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|Friday, October 4, 2020||
Eannace: Tough decisions blunt impact
Honorable Members of the Oneida County Board of Legislators
In accordance with the terms of the Oneida County Charter, I appear before you today to present the proposed operating budget and capital project plan for the year 2003.
Since you and I have worked together in county government, we have used our budget as a planning tool to help us advance the missions of rebuilding our community. We have also used it to enforce discipline that allowed us to forge a more fiscally stable county government and provide stable taxes to our residents. Bond rating agencies reacted very favorably to our work together in recent years, increasing our rating three times.
However, this is the toughest budget we have had to face. Counties across New York State are being forced to prepare budgets that will not help to advance the missions of local communities, but instead pay mandated costs that have been jacked up and passed along by State government.
We cannot stop this tidal wave of mandates by ourselves. But through hard work and hard choices to reduce non-mandated spending, in a year when our mandated costs are rising by more than 35%, my 2003 budget proposal limits the impact on county taxpayers so that an average single-family homeowner in Utica will pay only $55 more in county taxes next year, while an average single family homeowner in Rome will pay $60 more a year.
We have achieved this the same way we were able to keep county taxes stable since I took office in 1997. We took a lean operation and cut it. Because we did so, we were able to absorb $17 million of next year’s $24.7 million plus of increases due to mandates and basic costs of doing business.
This budget regrettably is forced to reduce funding in a number of key areas such as road and bridge repair and economic development. Although achieving our long-term goals is being slowed by these challenges, we will not abandon our mission, and will move forward in every way possible to continue building a stronger county of stronger communities.
We will not allow mandates imposed from outside our county to rip holes in the safety net that cares for our elderly, our disadvantaged, and our youth. Just as our nation has met the challenges of post-9/11 by maintaining its resolve, and just as our county met the challenges of a post-air base economy with determination and perseverance, we will meet these challenges by working together for the good of our people. Through day-in, day-out hard work, we will lead the way and continue to make the tough decisions that must be made.
Absorbing cost increases passed on to us by state government is nothing new in Oneida County. For the past five years, we have been absorbing the costs of Medicaid, which has gone from $27 million, or 54.5% of the property tax levy in 1997, to next year’s $48.5 million cost, which is 107% of this year’s levy.
Together, mandates make up 91% of our total spending plan. My 2003 projected budget has to accommodate $21.5 million in increased costs mandated through Medicaid and other programs or otherwise imposed by the state. I call your attention to the almost incredible 333% increase we are projecting for our payment to the state’s Employee Retirement System. This drastic change alone added $2.6 million to our budget, the equivalent of a 6% tax increase.
We are not alone. Broome County is currently debating whether to have the state’s highest sales tax at 9%, raise property taxes 35% or cut 500 jobs. Albany County is facing a $32 million budget "hole" that could require a 35% property tax increase. Chautauqua County’s proposed budget calls for a 28% tax increase. Schenectady County is considering increasing taxes almost 20%. Tompkins County is looking at a 21% tax increase. Westchester County has proposed a 31.7% increase. Many counties that increased taxes last year or in 2001, while Oneida County enjoyed a tax freeze, will do so again this year, also reducing jobs, programs and fiscal reserves in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.
The next table shows the bottom line – a tax increase that will cost the average single-family homeowner in Oneida County $75.31 next year, or about $1 per $1,000 of assessed value. Even though we absorbed more than half of the mandated cost increases hitting us in 2003, I regret announcing this increase, which amounts to a 16% increase in our county property tax levy. I am deeply concerned with the future, because without lasting reforms to cap Medicaid cost increases, 2004 could prove to be a more challenging budget than this 2003 spending plan. But I am proud of our work to absorb most of the mandated costs we have faced. With this tax increase, our county tax levy will have risen 17% over the past six years. Our Medicaid costs have risen 79.4% over this period.
We have responded to every increase in mandated costs with actions to trim our spending. Our Fiscal Review and Response Committee, headed by Paulette Nickerson, worked to save about $750,000, and will continue its work. Comptroller Joe Timpano helped us to clean out $1.2 million from already completed capital projects that were completed under budget so that we could relieve some of our debt service requirements and provide further help to this year’s bottom line. Governor Pataki, at the urging of this County Executive and other members of NYSAC, delayed implementation of the PINS program expansion, delaying some cost increases, while allowing us to better prepare to work with these troubled teens. This Board approved an Early Retirement incentive program that will give us savings in existing positions and some needed flexibility in workforce reduction. We adopted a hiring freeze that has affected 20 positions. We have frozen equipment purchases and most other purchasing. I instructed our department heads to submit budgets reducing spending. We reduced them further by $4.4 million before ever-increasing mandates forced late additions of $4.7 million.
We cut to the bone in 2002. Now, we are cutting more. In 2003, we will buy virtually no new equipment. We are, regrettably, reducing our support for many community agencies by 10%, many of whom received a similar cut this year.
We will continue to reduce our workforce. This budget calls for an overall reduction of 98 positions: the 20 deleted by our hiring freeze; 34 others being unfunded and 44 additional positions yet to be identified. We hope all 44 positions – which will reduce our budget by $1.1 million in 2003 -- will be reduced through attrition via the Early Retirement Program, other retirements and vacancies. Once we know who will be leaving, we will bring to this board a detailed plan that identifies which positions will be eliminated. Workforce reductions are necessary, but painful. Our ability to absorb so much of the mandates passed on to us is due in no small part to the dedication and expertise of our county workforce. At a time when our county employees are showing incredible creativity, layoffs of experienced, dedicated employees can only be what they are -- a last resort. We are recommending canceling wage increases for employees on the P and M scales for the first half of the year. I will do the same with my own salary. We have offered employees a Voluntary Leave Plan for the final months of 2002. If this proves to be a success and a cost-saving measure, we may continue it in 2003.
County Government does not exist, and will not exist, as a passive prisoner of mandates others have thrust upon us. We will continue to move forward to achieve the vital missions of our county and protect the essential services of our operations.
Public safety: Despite recent public comments to the contrary, this budget fully funds the Sheriff’s Department’s Road Patrol and other essential services to maintain public safety in our county. The Sheriff’s Department is one of the few departments receiving more money in 2003 than in 2002. We have also applied money from other programs to the Sheriff’s Department to make sure services will be provided. There are no excuses in this budget for a diminution of service. We sought additional revenue for our 911 dispatching center, but although the State Senate passed the measure we needed, the Assembly did not. We will continue to seek this revenue, and we will also push to resolve issues so that we can have one system countywide to protect our residents in times of crisis.
Probation: Expansion of the PINS program has forced an increase of 43% in our budget for juvenile delinquent care. Next year, we will be seeking to create a new non-secure detention facility here in our area for our youth, which will reduce spending for boarding and transportation and also help our young people in trouble by keeping them closer to home and their families.
Airport: The business plan we have proposed for the Oneida County Airport will increase revenue to help cover costs, as we seek to operate this facility as a business. In the coming weeks we will be in transition to reduce or eliminate tower operations, which will also help us reduce costs. Because we cannot keep two air facilities in operation indefinitely, we had hoped to bring the debate over the current airport and the airstrip at Griffiss Park to a conclusion this year. We have had a number of choices among equally unsatisfactory options. Rather than make bad decisions to conform to a timetable, we continue to seek a final resolution that makes sense for our long-term future.
Roads & Bridges: Our operating budget will increase spending for minor repairs from $50,000 to $150,000. Although we have lost the CHIPS funding from New York State that helped pay for these repairs, they are vital and must be made. We are continuing the transition to one-person plowing to further contain costs.
Economic Development: Economic development to increase our population and tax base is the only practical long-term course for our county to take if we want to grow stronger. When a business faces hard times, it turns to its sales force to turn things around. Likewise, we in Oneida County are turning to Mohawk Valley EDGE to help us market this community and capitalize on the economic rebound that we know will come. Once we weather this storm -- which we will -- there will be opportunities for those prepared to act. Albany will be home to a huge computer chip research facility, opening up new potential for our Chip-Fab site in Marcy. Griffiss Park is becoming a center for information assurance. We must not allow reduced funding to be an excuse for reduced expectations. In June, I urged the EDGE board to break down the barriers between EDGE and private sector groups such as our Chambers of Commerce and the Genesis Group so that we can build a fully functioning public-private partnership to fund and carry out economic development activities. In at least one other New York county, private sector support matches public sector funding. That’s the kind of effort we need to move our county forward. EDGE must be the catalyst for inclusion and action to bring this vision to reality.
Education: Our funding for education largely goes to two areas. Funding for assisting handicapped children, for which we will increase our allocation by $1.8 million, is a mandate we do not control. The other major area of funding is Mohawk Valley Community College. Education has been and will remain the critical difference that separates communities of the future from those of the past. We in Oneida County are fortunate that MVCC offers a wide range of programs to meet the needs of our students and our adults who are building new careers. This budget calls for an increase of $496,999 for MVCC. The money will be spent in 2003. But the return on this investment, which includes the Millennium Project, will improve our county for years to come.
Workforce Development: In this coming year, new partnerships among "Call Mohawk Valley Home," our Office of Workforce Development and the Workforce Investment Board will leverage local dollars with federal dollars to produce outreach efforts to recruit college students for our region’s great careers. Grant-funded programs will help high school-age youth learn about potential careers, and help those who have dropped out of school receive a GED or work skills training. The Oneida County College Student Corps will continue its pioneer effort to connect local students with top-flight employers. Working Solutions Centers in Utica and Rome will continue to help thousands of people every month find jobs or programs they need to learn new skills. Most of these efforts are federally funded, and will move forward with slight reductions in county funding.
Rent reduction: We must reduce our spending on leased space for county offices. However, based on the impact on our 2003 budget and the likelihood that 2004 will also be a difficult year, we will not recommend proceeding with plans to move offices now housed in downtown Utica to the Oneida County Airport. On the plus side, this will keep jobs in downtown Utica. It will also allow the airport facility, now part of an Empire Zone, to be marketed to a private sector employer who can benefit from the tax advantages of an Empire Zone. We propose to reduce rents by re-examining and negotiating our arrangements with all our downtown landlords and relocating as many employees as possible into our downtown county-owned buildings. This will squeeze county employees in limited space, but it will save county taxpayers at least $150,000 in rent and the over $600,000 that would have been spent in renovations at the airport facility. This can and must be accomplished.
Capital budget: Through our capital budget, which is reduced this year to meet only the most essential needs, we will bond for $5.1 million to continue our efforts to rehabilitate roads and bridges. Since I took office, we have increased the miles of road rehabilitated per year from 10 to close to 30. Our five-year plan adopted as part of this capital budget would continue to preserve and protect our vital transportation infrastructure. Although we will be reducing operating support to our community agencies, we remain committed to assisting them as best we are able. Our capital budget for 2003 includes $450,000 to assist the Stanley Performing Arts Center with its expansion and $150,814 for a new roof for the Rome Historical Society. We will complete Phase Two of our County Courthouse renovations in 2003 as well as begin the design portion of Phase 3. We plan to bond for Phase 3 construction in 2004.
Revenue: We have seen a steady increase in our sales tax revenue this year. We originally budgeted $51.6 million, but are now projecting year-end revenue for 2002 to be $53 million. With new retail stores opening this fall and modest continued growth, we expect an increase in our sales tax revenue to $56.16 million. This budget does not include any increase in sewer rates for 2003 in the part-county sewer district. We are recommending increasing several fees, many of which have not been increased in at least 10 years for offices including the County Clerk, Department of Weights and Measures, Health Department and Finance Department. Our budget also allocates $4 million in new state aid and $2.7 million in new federal aid, which are both formula-driven increases. We are proposing taking $4 million from our appropriated fund balance, down from a $6.7 million reduction in 2002. We appreciate and fully support Governor Pataki’s proposal, announced this week, to forgive repayment of a $2.5 million Mental Health advance from several years ago, which will offset our fund balance reduction – if the State Legislature agrees.
Fund balance: When I took office, our county had a $3 million restricted fund balance for fiscal stability. We raised that to $5 million in 2000, and to $8 million in 2001. Unfortunately, the times we are in demand a return to the $5 million fiscal stability level, which is still the second largest fiscal stability amount we have ever had. This $5 million reserve and other projections in the budget will leave us with over $2 million in undesignated reserves.
Unfortunately, at a time when we need to build our reserves again, the times we are in only threaten it. Capping Medicaid growth to provide fiscal relief is the only real solution to the problems now sending county property taxes soaring across New York State and threatening counties’ fiscal stability.
We have been working with counties throughout New York State to present a united front as we continue to lobby in Washington and Albany for relief. If that relief does not arrive, the budget for 2004 promises to be just as difficult as that of 2003. Since 1997, this County Government has been steadily cutting non-mandated programs to absorb never-ending, and now astronomical, increases in mandates. We can only absorb so much.
A tax increase has been forced upon us in a raging storm of mandated costs. And so our county taxpayer must unfairly shoulder too great a burden and our record of six straight years of virtually unchanged property tax levies must come to an end.
There are no easy answers. This budget makes the tough decisions the people of Oneida County expect us to make and sets our course to steer against that strong wind in our face. We will meet these tough times head-on, and with your help, we will emerge stronger.
I look forward to the upcoming review of this budget by the Board of Legislators, so that through our discussions we can refine this proposal. These are difficult times when we must work together amid hardship and rely upon our creativity to cooperate in new ways to maximize every taxpayer dollar.
We have made the tough choices and the tough decisions. We will continue to make them. The times require no less, and the people of Oneida County deserve no less.