County budget ruffles feathers

The glass menagerie (photo by Will Dendis)

As rolled out by Ulster County executive Mike Hein, the proposed 2013 county budget seemed to be all things to all people, except perhaps for the 28 county workers being cut next year. Expenses, the product of continuous downsizing, were almost flat. Revenues were up, and property taxes were down a smidge.

Fiscal consultants hired by the legislature have raised concerns, primarily in the area of one-shot revenues to balance the budget. The Westchester accounting firm of O’Connor, Davies will be paid a fee of $65,000 to review the executive’s budget. Officers of the company detailed their report before the legislature last week.

In the meantime, a heated controversy has broken out between the county executive and the county comptroller. Comptroller Elliott Auerbach claims Hein’s proposal to shift three auditors to the commissioner of finance’s office would leave the county more vulnerable to fraud and fiscal abuse.

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Hein’s budget also includes some major policy initiatives that must first be approved by the legislature. He proposes the county take over the Resource Recovery Agency and implement flow control laws, thus saving the county $1.4 million a year in subsidies to the autonomous RRA.

“It appears the executive is recommending policy decisions in his budget that are the prerogative, by charter, of the legislature,” said legislature chairwoman Terry Bernardo. The choice for the legislature then is to vote the budget — and those policy decisions — up or down. Twelve votes from the 23-member body are required for passage of any bill. Should Hein veto legislative action, 16 votes from the 12-11 Republican legislature would be necessary to override. Hein, a Democrat, has issued only one veto in his four years as executive.

Legislative consultants made note of the fact that $8 million worth of authorized borrowing against sale of the Golden Hill nursing home had not yet occurred. The executive had stated a year ago that borrowing the money was necessary to balance the 2012 budget. The legislature’s consultants recommended the administration “provide an analysis of the impact of the entire transaction on the general-fund balance.”

The $360-million budget is Hein’s fourth as county executive. For the first time in memory, spending is projected to be less than it is this year, by about $360,000, while taxes will be lower. Hein also proposes to pick up some three million dollars in safety-net expenses from the towns and the city over three years, a boon to municipal budget officers struggling to make ends meet while remaining under the state’s two percent property tax cap increase.

To balance this budget, the executive appropriated almost $2.5 million in departmental reserves, about half from the E-911 account. The probation department gave up $620,000, the sheriff $260,000 (from fees accumulated from charging inmates for phone use), and the tourism department gave up $150,000 from reserves. Surplus funds are being tapped for $13.5 million.

Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum, an independently elected constitutional officer, called the executive appropriation “a raid” on his department. “We’ve accumulated these funds without expense to taxpayers, which we use strictly for departmental purposes,” he said. “It’s our reserve, without which we would have to come to taxpayers for support.”

“I don’t have a rabbi here,” he said, hoping for advocates in the legislature. “I hope my rabbi is common sense.”

While Hein cut the property tax, he anticipates a new five-dollar annual fee on motor-vehicle registrations will generate about $900,000 a year in new revenues. A percentage point on the tax rate is worth about $750,000 in the budget. Hein proposes raising $1.5 million through the sale of county-owned property, including the Ulster County Community College president’s house in Stone Ridge and county office space in Kingston.

The county anticipates collecting 2.5 per cent more in sales taxes next year. Indications of a distressed economy are evident in the expectation of $900,000 more in interest and penalties on unpaid property taxes next year, an 18 percent increase over this year. The county government expects tourism to increase by about ten percent next year, based on its projection of the revenues from the occupancy tax levied on 274 hotel registrants.

The 2013 budget funds 1666 benefited (full-time) positions, down by 90 from this year, including some 300 workers at the Golden Hill infirmary. The county also budgets (undisclosed) reserves to settle contracts with four unions.

The county expects to save $2.9 million from the privatization next year of mental-health services.

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