With so many moving parts and so little direction, it’s no wonder the Genesee County Legislature is pulling its collective hair out trying to assemble a concrete financial plan.
Legislators engaged in a Committee of the Whole discussion via Zoom on Wednesday night following their regular meeting. Seventy minutes later they came away with updated information from high-level county employees regarding the government’s current status -- including the bad news that sales tax receipts for the month of May were down by nearly 36 percent.
As to how to proceed, however, uncertainty over another federal stimulus bill and the amount of reduction (if any) in state aid continues to thwart lawmakers committed to doing what is best for their constituents.
“Our financial situation is unclear, yet we have partners to be mindful of,” Legislature Chair Rochelle Stein said, emphasizing that the county intends to share revenue with municipalities once vital details come into view.
County Manager Jay Gsell, Assistant Manager Matt Landers, County Attorney Kevin Earl, Highway Superintendent Tim Hens and County Treasurer Scott German provided updates of various segments of the government.
Gsell set the stage by reporting that the June payment from Tax & Finance reflected a 35.95 percent reduction in revenue generated by May sales and, overall, county sales tax revenues are down 5.47 percent this year as compared to the same time in 2019.
Noting the 40-year sales tax agreement with the City of Batavia, Gsell said “whatever hit we take, they’ll take the same.”
He said that the county has incurred significant revenue losses thus far in 2020, data that prompted the legislature last month to rescind the treasurer’s authority to release revenue distribution payments to towns and villages.
Still, Gsell said he is optimistic that a new federal stimulus package (Fed Stim 4) will come to fruition. Another stimulus is supported by Congressman Tom Reed of the 23rd District and New York’s U.S. senators.
“We’re hopeful that sometime within the next seven to 10 days, Washington will finally coalesce around some part of a federal stimulus package … for direct assistance to local governments across the entire spectrum of counties, cities, towns and villages in regard to the impacts upon the economy and COVID-19 expenses,” he said.
Gsell reported that the county has saved approximately $1.4 million in its 2020 operating budget by cutting programs and expenses, deferring capital projects and implementing furloughs and strategic job freezes – bracing for losses in sales tax (which already has happened) and a potential 20 percent cut in state aid.
A recap of the Committee of the Whole meeting follows:
Gsell and Landers proposed a revised revenue distribution sharing agreement with the towns and villages, possibly a document that sets what is shared in proportion to the amount the county receives. They said they were asked by legislators to craft something to indicate the county’s willingness to share revenue in the future.
Calling it a “balancing act,” Landers said he was open to drafting something for a second-quarter distribution, one that would be based on 2020 sales tax projections, not 2018 as was the case with the previous agreement, and one that would include wording to protect the county.
“It could be structured so that it would go down at the same level that the county goes down, but then allow for all the additional wording – reduction of AIM (Aid and Incentives to Municipalities), cost shifts, water surcharge, equalization,” he said.
“Structure it so it is fluid enough to weather the currently known problems that are facing us – sales tax, state aid reductions, potential Medicaid cap implications.”
At that point, Andrew Young cut in, acting surprised that the idea would even be brought up.
“Why would we even be considering this at this point? The whole reason that we put ourselves in this position is because we knew nothing. We know a little more, but we still know nothing,” Young said.
“… Let’s move forward, when we do know more, whether that’s a month or two months or five months down the road, then we’ll figure it out from there.”
Marianne Clattenburg agreed with Young, while John Deleo said that since he didn’t trust the governor, “we could put ourselves in a predicament” with a revised agreement now.
Gordon Dibble also acted surprised by the proposal.
“All I ever asked for is to see a draft – I’m not even talking about voting on anything – but I’ve asked to see a draft of a potential document or something like that,” he said. “Something that we could look at, and we can run best-case, worst-case scenarios, and see what the results would be. That’s all I was ever asking for.”
Gsell replied, “We can do whatever you guys want.”
Christian Yunker and Gregg Torrey offered that the exercise would be a good faith effort to the towns and villages, but stopped short of a committing themselves to something they couldn’t pay.
Stein closed this segment by advising the board to wait a bit longer.
“What I’m hearing right now that there is still more to be learned, more to understand before any type of decision can be made,” she said. “Mandated services (county obligations) have not been relaxed. We have taken incredible steps in our government to reduce our spending, to pause and halt our capital projects, to freeze and furlough positions in the county – and those are not easy things to do.”
“I believe that we cannot make a decision, but it is a conversation that we have pledged ourselves to that there will be an intent to share and we need to continue to have this conversation in public so that our partners understand that it is occurring and it is happening,” she said.
Hens said that he has deferred or eliminated close to $1 million capital projects for 2020, with only two fire alarm system projects moving forward at a total cost of $113,000. For 2021, an additional $600,000 in work has been deferred.
“At this point, we’ve got it scaled back about as far as I really am comfortable scaling back,” he said. “Anything further puts us in a bad spot as far as exposure or liability problems.”
He also reported a significant savings on the replacement of decking on the McLernon Road bridge in the Town of Bethany by using beams in stock to replace the entire superstructure of the bridge at a cost of only $50,000.
The bridge was scheduled to be replaced in a couple years as part of a $1.6 million project, but Hens said he decided to return the federal aid portion.
“We should be able to replace the entire superstructure of that bridge with our local share and that will buy us 20-30 years of life on that bridge,” he said, noting that the bridge will be closed only for the month of July.
Hens also said he submitted a $4.7 million reimbursement request to Monroe County (Water Authority) “to make us whole on the money we spent – that we set aside from our infrastructure reserve – so hopefully we will have that back in the next week or two.”
Hens said that although he has received a guarantee of 80 percent of the federal Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS), Extreme Weather and Pave New York funding, his current capital plan is at the 85 percent level – which means he won’t have to make a lot of cuts.
If a federal stimulus does arrive, he said he would use the extra $350,000 to Chipseal (oil and stone) county roads “to get the biggest bank for our back in regards to road maintenance.”
He also said Town of Bethany laid off its highway department for June, July and August. That means county crews may have to provide mowing services there during the summer months.
FURLOUGHS & FREEZES
Gsell said the county is saving $99,000 per month as a result of its job freeze and another $75,000 a month through furloughs.
He said that there are 41 vacant positions – 30 of them full-time – that aren’t being filled at this time and there are 40 employees who have been furloughed and currently collecting unemployment benefits as well as the extra $600 per week in enhanced benefits.
“Upon three days’ notice, if we need them back, they will come back,” he said. “We’re looking to take some all the way through the 90 days.”
The county is in its third month of the furlough and freeze, resulting in more than $500,000 in savings thus far.
Landers said discussion on the proposed new $60 million county jail is scheduled for next Monday's Public Service Committee meeting.
“It is paused right now and probably will be paused for a while now,” he said, acknowledging that there also are expenses involved with keeping current jail on West Main Street open for any length of time.
Clattenburg said she is concerned about funding a new jail in light of the May sales tax figures.
“We were going to build on sales tax growth and we were counting on growth level of 2 percent a year and now we have a 36 percent drop,” she said. “I think we need to fundamentally ask the question of how we’re going to fund the jail and stay within a property tax cap before we work on a framework for sales tax or revenue sharing distribution.”
Legislators, in a resolution, are looking to the governor to release $469,000 in Medicaid funds stemming from the pandemic response to Genesee County to provide some partial fiscal relief.
“This would be a reduction over the balance of this calendar year in our weekly shares of Medicaid,” Gsell said. "Keep up the pressure. That money has our name on it and should be put to our use in our ability to start even just treading water with regard to the 2020 budget."
Legislators concluded the discussion by reviewing contracts with outside agencies.
Gsell said that $279,000 in commitments have yet to be paid this year, with the largest amounts being owed to Genesee County Economic Development Center and to Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Earl said any changes in these agreements that have no “out clause” can be made only if both parties agree.
Other agencies discussed were GO ART!, Genesee County Chamber of Commerce, Business Education Alliance, Mercy Flight and Genesee County Agricultural Society.
After several minutes of debate, legislators could not come to a consensus as to whether to stop funding these agencies or to put pending payments on hold.
German was advised that the final payment to Genesee Community College – more than $1 million – has to go out per state education law.
Legislators also learned that, as of March, there will be little or no more bed tax distribution for the rest of this year to the Chamber of Commerce, with both parties acknowledging such. The county did make a $110,000 payment to the tourism agency in bed tax proceeds generated from Dec. 2019 through Feb. 2020. (Also, the entire Chamber of Commerce staff is currently furloughed at 50 percent through the shared work program).
Clattenburg and Young said they were against withholding funds to these agencies.
“The big dollars have already gone out – we’re going to be hurting the small ones like the Holland Land Office that we fund …,” she said. “I was of the opinion that if we were going to cut everybody by 20 percent across the board, but this was my fear – that some people were going to get all their money and some people would get none of their money. So, I would not support it.”
Young said he felt it would be “more destructive to these agencies than any benefit that we’ll see out of it.”
In other developments:
-- The legislature officially welcomed Chad Klotzbach, of Basom, as the new District No. 1 representative (Alabama and Oakfield). Klotzbach, 31, replaces John Hilchey, who resigned in May. County Attorney Earl performed the swearing in ceremony. Klotzbach’s term runs through Dec. 31, but he is eligible to run for election in November.
-- Stein, reporting as a member of the Finger Lakes Region control room, credited residents for “doing a great job … following those guidelines and we ask you as our citizens to continue to model terrific behavior … and we look forward to better days ahead.”
Phase Three of the state’s reopening plan is scheduled to begin on Friday. Business and services include indoor food and drink consumption at restaurants and bars, with 50-percent maximum occupancy, exclusive of employees, and social distancing measures in place. Also, included are spas, nail salons, tattoo piercing facilities, appearance enhancement practitioners, massage therapy, cosmetology, tanning salons and waxing services.