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Legislators Get First Look At Proposed 2014 Budget

OSWEGO, NY – Oswego County Administrator Phil Church unveiled the first version of the proposed 2014 county budget at Tuesday’s Finance and Personnel Committee.

The draft 2014 Oswego County Budget is $197,408,657 and carries a real property tax levy of $43,053,017.

And, it complies with the New York State real property tax cap.

The draft budget allocates $5.5 million in unappropriated fund balance and reserves – which is $1,385,167 less than 2013, thereby making important progress in the vital goal of reducing reliance on those declining sources, Church pointed out, adding that “it’s moving in the right direction.”

During the adoption of the 2013 budget, in order to have no increase in the property tax levy, the legislature covered large increases in the mandated NYS Pension and Safety Net programs by allocating $2,385,167 from the Retirement Reserve and committed itself to undertake cost reduction measures during 2013. Among these were the reduction of $1 million in costs and transfer of Tax Stabilization Reserve funds to the Retirement Reserve in anticipation of decreasing NYS Pensions in 2013.

The draft budget accomplishes both, Church noted.

Although the tentative spending plan complies with the tax cap, the multi-year tax certiorari with Entergy could change the tax cap calculation after the budget is adopted.

Therefore, as they have in past years, adopting a precautionary override of the tax cap is “strongly recommended,” Church said. It would protect the taxpayers from a technicality in the law that could penalize the county if the tax certiorari is concluded or a tax agreement reached.

The initial levy (the levy before UFB and reserves are applied) for 2014 is $996,681 less than 2013.

A resolution transferring funds from the Tax Stabilization Reserve to the Retirement Reserve is scheduled for the October legislature meeting.

The reduction in the initial levy was accomplished through a combination of personnel attrition, operating cost reductions and a small unanticipated reduction in NYS Pension, Church explained.

The draft budget contains eight fewer positions, five downgraded positions and 32 vacated positions filled at lower rates.

Significantly, 18 county departments have draft budgets that lower their net county cost to the taxpayers.  Others have increases, most notably maintenance cost for the expanded emergency communications system and employee/retiree health benefits.

The result is a real property tax levy that increases slightly by 0.91 percent.

This, coupled with a drop in the overall assess value, generates a generic tax rate of $7.26 per thousand dollars of assessed value. The average residential home in the county is $94,500.

This translates to $15 for the average residential home in Oswego County.

Sales tax projections remain stable.

Since 2005, the tax levy has increased by 12.8 percent due to the placement of the FitzPatrick nuclear plant on the tax rolls, which shifted the utility’s tax payment from a PILOT revenue line to the tax levy. The tax rate has decreased 22.7 percent.

During the same period, the CPI for the region and population class size has increased to 20.7 percent.

The tax history is an accomplishment the legislature and county government can be proud of, Church said.

It was accomplished through cost-containment, budget management, multi-year planning and measured application of fund balances and reserves, he explained.

“The county has the wise practice of building up fund balance and reserves when times are good, in order to use such funds to protect taxpayers from large increases and service cuts when times are lean,” he said Tuesday. “However, we’ve been through many lean years lately due to mandate increases and a poor economy. And, as a result, our reserves and fund balance are decreasing.”

The annual operating budgets aren’t generating monies adequate to replace reserves and fund balance anymore, he added.

Add to that the unpredictable impact of Entergy’s tax certiorari, which could force the county to refund several million dollars to the company.

The preservation of the fund balance and reserves is “imperative,” he said.

“I strongly recommend that any further reductions identified by the legislature during the budget process be applied to lower our reliance on fund balance and reserves, rather than lower taxes,” he told the committee.

The legislators will now discuss the proposed budget in the various committees before returning it to the Finance and Personnel Committee for final approval before sending it to a vote on the floor of the full legislature.

The county has until Dec. 20 to approve a spending plan for next year

                                               Major Factors Impacting The 2014 Budget

There are several things that come into play regarding the 2014 budget. Among them are:

Positives

After tripling from $3.1 million in 2009 to $9.3 million in 2013, the county’s contribution to the NYS Pension system decreased slightly by $200,000.

Medicaid is now capped at $25,614,052 and Medicaid transportation has decreased $1.65 million.

The proposed assigned counsel plan would decrease costs by $200,000.

DSS continues to implement systemic improvements, including the elimination of under-performing contracts, maximizing the productivity of current workforce and remaining contracts. Despite significant increases in mandates services, the department draft budget lowers its net cost to taxpayers by more than $200,000.

The county continues to scrutinize vacancies and take advantage of attrition to improve performance and save money. So far this year, 45 positions have been eliminated, downgraded or filled at a lower rate.

Negatives

New York State mandate continue to rise in costs to local taxpayers. After increasing more than a million dollars in 2013, Safety Net will increase another $1.15 million in 2014.

Foster care costs will increase $600,000.

Motor vehicle revenues in the County Clerk’s Office are declining $165,970.

The full value of the county has dropped another $80.4 million as a result of the lowering of the assessed value of the James A. FitzPatrick and NRG power plants. This has the effect of driving up tax rates throughout the county.

County taxpayers will be taking a hit from the SUNY Board of Trustees who recently increased the charge back rate for many of the community colleges to which the county is required to make tuition payments.