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November 30, 2010 - 11:57am

Legislature meets in conference Wednesday to finalize budget plan

The Genesee County Legislature will meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the 2011 budget for the final time, with decisions before them that will have consequences for the local economy and civic environment for years to come.

Top on the agenda is what becomes of Genesee Justice.

countybudget03a.jpgCounty Manager Jay Gsell's preliminary budget called for eliminating seven Genesee Justice jobs and creating three new staff positions in the Probation Department, with probation taking over most of the pioneering restorative justice program's functions.

All of the county's top justice system experts -- including District Attorney Lawrence Friedman, Sheriff Gary Maha and Public Defender Gary Horton (inset picture) -- have lobbied to save Genesee Justice.

The experts say Genesee Justice has saved the county millions of dollars because many people who might otherwise be incarcerated are carefully supervised by Genesee Justice. The loss of Genesee Justice could mean that in a few years Genesee County will need to build a new jail at a cost of up to $30 million.

County officials, however, say these are dire economic times and costs need to be cut and taxes can't be raised. The county needs to trim about $7.5 million from its initial spending plan for 2011.

For years, Genesee Justice was funded entirely by grants, but over the years some those grants have dried up and local taxpayers must pick up about $237,000 of the operational costs of Genesee Justice.

Gsell plans to save that money, figuring that probation can assume the key functions of Genesee Justice.

"We know what services Genesee Justice delivers and we know how it is delivered," Gsell said for a previous story. "What we're looking at is how can we deliver that same level of service to the community through the Probation Department."

Julie Smith, probation director, said her department can assume the services and still help keep down the population level of the jail.

For example, Smith said, probation handled the release-under-supervision program for 26 years before handing it off to Genesee Justice in 2006.

Maha warned, however, that in neighboring counties, where there are no programs like Genesee Justice, the counties struggle with their jail populations.

"If the jail population increases, the State Commission of Correction will come down and tell us to do something about our increased population -- like build a new jail or put on an addition," Maha said. "We'll be like our neighbors to our south who had to build a jail addition to address their jail population."

Besides Genesee Justice, the legislature needs to decide what to do with the Soil and Water Conservation District, which is facing a 15-percent expense cut.

The cut, local farm leaders say, could end many vital services Soil and Water provides to farmers, helping keep them in business in a tough economic and regulatory environment.

"(The cut) would be a real detriment to the agriculture industry in Genesee County," said Brad Rodgers, chairman of the Soil and Water board of directors. "Even level funding would hurt us."

Scott Page, president of the Genesee County Farm Bureau, believes keeping Soil and Water is critical to protecting Genesee County's economic base.

"If we hurt ag, we miss an opportunity to move forward," said Page. "The more we build off our agricultural base, the better the local economy will do."

The conference meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday will not include a public comment period, but the session at the Old Courthouse is open to the public.

Following the conference meeting, the Ways and Means Committee will convene. Final budget amendments will be voted at that time, which are recommendations for the full legislature to consider. The full legislature will vote on the final 2011 county budget Dec. 8.

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