Proposed County Budget For 2010 Has No Tax Increase

OSWEGO, NY – The Finance and Personnel Committee approved the county’s tentative 2010 budget Wednesday.

The budget calls for a county tax rate of $7.18 per $1,000 of assessed valuation; that’s the same rate as this year and last year.

If the voters approve this version of the budget, they won’t see any increase in their county taxes, according to Phil Church, county administrator.

The 2010 budget, if approved as is, would be the seventh consecutive budget where the tax rate has gone down or stayed the same, Church added.

The spending plan now heads to the other legislative committees that will deal with various parts of the budget specific to them.

“The recommendation of this committee is to leave the budget as is,” said Art Ospelt, committee chair. “Now it will go back to the other committees. Hopefully, if they do anything at all to the budget it will be to make cuts.”

At its December meeting, the Finance and Personnel Committee can accept or reject proposed changes from the other committees.

Under state law, the county budget has to be adopted by Dec. 20.

The public will have an opportunity to voice its opinion on the budget plan at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 in the legislature chambers, prior to the county meeting.

The county’s relatively good financial health is allowing it to cope with the current recession and state budget crisis, Church told the committee.

“Our financial stability is due to several factors: ling-range budget planning, controlled spending, the legislature’s conservative policy of managing the use of declining unappropriated fund balance and maintaining reserve funds and realistic forecasting of revenues – most notably the 2009 sales tax,” he said.

The county isn’t immune to the recession, he cautioned.

Local governments are reeling from the sudden massive increase of the New York Retirement System, caused by fund losses, he said. The state is requiring the county to pay an additional $1.9 million into the system next year, he added.

Further more, interest rates are down. That means the county needs to budget $800,000 less in interest earnings revenue, according to Church.

“External factors unrelated to the recession also present budget challenges,” he continued. “Revenue from Nine Mile Point Unit 1 is $500,000 less in 2010 as the performance incentive payment portion of the plant’s tax agreement expires. The state is mandating nine new positions in the county jail facility, while also ending reimbursement to the county for housing state inmates, contributing significantly to $1.4 million in additional cost in that department,” Church said. “Health care costs are adding $1 million to our insurance program.”

Internal factors impacting the budget include approximately $1 million in labor contracts and more than $3 million in equipment requests.

However, those negative factors are mitigated in the 2010 budget in several ways, Church noted.

Among them are:

The requested operating budgets of all departments have been cut in areas such as overtime, travel, fuel, postage, telephones, contracted fees and services, and capital cuts such as equipment and paving. The latter two can be accomplished in 2010 through capital projects.

No unfunded, non-mandated new positions were allowed.

Realignment of budget recourses resulted in a net decrease in county cost for the Adult and Family Services Division of the Department of Social Services offsetting the additional cost of child protective workers.

Sales tax is projected to remain stable.

Due to lower fuel costs and declining participation the costs for mandated education and transportation services for children with special need are decreasing in the 2010 budget. This program has experienced significant increases in recent years.

And a financial plan for the new emergency communication system was developed that avoids a debt payment in 2010.

Revenues from the federal government and beleaguered state government are forecast as realistically as possible, given the limited information available about future aid from those sources, Church added.

There are three positions in the DSS created to handle the significantly rising caseload, which are 100 percent funded by the state, he said.

Also, the position of Emergency Medical Services Coordinator was created in the Emergency Management Department. An additional $163,000 in new annual revenue offsets the cost of this position.

Oswego is the only nuclear host county without an EMS coordinator as part of its radiological response plan, Church pointed out.

There are a few other positions in the budget that have been reclassified or upgraded and paid for by downgrades or elimination of other positions, he said.

“These are adjustments made to improve efficiencies, respond to changing service demands, plan for succession and resolve identified compensation inequities,” Church said. “They can be more fully addressed during committee budget meetings.”

Between now and the adoption of the budget, some factors may change that could effect the legislature’s budget deliberations, Church noted.

For example, he said, the contract for provision of senior citizens meals expires and proposals must be evaluated. The 2010 budget currently holds the program’s cost stable.

The largest unknown is the revenue from the state’s 2010-11 budget, scheduled for adoption next spring.

“I have growing concerns about budget year 2011. Many of the increased spending pressures I identified previously will be repeated in 2011, most significantly from the state,” Church warned. “In addition, the debt payments for the emergency communication system, if approved, will add $2.5 million to $3 million onto the tax levy.”

At this time, the revenue from Nine Mile Unit 1 and the FitzPatrick nuclear plants is unpredictable for 2011.

“This makes some level of tax increase in 2011 a near certainty; a prediction soothed only by the knowledge that the tax rates haven’t increased in the past six years,” he said.

The legislature along with the treasurer’s office and the administrator’s office have been managing the use and reduction of the county’s fund balance and reserves in a multi-year strategy designed to mitigate increasing costs and get the county through to 2012, Church told the committee.

In 2012, all the nuclear plants will either be back on the tax rolls or in new tax agreements with increased payments to the county, Church said, adding, “I strongly recommend we continue this strategy.”

“This year’s budget process was lengthy and considering the intense pressure from external factors, very challenging,” Church said. “I’d like to thank the members of the legislature for their patience and guidance, and thank the department heads and staff for their cooperation in identifying cost reductions. As always, I appreciate the daily year-long work of Budget Analyst Steve Loadwick and Chief Accountant Mark See.”