call for any layoffs of Schoharie County employees, he said.

“In 18 years, I’ve never recommended a layoff,” Cherry said. “I believe in holding the line on taxes and maintaining a solid and stable fund balance. I think layoffs more often than not are counterproductive.”

Eisel said because budget numbers have yet to be tabulated for Delaware County he could not yet offer numerical estimates on what the looming tax increase will be. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep it down,” he said.

However, Eisel added, it’s become increasingly challenging to find services to cut without hurting the public.

“We’ve reduced our highway department,” he said. “But let’s face it, we need people to plow the roads and maintain the byways.”