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Clock Ticking On County Budget

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY – A month remains before Oswego County lawmakers are required to seal a budget for the coming year. Before that happens, the public and the Legislature will have their say on the plan.

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The county’s tentative budget for 2009 stands at $182.7 million, up approximately $7 million from this year’s $175.6 million spending plan.

“The increases are primarily attributed to Medicaid, worker’s compensation, fuel, contractual increases, Pre-K and special education costs and reductions in state assistance,” Oswego County Administrator Phil Church said.

Church said that the tax levy, or the amount that is set to be raised through taxes, stands at $36.8 million, up 3.7 percent from $35.5 million for this year. The tax rate, or the amount taxpayers will pay based on the assessed value of their property, stands the same as the current year at $7.18 per $1,000.

“Although the budget is increasing and the levy is increasing a little, the price per thousand remains the same so far with the tentative budget,” Church said. “This is the first year that we’ve seen a levy increase in several years but the rate is unchanged.”

Church explained that the state mandates for the coming year, combined with the reductions the county is seeing in state aid, would have increased the tax levy by $5 million if everything else in the budget was equal to the numbers generated for 2008.

“Obviously, the tax levy didn’t go up that much,” Church said. “The difference represents cuts that were made in the different departments to compensate for that.”

To accomplish that, Church said departments worked through significant realigning efforts to maximize efficiency and bring their budget numbers down.

Citing an example, Church said the Oswego County Health Department budget would have increased $2 million in the coming year based on the cost of state mandates and cuts in state aid.

“Their total appropriations increased $2 million but the net county cost for those expenses increased by $900,000,” Church said. “That means they found $1.1 million in reductions to compensate for the increases.

“I was very pleased when I saw the health department’s budget proposal,” Church said. “It was very clear that they scrutinized every line to cut back where they could without affecting services.”

Church noted that another significant effort came through solid waste. The county has changed the solid waste department to an enterprise fund, which is required to be self sufficient through its own revenues. By balancing its own revenues and expenses, the department is not funded through the county.

“That budget is completely off the tax levy,” Church said. “In 2007, the department ended in the black and didn’t cost the taxpayers through the regular budget. It won’t again this year and the department’s budget is structured so that it won’t in 2009 either.

“It is another example of the county’s efforts to be more efficient to keep taxes down.”

The county will host its annual public hearing on the budget Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. After the hearing, Church said that the Legislature will have an opportunity to debate potential changes to the spending plan.

“I am working now to find ways to lower the budget before it is adopted,” he said. “Legally, we have to have the budget in place and adopted by Dec. 20.”

Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann said while he foresees a few minor changes after the Dec. 11 public hearing, he does not predict major changes to the tentative plan.

“All in all, I think the budget is satisfactory to almost all of the legislators at this time,” Leemann said. “There will probably be a few changes but I don’t anticipate so many that it will have a substantial affect on the tax rate.”

Leemann pointed out that the rate is still well below the rate that county taxpayers faced a few years ago.

“I believe it will stay in the area of $7.18 per thousand,” he said. “That is not a bad when you consider that a couple of years ago, it was $9.60 per thousand.

“(Church) presented us with an excellent and accurate budget this year,” Leemann added. “A few modifications were made at the committee level and a few may come through after the hearing.”

Overall, Leemann said it is a solid plan.

While the state Legislature met earlier this week to discuss potential changes to the state budget for the coming year, no actions were taken. Church said that the county’s spending plans have to remain flexible for the next few years to compensate for any changes made at the state level.

“Right now, we are waiting for Dec. 16 to see what the governor presents in his executive budget for 2009-2010,” Church said, noting that Governor David Paterson has also indicated there may be a special session for budget changes in January.

“We have to hold on to any reserves and fund balance that we have so that we could offset anything the state may do to try to minimize any impact to our residents here,” he added.

Editor’s note: Church outlined budget information and factors affecting the county’s planning efforts in a four-page budget message that was released in September. To read the full text of the budget message, which was distributed before changes were made through the committee process, click the link below.

2009 Budget Message

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