Treasurer: Otsego County is tapped out, still has budget gap

Ruffles

Otsego County's financial resources are spent and another deficit is looming for the 2021 budget, Otsego County Treasurer Allen Ruffles told the county's Board of Representatives at its meeting Wednesday, Sept. 2. 

Ruffles said the county's revenues are short of its expenditures by about $9.6 million, including $4.3 million in outstanding state aid, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt municipal budgets at all levels.

"That's staggering to think that's happening right now," he said. "We're just not getting our revenues right now." 

The meeting, held via Zoom and broadcast on Facebook Live, had more than an hour of information about the COVID outbreak at SUNY Oneonta, but Ruffles followed that information with more bad news.

Ruffles said the county started the year with about $5 million in investment savings, but it has all been spent this year as the county stays ahead of payroll demands. 

"We just cashed in our last CD today," he said. 

After the pandemic began, financial projections from the county and the New York State Association of Counties estimated a loss of about $12 million in revenue for Otsego in 2020. In response, the board laid off about 60 workers, instituted hiring and spending freezes, canceled several big projects and cut department budgets and money given to outside agencies by about 15% each. 

The county also took out an $8 million revenue anticipation note loan. Ruffles said the county has used about $900,000 of that fund on a reimbursable highway project and may have to use more of the fund to cover expenses.

Ruffles said the sales tax numbers have been steady since the big drop off early in the pandemic and NYSAC predictions turned out to have been high. Instead of losing $6 to $7 million, a new projection shows a loss of about $3.3 million. But bed tax losses could still top $1 million, he said, and there is still no clarity from the state on its own budget or exactly how 20% cuts will be administered.

Through 14 payments this year, sales tax has been down about $1.7 million from last year or about 4%, a rate Ruffles said he thinks could hold through the final 12 payments of 2020. 

"The college kids did come back — and that's awful what is happening in Oneonta right now — but a couple of weeks ago, they were all out there shopping for all their stuff at Walmart and all along Southside," he said.  

"Other than summer, that's usually our biggest hit (of sales tax revenue), in September," he said. 

However, even if the county averts a crisis this season, the proposed 2021 budget is lopsided so far, Ruffles said, and there is no savings or fund balance to bail the Board out this year.

"The 2021 budget is in a rough place right now," he said. "We have about a $13 million deficit. Usually you can make that up with sales tax and savings, but there is nothing there right now." 

Ruffles said the county is going to have to reassess its core mission and budget accordingly. 

Board Chair Dave Bliss, R-Cherry Valley, Middlefield, Roseboom, said he thought the county had solid planning, but in a crisis, everyone is going to have to make new plans. 

"We had a plan, obviously it was interrupted by this COVID," he said. "So we need to adjust that plan in the short term because of the reality of this fiscal crisis. (It is) not only us, but every county, every municipality in the county are in the same situation." 

The full Board of Representatives will hold a budget workshop at 9 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, which can be viewed on Facebook at Otsego County, NY. 

Ruffles also told the Board the county is preparing for its annual foreclosure auction. Normally held in August, it was rescheduled for Thursday, Oct. 15, because of the pandemic.

Ruffles said his staff and other county officials visited all 71 properties in danger of foreclosure because of late property tax payments. He said most of the properties are vacant or abandoned, but at least 13 have people living on them. 

Property owners have until Wednesday, Sept. 30, to make payments and avoid foreclosure and Ruffles said he hoped the board members would reach out to their constituents on the list to help them.

"Those are the ones we need to focus on, the ones that have people in them," he said. "I know of probably five or six of them who intend to pay before Sept. 30."  

Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at gklein@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7218.

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