County budget makes fixes, holds the line on taxes

(Photo by Dan Barton)

Ulster County executive Mike Hein seems to cover a lot of bases in his proposed county budget for 2013. He’s got plans to fix the financially vexed Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency, have the county take over Safety-Net welfare costs from the towns and City of Kingston over the next three years, eliminate county support for the Ulster County Development Corporation, and enhance tourism by turning portions of the Ulster & Delaware railbed into rail-trails. He also plans a slight decrease (0.16 percent) in the property-tax levy.

The basics of the budget unveiled last Thursday are as follows: total appropriations, including interfund transfers and $750,000 of deferred property tax, will be a shade over $360 million, a one percent decrease from 2012’s budget. Estimated revenues, a mix of sales tax, property tax, state and federal aid, other revenues and sources and appropriated reserves and fund balance. Hein will use $10 million from the fund balance in this package, leaving $14.8 million, or five percent of the budget, in the county’s rainy-day fund. A fee on vehicle registrations Hein terms “nominal” — $5 for vehicles 3500 pounds and under, $10 for those weighing more — in order to, in the executive’s words, “support county infrastructure,” will be imposed. There will be job cuts, mostly from privatizing child and family services of the county Department of Mental Health. Ninety positions will be cut: 18 by “separation incentive,” 44 through not filling vacancies, and 28 by straight-up layoffs. Hein said, there will be 213 fewer county jobs than when he first took office in 2009.

Hein continues to support the sheriff’s road-patrol program and adds a corrections officer and an assistant district attorney. In a cost-saving move, the STOP DWI program will be placed under the Department of Probation.

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The Resource Recovery Agency, because of which the county is on the hook for $23 million in debt as well as annual operating losses (the “net service fee”), will be fixed, Hein said, by a plan that would enact a local law requiring “the vast majority” of solid waste to move through the RRA. He called on the RRA board in turn to create a dual-fee structure, one for municipalities and the other for private haulers, and to “break out fees for delivered versus non-delivered trash.” Said Hein, “This multi-tiered approach is designed to protect taxpayers in our towns and the City of Kingston. Simply put, as hard as it is, this solution addresses the volume and massive debt problems at the RRA and doesn’t kick the can down the road.”

Hein’s solution to the Safety Net problem — Ulster is the only New York county which passes along the costs of the last-ditch welfare program to municipalities — is to take over the costs over the next three years at a total three-year cost of $10.9 million. The City of Kingston, which leads the county in Safety Net recipients, will save $675,005 this coming year and a total of $4.4 million over the next three years.

Kingston mayor Shayne Gallo said he was grateful to Hein for the Safety Net help; he had in past interviews cited the rise in costs as a real problem for his own 2013 budget, which he said will be released in about a week and a half. “I’m very pleased,” Gallo said Monday. “It’s not only a blueprint for the county’s future, but for the future of the City of Kingston.”

While noting that counties, cities and towns are increasingly sandbagged by unfunded state mandates, Hein forecast little or no relief from them. He declared that his budget took a realistic and innovative approach to attacking Ulster’s problems and positioning the county to be competitive in a larger world market. “The [budget] is designed to protect families, seniors, and to solve a series of long-standing problems with straight-forward solutions,” Hein said. “It protects property taxpayers at the county, town and city levels while it still ensures essential services for those in need. It strengthens the county’s financial foundation through recurring savings, reforms and consolidations, and it does not shy away from the difficult decisions needed to help grow our economy and make Ulster County government more sustainable.”

The budget needs to be approved by the county legislature. “There is a lot to like in the budget proposal,” county legislature chairwoman Terry Bernardo, Republican/Independence of Accord, stated this week. “We have to take a very close look at the motor-vehicle fee proposal as it certainly is an added tax. However, overall there is a lot to like, and the Ways and Means Committee will conduct a review and recommend any changes in the coming weeks. I want to make this the most pro-taxpayer county budget in all of New York State.”

Legislator Jeanette Provenzano, Democrat of Kingston, said the legislature will vote on a resolution this month to hire a consultant to review Hein’s proposal. “I was amazed there was a proposed property tax reduction in these difficult economic times,” Provenzano stated. “I know how much time and effort, a year’s worth, it takes to present a budget with creative ideas and a view that government needs to change with the times on how it delivers necessary services to our community, especially with the state mandating programs without funding, to help deliver those demands.”

Provenzano too lauded Hein for his plans for the Safety Net takeover and RRA flow control. She said she hoped a way could be found to transfer the to-be-laid-off 28 workers to other county jobs.

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