Legislators weighing option to fund bridge and road repair rather than cut property tax rate
Enough robbing Peter to pay Paul. Maybe its time to send a little cash back Peter's way, county legislators suggested during a budget session Wednesday afternoon.
County Manager Jay Gsell's early-stage draft budget calls for a reduction of the county's property tax rate from $10.04 to $9.85 per thousand.
After years of diverting sales tax revenue to balance the general fund budget, maybe the county should replenish the "1-percent fund," Legislator Bob Bausch suggested, followed by words of agreement from legislators Ed DeJaneiro and Frank Ferrando.
The 1-percent fund was created following an increase in the county's share of the sales tax in 1996 to help fund the county court complex.
From that point forward, that 1 percent cut of sales tax was supposed to go to a capital reserve fund -- money in the bank for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
But in recent years, as a stagnant economy caused tax revenue to sag and out-of-control state mandates put unrelenting pressure on the county's ability to fund basic programs, a portion of that 1-percent fund has been diverted into the general fund.
Meanwhile, roads and bridges continue to age and deteriorate.
"If we have some more money this year, I would kind of like to see that replenished and do some more capital projects, because as the residents of the county know, between the highways, bridges and roof and general capital budget items, we have fallen somewhat behind," Bausch said. "...if at all possible, I would like to see us address some of those issues if we have some extra revenue."
Through the typical budget process, department managers from throughout the county submitted their funding requests for 2015.
Requested spending topped $27 million, which would have required a tax rate of $9.96 per thousand of assessed property value.
Gsell made cuts and reduced the recommended levy to $26.8 million, requiring a tax rate of $9.85.
The reduction in proposed spending is possible, Gsell said, because of sound fiscal management over the past 20 years, negligible staff growth the past couple of years, and the state capping how much it expects the county to contribute each year to mandated programs.
Mandates still eat up 82 percent of the county's revenue, but at least the figure isn't growing the way it has in years past.
"The state has capped Medicaid at $9.9 million, and that's great, but in every other state but one, counties don't pay anything for Medicaid," Gsell said. "If I could take $9.9 million and tell the State of New York, 'you pay for Medicaid, you control the program, you write the rules, you tell us (what) we can't do as far as reforming a local version that doesn't exist,' then I could say our tax rate goes down by 38 percent. It's not going to happen, at least (not) the way the State of New York is thinking at this point."
With less spending pressure on the county budget, though, Bausch and other legislators are saying, let's review capital funds a little further.
"We can't keep telling people your bridges are going to fall down, but we're going to cut your taxes," Bausch said.
DeJaneiro said he knows it's not an issue in his district (a portion of the City of Batavia), but he knows there's been an issue elsewhere with school buses and fire trucks being unable to pass over bridges because of structural deficiencies. Andrew Young and Bausch both said those have been issues in their parts of the county.
"Bridges are reality and people not getting an ambulance on time or a fire truck on time because of a bridge is something we should be concerned about," DeJaneiro said.
Ferrando agreed with the general sentiment.
"We should replenish the fund when we have a year where we have an opportunity," Ferrando said. "We should consider it."
Gsell was asked to prepare a report on the fund and provide more information to the Legislature.
Also discussed during the budget session was female prisoner transport. It's an expense that is continuing to rise and also takes a deputy or two off patrol at a time.
Gsell said options including having corrections officers transport female inmates, or hiring a private contractor who can provide licensed and bonded security officers for transport.
A few years ago, the Sheriff's Office would have seven or eight female inmates housed at the jails in Orleans, Wyoming or Monroe counties. Now there are 19 or 20 women in the county's inmate population at any one time, all needing transport occasionally to and from the county for court appearances or meetings with attorneys. But adding to the cost burden is the fact that some inmates are now housed as far away as Allegheny County and Wayne County.
Because of behavioral issues, certain inmates are no longer accepted by closer, neighboring counties.
Nothing was settled Wednesday on how to resolve the issue.