Schoharie County Treasurer Bill Cherry, in a scathing statement to the county board of supervisors, criticized Administrator Steve Wilson’s tentative 2017 budget as riddled with errors and “oppressive” to property owners in the county.
Cherry, who doubles as the county’s flood recovery coordinator, was the previous county budget officer and tasked with preparing the tentative budget before Wilson was hired as county administrator last September.
“[Wilson] drastically increases government spending and sharply raises property tax rates at a time when neither of those is tolerable,” wrote Cherry in a letter to the board Oct. 17, a copy of which was supplied to The Daily Gazette. “This spending plan is full of errors and clearly indicates a lack of budgeting expertise.”
Cherry claims Wilson’s tentative budget calls for an 8-10 percent property tax increase, “which in and of itself should make this budget unacceptable to the taxpayers of Schoharie County.”
He also criticized the document for containing “math errors and elementary financial mistakes which could raise taxes even more.”
Exhibit A, wrote Cherry, is the budget’s expression of the Schoharie County District Attorney’s annual budget.
“Instead of showing the correct appropriation amount of $413,559, his budget shows the figure as a negative number (413,559),” wrote Cherry. “This mistake on its own effectively creates a $827,118 swing in the budget, and a corresponding increase in the tax levy, which would mean that property taxes would jump by an astounding 12 percent to 14 percent under Wilson’s plan.”
Cherry said his examination of the tentative budget, which he characterized as cursory, leads him to believe that the tentative budget must be scrapped and the process started anew.
“All it takes is one or two missing revenue figures or incorrect revenue figures to change the whole picture,” said Cherry in an interview Tuesday. “If I was the budget officer again, the only way to do it is to start from scratch to make sure the numbers are right.”
A copy of the tentative budget could not be obtained. Wilson said Tuesday the document is in hard copy form and is made up of reports from various county departments.
Wilson, who said he did not read Cherry’s statement but had heard about some of the specific criticisms, took issue with the treasurer’s assessment of his proposed property tax increase.
“The property tax increase I’m proposing is 5.77 percent, which is actually slightly less than the 5.81 percent Bill proposed last year,” said Wilson.
He also said the DA line error was the only criticism of Cherry’s that he found to be valid, and that if there are additional errors “the way it normally works is that’s addressed during the finance committee review of the budget.”
The position of county administrator is new in Schoharie County. The board of supervisors voted last year to appoint Wilson after a year and a half of debate and analysis of the way the county was being managed.
Cherry said that he never spoke out publicly against the position being created while the debate was happening, but thinks the position is superfluous.
“I was not an opponent or proponent,” said Cherry. “To be honest I thought Schoharie County was doing a pretty good job for a number of years.”
Asked if this issue is personal for him, Cherry said it isn’t “because I really didn’t want to do his job for him … it’s a thankless and brutal job that I was more than happy to pass on.”
Cherry said his relationship with Wilson is “cordial but professional,” and that his office always provides assistance when Wilson needs information.
Wilson said Cherry is cooperative when brought specific questions, but is less so when asked about general accounting practices in the county and doesn’t volunteer information on the particulars of the county’s budget process.
“[Cherry] has always told me right from the beginning that he didn’t want to share his expertise with me because he wanted to be free to be critical of any product that I come up with, so I think that’s how he wanted to help,” said Wilson.
Cherry said Wilson declined his help when it was offered.
Before he was appointed by the board as county administrator, Wilson said he served for several decades in the budget offices of various federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“The budgeting process is very similar; there’s not much difference at all,” said Wilson of how his prior experience compares to his current county administrator’s position. “The thing that is difficult is the accounting structures – what particular account goes where, what the rules say about the flow of funds.”
Wilson, who lived in Washington, D.C., until recently, added: “All of those are rules specific to in some cases New York State, and also there are a whole bunch of accounting practices that Schoharie County has developed over the past decade.”
Wilson said he would like to work more closely with Cherry on the budget process.
“I wish we had a closer relationship, but maybe one will come out of this,” he said of Cherry’s statement.
County Supervisor Sandra Manko of Sharon Springs, who sits on the board’s finance committee, said neither she nor the committee have seen the budget document and will be reviewing it at a meeting Thursday.
She said, however, that Cherry’s opinion on these issues carries weight with her.
“I respect Bill Cherry’s knowledge, and his experience and his opinion, and if he says that’s what it is, then it is what it is,” she said. “I just hope the budget can be saved without having to start all over again. It’s not going to be a pleasant budget year.”
County Supervisor Tony Van Glad of Gilboa, who served as chair of the board in 2014 and voted against appointing a county administrator in 2015, said Cherry’s statement made him think that supervisors will have to keep a close eye on the budget process this year.
“My only thought on that was I think the supervisors this year have to keep sharp oversight on the whole budget process and what numbers are going where and when,” said Van Glad. “I’m happy [Cherry] reviewed it.”
Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.