The fiscal condition of Saratoga County’s government is precarious, according to an assessment by the state comptroller’s office that is drawing some criticism.
Two dozen municipalities were designated as fiscally stressed by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s Fiscal Monitoring System, which is designed to give early warnings of potential financial problems by assessing 23 financial and environmental indicators to rate a municipality’s fiscal condition. The worst local grade went to the town of Colonie, which was deemed to be under “significant stress,” while Saratoga County received a slightly better grade of “moderate stress.”
DiNapoli said the warnings should motivate elected state officials, local officials and constituents to address the budgeting challenges facing local municipalities. Some of the warnings, like the grade for Saratoga County, were a bit of a surprise, considering the county’s strong growth, low unemployment and low taxes. Because the comptroller’s office is interested only in the numbers and not a municipality’s reputation, DiNapoli said in a conference call, “We’ve tried to be agnostic about surprises.”
Municipalities with a fiscal stress test grade above 45 percent are considered “fiscally stressed.” Municipalities were also graded on environmental factors, like the business community, with lower scores preferred. Grades for some municipalities are not available if the information is still under review by the state comptroller’s office or wasn’t submitted by May 31.
The following list shows the fiscal stress test grade and environment grade for several area municipalities:
Albany County: 57.9 percent, 12.5 percent
Fulton County: 19.2 percent, 14.2 percent
Montgomery County: 41.7 percent, 18.3 percent
Saratoga County: 63.8 percent, 2.5 percent
Schoharie County: 18.8 percent, 31.7 percent
City of Schenectady: 25.4 percent, 17.9 percent
Glenville: 3.3 percent, 0 percent
Saratoga Springs: 12.5 percent, 5.8 percent
Source: State Comptroller’s Office
Comptroller’s office spokesman Brian Butry said Saratoga County’s repeated use of its fund balance and history of operating deficits contributed to its grade. Additionally, he noted that the county also had issues with its cash ratio, the amount of cash on hand to pay bills, which was a common problem around the state.
Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Chairman Alan Grattidge, R-Charlton, said county officials were just starting to review the comptroller’s assessment on Tuesday afternoon but had serious questions about the conclusions that were reached in the report.
“There’s no question that over the last three years we have drawn our fund balance from where it has been,” Grattidge said, noting lower than expected sales tax revenue in 2011 that forced them to use some of the county’s reserves. Despite this, he argued that the county government is in good shape, noting that its fund balance — the reserve of unspent funds from prior budget years — is now larger than the year’s budget projected.
Also taken into consideration, Butry noted, was Saratoga County’s positive employment figures and property values. “The county is doing better off than other places when it comes to some of those environmental factors,” he said.
Grattidge said that those factors should have been considered more heavily. He also questioned why the assessments didn’t put more of an emphasis on Saratoga County’s tax rates, which are low compared to its neighbors.
Noting the lower fiscal stress test grade given to Fulton County despite its higher tax rate and worse employment outlook, Grattidge said: “It really questions the value of what the comptroller is trying to do.”
Responding to criticisms of the assessments, Butry said, “The numbers speak for themselves.”
The only other fiscally stressed municipality in the area was the city of Albany, while Montgomery County narrowly avoided being deemed “susceptible to fiscal stress.” Data from Schenectady County are still under review.
There was agreement among municipalities that the burden of unfunded mandates and labor costs were at the root of spending issues that were causing fiscal stress.
New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario said in a statement that the report indicated the state should cover the costs of its programs and services instead of tapping the local tax base. “The state must continue its commitment by enacting mandate relief and developing strategies to create jobs and attract businesses and families back to New York,” he said.
DiNapoli said he hopes that state legislators take notice of the fiscal stress grades and provide some relief to municipalities.
All the fiscal stress test grades in the state can be found on the Capital Region Scene blog.