By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — Otsego County’s proposed 2014 budget calls for a property tax increase of less than 1 percent, an achievement made possible by the postponement of expensive purchases and other belt-tightening measures, county Treasurer Dan Crowell said Wednesday.
While the budget proposal holds the line on spending, Crowell said it calls for no layoffs of county employees.
The spending plan, which still needs to be reviewed by the full 14-member Board of Representatives, would also provide no wage increases to the county’s pool of managerial employees, who have gone without raises for the past six years.
Crowell said the county’s financial position, which has been strained by the growing subsidy for the Otsego Manor nursing home, has been strengthened by a slight increase in sales tax revenue. He said sales tax collections are running at about 2.3 percent greater than one year ago.
“Our sales tax numbers haven’t been phenomenal but they’re getting stronger,” Crowell told The Daily Star after briefing members of the county board’s budget-review committee.
He also noted that the county’s pension obligations, which have risen sharply in recent years and are linked to the state pension fund’s performance on the stock market, are now increasingly less dramatically.
The county’s contribution to the Medicaid program has also leveled off because of a state-imposed cap, he pointed out.
“We’re in a very strong financial position right now as far as our fund balance,” said Crowell, noting that about $2.5 million from that fund balance would go to plug the budget hole.
That leaves the fund balance, which is needed to deal with unexpected calamities and other contingencies, with about $12 million, or about 16.7 percent of the $77.8 million called for in general fund appropriations, he added.
The Board of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the budget Dec. 4. A public hearing on the spending plan is tentatively scheduled to take place Nov. 25 in Cooperstown.
Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, said she was disappointed that the board appears ready to sign off on a budget package that would leave department heads and other non-union managerial workers without any cost-of-living increases in their paychecks.
Managerial workers’ hopes for a pay raise were bolstered earlier this month when Russ Bachman, then serving as the county’s acting treasurer while Crowell was serving on active duty with the U.S. Army Reserves, concluded that the county could afford increasing their salaries.
“I really think if it’s all possible we should give raises to management,” Stuligross said. While there is still time to make alterations to the spending blueprint, it is not likely that the majority of the board would vote to insert a pay increase into the budget, she said.
Crowell said he understands the case for giving raises to those who have worked several successive years without one.
“It’s certainly something that needs to be addressed,” he said. “But the current climate is not the right time.”
The county’s financial picture is expected to improve dramatically if a local development corporation headed by Stuligross succeeds in selling the 174-bed Otsego Manor.
The Manor’s budget for 2014 has been set at $23 million. The nursing home is expected to take in $18.6 million from its billings and reimbursements, requiring the county to provide it with a $4.3 million subsidy in 2014, Crowell said.
He said it was prudent to issue a spending plan that keeps the Manor fully funded for all of 2014, even though county officials are hoping to complete the privatization of the facility in the coming months.
Crowell credited the county department managers for their contributions in helping to keep the budget lean.
“Our department heads did a great job, for the third year in a row, in going over their budgets that were tight to begin with,” Crowell said. “Then Russ and the board, with members from both sides of the aisle, worked very hard together in making some cuts from there.”