COOPERSTOWN — Acting Otsego County Treasurer Henry “Russ” Bachman called Wednesday for a freeze on all purchasing by county agencies as one step in dealing with county government’s deteriorating financial situation.
He also strongly advised that the heads of county departments refrain from asking for any spending increases at all in their agency budgets, with the exception of those that are contractually necessary.
Each year, county department heads make the case for hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending on vehicles, computers, office furniture and other equipment they say is needed to fulfill their various missions and provide services to the public.
But Bachman argued to the county Board of Representatives that the purchases should be postponed until after the deficit-ridden Otsego Manor nursing home is taken over by a private operator.
Bachman, in an interview, also confirmed that a projected $7 million budget deficit facing the county — as reported in Wednesday’s edition of The Daily Star — is an accurate assessment of the county’s financial position as county lawmakers enter the annual budget production season.
A balanced budget for fiscal 2014 must be enacted in December.
The budget gap is being exacerbated by a variety of forces, the most significant of which is the ongoing multi-million-dollar subsidy to the 174-bed Otsego Manor, Bachman said. Beyond that, the county may have to spend a significant sum to repair the bridge on County Route 11C, which was wiped out nearly six months ago when it was struck by an over-sized truck.
Bachman said the tab for repairing the bridge — which has kept a stretch of 11C closed since the incident — has been estimated at $1.6 million.
The insurance carrier for the truck owner has balked at paying the full amount, arguing that because the bridge is about 80 years old its value at the time amounted to far less than $1.6 million, county representatives said.
The representatives held a closed-door executive session to discuss potential litigation in connection with the bridge damage, but took no action on the matter when they returned to the open board meeting.
Another aggravating factor in the deficit is the sharp increase in providing health care coverage to county employees. Bachman said that sum is expected to shoot up by $1 million in 2014 because of higher premium costs. While county government’s total payroll comes to about $26 million, the heath care benefits will cost the county some $12 million, he said.
Meanwhile, the county’s pension obligation will increase by $222,000 in 2014. And for the first time, the county will have to pay $100,000 in fees associated with President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, Bachman said.
With a local development corporation trying to drum up interest among private health care corporations in the Manor’s availability, Bachman said the county remains obligated to keep the nursing home operating. The county subsidy for the home is expected to increase by more than $500,000 in the year ahead.
Bachman said he has been working with managers at the Manor on ways to accelerate the collection of monies owed to the facility and to cut back on overtime and other expenditures. He called the effort to privatize the Manor “the key for next year’s budget” and strongly urged that any purchases be postponed until after the sale of the 174-bed nursing home is completed.
Bachman also warned that the county’s sales tax collections this year could end up lower than projected. That picture will be clearer in about two months, when figures for the key July through August period become available, he said.
He also suggested that county representatives tighten up on the practice of agency department heads trying to utilize their full budget allocations by seeking permission to transfer funds from one account holding surplus dollars to another that has been spent down.
Meanwhile, the county representatives unanimously agreed to appoint Kurt Apthorpe as the new administrator at Otsego Manor. Apthorpe, the administrator at Willow Point Nursing Home in Broome County, has been filling for Larry DiCesare, who has resigned due to an illness of a family member. DiCesare had been hired this summer following the resignation of veteran Manor administrator Edmond Marchi, who resigned to accept a job in Schenectady County.