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August 20, 2011

 

County departments start budget drafts

They are facing a Sept. 2 deadline to submit 2012 spending plan under 2 percent tax cap

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

As department heads prepare their budgets to meet County Administrator Martin Murphy’s Sept. 2 deadline, they are facing the added challenge of streamlining requests to come in under the state’s 2 percent limit on tax levy increases.
Murphy is asking each department to submit its budget according to his projections for a 2 percent tax increase. He will then prepare two budgets, one reflecting the stringent tax cap and another reflecting a 4 percent tax increase, in case the Legislature votes to exceed the cap.
Murphy expects to have filed a tentative budget by Oct. 20.
In between Sept. 2 and Oct. 20, he will meet with the department heads to review their requests. The Budget and Finance Committee will hold budget workshops following the Oct. 20 introduction of the tentative budget. A public hearing on the budget is expected to be held Nov. 17.
The demand set by Murphy means various levels of cuts for each department.
In the Information Technology Department, for instance, deputy director Jack Hess said that sizable savings are being yielded by extending the scheduled replacement of computers.
“We’ve been on a five-year rotation for hardware upgrades. Now we are preserving computers for seven to 10 years,” Hess said.
Hess said this measure alone represents up to 25 percent savings on that budgetary line item.
Hess said other discretionary expenses such as service contracts, are being dropped for added savings. The one area that would yield significant savings for all departments is personnel, but Hess said there are no plans to cut the staff of seven, since two positions were eliminated two years ago.
“Our staff is as thin as it can get,” Hess said.
Across the board, staff reductions seem to be a last resort for already-tight departments.
A $325,000 reduction that Murphy set for the Sheriff’s Department will likely mean staff cuts.
Sheriff Lee Price said he is down to personnel but would not say what positions would be cut.
“Budgets have been cut for years and most department heads are looking at a budget that is already bare bones and then they have got to decide where to cut and what services to take away,” Price said, adding he is “anguishing” over that decision.
The only mandated areas within the Sheriff’s Department are the civil division, which is responsible for serving legal papers, and the jail.
Murphy says all nonmandated services would be considered for cuts.
Price laments the situation.
“My problem is the state puts a 2 percent property tax cap ... then doesn’t stop giving mandates,” Price said.
“If we start taking away from the highway or health department or ... law enforcement or correction officers and not providing the services to the public anymore or keeping employees in danger with no backup, then what have we solved?” Price said.
Medicaid expenses alone would have exceeded the tax cap but Social Service Commissioner Kristen Monroe said a $600,000 reimbursement that came last year is offsetting much of the $1 million increase in Medicaid costs the county faces in 2012.
Murphy has asked the department to reduce administrative costs by $150,000.
“We’re optimistic we’ll be able to meet the mark but we are still fine tuning and making decisions,” Monroe said.
She said the department might reduce its work force by eliminating a support staff position that is vacant.
Murphy said the tax cap is feasible in that any necessary cuts can be made.
“The question is, what is the level of service that is being provided?” Murphy said, adding cuts in the Sheriff’s Department could compromise safety.
“(A reduction of) $325,000 out of the Sheriff’s Department is likely to reduce staff and that means people we have out on the streets,” Murphy said.

 

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