Off the Northway: Budget a fine mess in Spa County

The bottom line on the 2012 Saratoga County budget — that taxes would go up for the first time in ye

The bottom line on the 2012 Saratoga County budget — that taxes would go up for the first time in years — could be read in the tea leaves weeks ago, when the tentative budget wasn’t released, as usual, a week before Election Day.

The spending plan wasn’t unveiled until the day after the Nov. 8 elections, when every supervisor up for re-election was returned to office.

Officially, the explanation was that budgeters were holding off to collect last-minute financial projections — but anyone who took that at face value has a collection of bridge deeds in the garage. Speakers at the Dec. 1 public hearing on the budget sure didn’t.

“Leadership is not announcing a sales tax increase the day after the election,” said Bill Goslin, a Republican who had been elected to an open seat on the Ballston Town Board the day before.

That first draft called for raising the county sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent.

Budget Take One had a shorter life than a Karner blue butterfly. Business forces lined up to fight it. Within a week, state Sen. Roy McDonald announced he wouldn’t introduce the home rule legislation needed in Albany.

McDonald took some heat for that, not letting supervisors make their own decisions. But McDonald is being consistent — he voted against the original county sales tax back in 1982, when he was an ambitious young Wilton town supervisor.

Some quick revisions, and there was Budget Take Two: No sales tax hike, slashed funding for arts, culture, economic development and road construction. Employees and retirees would have to kick in for health insurance costs. There was also a 3.5 percent property tax increase, the first in nine years.

The cries of pain came from near and far, and the public hearing lasted three hours.

What was adopted Wednesday was Budget Take Three: It restored a little funding to the Brookside Museum, Saratoga County Fair and Saratoga Arts. Others cuts stood: the Saratoga Performing Arts Center will get no county money for the first time in nearly 50 years. And there’s still a property tax increase.

The county’s economic development agency said it can live with its $130,000 cut for next year, but only for one year.

“Our marketing efforts must continue. We cannot become complacent and just be happy with what we have achieved,” the Saratoga Economic Development Corp. leadership said in a letter to supervisors.

All in all, it was the messiest county budget development process in recent memory, traumatizing to employee and retirees who were threatened with higher health insurance costs until supervisors backed away — not to mention arts and culture organizations.

“We could produce a better budget if we had a better process,” said Supervisor John E. Lawler, R-Waterford.

This was County Administrator Spencer Hellwig’s first time as the county’s chief budget officer. He replaced the retired David Wickerham a year ago. Wags who said Wickerham knew the right time to exit were proven right.

The day after the budget was adopted, Hellwig said the process can always been improved, but he doesn’t see major structural changes in how the budget is developed.

“A lot of the challenge this year had to do with the 180-degree turn in the process, when it became clear we would not get the sales tax increase. Then we were under the gun,” said Hellwig, who was Wickerham’s deputy for more than a decade.

Hellwig had hoped for more understanding that the county had cut expenses for years and was only raising taxes as a last resort.

At some point, he said, not investing in things like road reconstruction “becomes a disservice” to residents and business that use the roads.

Even if the idea of increasing the sales tax didn’t fly this year, it isn’t six feet under, he said.

“Depending on how next year plays out, like anything else, we’ve got to have all our options available,” he said.

Short of doing something dramatic, it’s hard to see how the county will again build a safety net of emergency cash. The new budget projects that the fund balance — which was $30 million only a few years ago — will drop to $5.3 million by next year’s end. The surplus is supposed to be a “rainy day fund,” but it’s been pouring for years now.

It isn’t enough, county officials agree, when the total budget is $309 million.

Short of selling the Maplewood Manor nursing home, or federal and state decision-makers abruptly starting to deal with the perennial complaints of local governments about who picks up the tab for unfunded mandates, more difficult years lie ahead.

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