Along the way to settling on a 2017 county budget, the process wasn't without a bit of acrimony, but looking forward to future budgets, there may only be more pain ahead.
The County Legislature passed its budget last night, 7-2. It raises county property taxes to $10.07 per thousand of assessed value, creating a property tax levy of $28,699,115. The increase required the Legislature to vote to override the state's 2-percent cap on an increase of the levy.
Legislative Chairman Ray Cianfrini said he thought his colleagues could have done better and voted against the budget, which takes effect Jan. 1.
"The county manager presented us with a proposed budget that used reserves to decrease the tax rate and keep us under the tax cap," Cianfrini said. "Now, we are rejecting it for a budget with an increase in the tax rate and that goes over the cap. I think we could have done better."
John Deleo also voted no. (Corrected)
The budget County Manager Jay Gsell presented in October took $1 million from the reserve fund and redirected $1 million in anticipated sales tax revenue that would typically go into the long-term capital project fund and cut the tax rate to $9.79.
A report earlier from County Treasurer Scott German stated that if the county continued on the same path it had for the past eight years, of spending about $2 million in reserve funds per year, the county would be broke within five years.
That particularly concerned legislators Andrew Young and Bob Bausch and they initially pushed for a budget that took nothing from reserve funds. The problem they ran into: the Legislature couldn't find $2 million in spending to cut without cutting essential services, such as law enforcement; and they were no more happy with the idea of a tax rate approaching $10.50.
The compromise a draw on reserves of only $500,000, but that lowered the rate to only $10.25, so the legislators met again to try and find more spending cuts. They invited in Undersheriff William Sheron (the next sheriff), Public Defender Jerry Ader and District Attorney Lawrence Friedman to discuss cuts.
Out of that, the Sheriff's Office still gets its two new corrections officers, which will help save the overtime costs associated with deputies transporting female prisoners between courts and jail facilities in other counties, and Ader keeps his caseworker, which helps ensure criminal defendants meet their obligations, but Friedman won't get to promote ADA Melissa Cianfrini to his first assistant.
He's been without a first assistant for six years and the discussion over the promotion became contentious, with both Ray Cianfrini, Melissa's father-in-law, and Friedman suggesting that the reason some on the legislature didn't want to give her a raise is because she's a woman.
That suggestion didn't go over well with members of the Legislature, particularly Bausch, who pointed out he has three daughters, including one who is an attorney.
Future budget years don't promise to get any easier for a county that has already been through years and years of spending cuts, eliminating more than 100 jobs, keeping management pay about 95 percent of market value, delaying maintenance on infrastructure, reducing spending on support agencies, selling the nursing home and holding off on building a new jail.
All this in an environment where the state continues to mandate increases in spending -- this year, for example, forcing the county to increase the salary of the district attorney -- and a new White House administration that promises to eliminate the Affordable Health Care Act.
That, Gsell said, "will render asunder state and county budgets."
The AHC required the county to take on more Medicaid expenses, mainly by ensuring more people who are qualified for Medicaid are receiving Medicaid. The number of people locally who are enrolled in Medicaid has gone from 8,800 to 12,200.
The county's share of the expense is now $178,000 per week.
That expense won't be reduced if the AHC is repealed because the people currently receiving Medicaid will still be eligible for Medicaid, but the federal government's share of the expense, which flows through the state to the county, will be reduced.
That's a mandated expense the county can't legally avoid.
And the increase in enrollment is not without its benefits, Gsell said. It helps control expenses because people are in managed plans and are not relying on emergency rooms for their medical care.
And the fight continues with the state over other mandated costs. The state recently increased the standards for indigent legal defense and with the changes, there was supposed to be relief from the $1.2 million in county expense, but the bill that would make that change has lingered on the governor's desk.
That will be a topic of discussion next week, Gsell said, when representatives from all 52 counties in the state meet for their annual convention.
Meanwhile, work has already begun on the request of legislators to come up with a five-year plan for the county. There is a template recommended by the Comptroller's Office and the county's auditors for five-year planning, Gsell said, and staff has already started working through it.
That plan will set priorities, provide a framework and anticipate contingencies that may help with future budget discussions.
Also, last night, Cianfrini announced that discussions have begun at the most preliminary stages with Orleans County about building a regional jail.