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September 4, 2013

Otsego lawmakers face $7M deficit

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — Otsego County lawmakers, faced with rising employee pension obligations and requests for salary increases from unionized workers, are facing a tall order: Produce a balanced budget by December despite starting out with a projected deficit of some $7 million.

The annual belt-tightening has begun in earnest, and the county legislature is gearing up to try to wring savings by squeezing agencies that some department heads say are already lean.

“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?”

County Clerk Kathy Sinnott-Gardner, who last year resisted efforts to lay off workers in the Department of Motor Vehicles she oversees, said the ultimate losers if services are cut too deeply will be the taxpayers.

“I will do my part to help, but I don’t think closing our DMV office in Oneonta would be good for the taxpayers,” said Gardner, who runs the Clerk’s office in Cooperstown plus the DMV offices in Oneonta and Cooperstown with a total of 13 staffers.

The grim fiscal situation is expected to be explained in detail today when Acting County Treasurer Henry “Russ” Bachman briefs the Board of Representatives on the latest balance sheets for the county.

Officials said Tuesday that the budget-balancing efforts are expected to be complicated this fall because of sharply rising employee pension obligations. Adding more stress to the financial demands is the fact that the county is opening contract negotiations with the Civil Service Employees Association as well as separate bargaining units for sheriff’s deputies assigned to road patrol and corrections officers at the Otsego County Correctional Facility.

On top of that, non-unionized supervisory staffers for county government — those classified as management confidential workers — have gone without salary increases for six years. Some county officials admit privately that the morale of those workers will suffer yet another blow if union workers get increases and they get nothing.

With many services offered by the county government mandated by state law, the representatives say they are effectively hemmed in on where they can look for savings.

Last year, for example, there was talk of eliminating the Oneonta DMV office, scrapping one of two meals-for-seniors programs in Oneonta and trimming the Sheriff’s Office’s squad of road patrol deputies. In the end, all were spared. But Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. said he is braced for another attempt to cut into his workforce this year.

“I have nowhere to cut,” said Devlin, noting response times to calls for service are already on the rise. The department, the sheriff 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.”

While the Department of Social Services has a large budget with numerous employees, its services are required by the state, helping to insulate it from the budget knives that county representatives will be wielding in the weeks ahead, officials said.

Much of the fiscal strain for Otsego County comes from the rising subsidies allotted to Otsego Manor, the 174-bed county-owned nursing home that county lawmakers want to privatize.

A sale could come as early as next year, if a local development board created by the county board is successful in finding a new operator willing to take it over. Last year, the county board increased the Manor subsidy to $5.5 million, up from $3.3 million the previous year.

Still another problematic aspect of the 2014 budget is the fact that all counties, towns and cities in New York face a tax cap of 1.66 percent, according to guidelines released by the state comptroller’s office. Last year the tax camp kept the tax levies from rising by more than 2 percent. But the cap is adjusted annually based on the consumer price index.

Counties and other local governments that go beyond the tax cap can face financial sanctions from the state, noted Rep. Rich Murphy, D-Oneonta, the vice chairman of the county Board of Representatives.

“Do we stay below the cap or do we consider going above it?” said Murphy, who has opted not to seek re-election this year. “It’s a topic that has to be discussed. We just can’t sit there and say, ‘oh, well.’”

Lindberg said the county’s lean times are not expected to end any time soon.

“Even after we get rid of the nursing home, you’re still going to have the cost of the state retirement system and the debt from building it. Then you have Obamacare (the Affordable Health Care Act) kicking in, and we don’t know yet what that is going to cost us. I don’t see revenue getting better. I can see revenue getting worse.”