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December 4, 2012

Otsego budget plan taps waste fund

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — Facing rapidly rising costs to operate the Otsego Manor nursing home and employee retirement expenses, Otsego County lawmakers are considering a proposed budget for 2013 that would be balanced in part by tapping $800,000 from money from collected from taxpayers through a $28-per-household solid-waste user fee.

The fiscal one-shot included in the tentative budget presented by County Treasurer Dan Crowell is being reluctantly supported by some board members, because they say they are trying to spare county agencies from even steeper cuts than those that will likely be enacted Wednesday, when the spending plan is expected to be enacted.

But Alex Shields of Richfield Springs, a former member of the county Board of Representatives, said the fund shift is inappropriate and will only lead to bigger fiscal woes for the county in future years.

“I believe that shifting fees or dedicated funds without telling the taxpayers is just wrong and deceitful to those who pay the bills in good faith,” he said.

Shields argued that county officials have failed to stay on top of the mounting deficits at the 174-bed Otsego Manor, and instead of raiding a fund set up for solid-waste programs, should instead be attempting to downsize the nursing home or work out an arrangement with Bassett Medical Center to take over the facility.

Rep. Linda Rowinski, D-city of Oneonta, acknowledged that tapping the solid-waste fund is “not ideal,” but the board has few other viable options for filling its budget hole for the coming year.

“In light of what we’re facing and in light of the explanation given to me by Dan, I am OK with this one-time use of the user fee,” said Rowinski, the chairwoman of the board’s Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns Committee.

However, Rep. Donald Lindberg, R-Worcester, said he is poised to vote against the spending package, in part because he objects to the grab for the solid-waste user fee money.

“You can’t take that money and use it for anything you feel like,” Lindberg said. “It’s all just a gimmick. Next year, when you do your budget, you’re going to be $800,000 short right from the start.”

Lindberg said he believes the county board should have tried to prune staffing levels at county agencies. He said he was disappointed that the board did not follow through on what had been plans to consolidate the Department of Motor Vehicle offices in Oneonta and Cooperstown and downsize the road patrol operated by the county Sheriff’s Department.

“You hate to lay people off, but you’ve got to do something,” Lindberg said.

Crowell defended the reliance on money collected via the solid-waste user fee to plug the deficit, saying the county is simply “recovering funds that taxpayers had subsidized towards solid waste from 2007 through 2010. We can very well document that subsidy.”

At the same time, he said that he understands concerns that this year’s gap filler will not be available to the board when they craft a follow-up budget for 2014.

“The Otsego Manor is presenting us with a tremendous gap, and this is probably the most significant thing in here that is not sustainable,” he said.

The tentative budget requests total appropriations of nearly $124.5 million. The tax levy request amounts to $11.6 million, requiring a 1.97 percent increase ofer the 2012 tax levy.