Here's something you don't hear often in the chambers of the Old County Courthouse: Members of the Genesee County Legislature raising their voices and talking over each other during a policy discussion.
Members of the normally decorous body got a little testy with each other at times Monday night during negotiations over the 2017 county budget that has no easy answers as state and federal mandates continue to drive up expenses, eating up more of what local taxpayers contribute to the county budget, leaving precious little left for essential local services.
A substantial property tax increase looks inevitable, bringing it up to a rate as high as $10.30 per thousand. That's a 5-percent increase in the levy. That would mean the Legislature would need to override the state-mandated tax levy increase, which the full body approved earlier in the evening.
As members chattered near the end of the discussion about what level of increase they could accept, Legislator Shelly Stein said, "We know we’re going over. We absolutely know we’re going over."
It's just a question of if they can find a way to cut expenses enough to shrink the size of the increase, and with each member of the Legislature having a good reason to protect this or that expenditure, reaching a consensus on what to cut is proving difficult. They agreed not to eliminate the request for two new corrections officers in the Sheriff's Office, nor to eliminate a road patrol position next year. They also won't eliminate a case worker position in the Public Defender's Office after PD Jerry Ader explained that the position legislators thought was grant funded really isn't. They couldn't agree on whether to make cuts in the planning department or the District Attorney's Office -- and County Manager Jay Gsell explained why a hiring freeze would be a bad idea.
Cuts to the highway department would leave an already depleted staff with fewer people to get road work done. You would have, Gsell said, all flagmen and no workers on road projects, for example. In social services, there has been a significant increase in case load post-Obamacare with no increase in staffing. Any cuts to the Department of Motor Vehicles would reduce county revenue.
“We are a service business," Gsell said. "Even in this day and age with all the technology, the bottom line is, we deal with people, and most people on a face-to-face basis, and if we don’t, they still end up coming in our offices to get their problems resolved. If we were retail, we could do that kind of stuff, just stop hiring people, but then of course our shelves wouldn't get stocked."
Over the course of his tenure as county manager, Gsell said, the county has eliminated nearly 100 jobs, leaving all departments operating at a bare-minimum staffing level.
When Chairman Ray Cianfrini did a straw poll asking members what percentage of tax increase would members be willing to support, there was no support for a 7-percent or a 6-percent increase, but a passing majority was willing to go along with a 5-percent or 4-percent increase.
Cianfrini joked that he knew Legislator Andrew Young wants to hold it at zero percent, but Young said he raised his hand for 5 percent.
"I understand we’ve got to increase taxes," Young said. "We can’t help it and we should increase it less by cutting more is my opinion, but can’t allow ourselves to become insolvent either. "
The potential of insolvency is a real concern for Young, who has raised it several times during budget discussion. The concern is a big reason legislators are unwilling to take more than $500,000 from reserves to help balance the budget and don't want to transfer nearly $1 million in anticipated sales tax revenue from the road and bridge fund and use it to balance the 2017 budget.
Young, Robert Bausch and Marianne Clattenburg are all arguing that the county needs to come up with a five-year plan that will guide budgeting decisions, with more data and some anticipation of the variables the county might face on revenue and spending in the coming years.
"I've never been part of an organization that didn't have a plan for the future, and we don't have a plan," Young said.
If the budget process doesn't start sooner next year, Bausch said, and there's no budget discussion prior to an October meeting, then that meeting might as well be canceled right now because it will be a waste of time.
The Legislature will meet at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the budget again.