Only a half-dozen people turned out for the public hearing on the Schenectady County Legislature’s tentative budget for 2014 Monday, and only two of them weighed in on the spending plan that will likely be approved today.
Gail Hopper, the Chamber of Schenectady County’s director of government relations and business services, lauded legislators for crafting a “fiscally responsible” budget and bringing the tax levy increase beneath the state-mandated tax cap. Jason Planck, a frequent critic of the Legislature now running for it on the Republican ticket, blasted legislators for a budget proposing to borrow money to pay for state retirement costs and not showing how the sale of bonds for the new Glendale Home would fiscally impact the county in years to come.
“Just because you say it’s 0.75 percent [increase], it’s really not,” he said. “You’re just not paying your bills.”
And with that, Legislature Chairwoman Judith Dagostino closed the public hearing. The hearing for the $298.99 million spending plan that increases spending by 1.2 percent and the tax levy by 0.74 percent lasted slightly less than 10 minutes.
The budget hearing was in stark contrast to the one conducted last year, when roughly 40 people turned out to blast cuts proposed in the 2013 spending plan.
Legislators ultimately adopted a budget that included a significant cut to the Schenectady County Public Library system’s funding, but still soared well beyond the 2.95 percent tax cap.
With only a modest increase in the levy proposed, the 2014 budget hasn’t spurred any significant criticism.
County legislators are expected to adopt the budget during their meeting at 7 this evening and without making any substantive changes.
Gary Hughes, the leader of the majority Democrats, characterized it as a “non-complex budget season” with no amendments in the making. Philip Fields, chairman of the Legislature’s Ways and Means committee, said the budget proposal is one that reflects strong deliberation and the reality of the county’s robust economic development.
“It’s well thought out and we’re working within the structure of the tax cap,” he said following the hearing.
James Buhrmaster, the Legislature’s lone Republican, said the budget still looks bloated to him.
He said there are still a number of superfluous “feel-good positions” that could be trimmed, but he won’t propose an amendment to the budget because he knows the Democrats won’t allow any resolution he proposes to reach the floor.
“It’s a one-horse show at the moment,” he said.
The budget proposes to eliminate 24 positions through attrition. There are no layoffs proposed.
The budget does rely on $5.7 million in reserve fund spending, which is slightly less than in this year’s spending plan.
Last month, the state Comptroller’s Office released a report that took issue with the county’s relatively small fund balance, among other things.
The report also cited the county’s recent string of budget deficits and its small amount of available cash compared to total liabilities. Schenectady County isn’t facing even moderate fiscal stress, but could be susceptible if accounting practices aren’t corrected, the report stated.
Indeed, the budget proposes to borrow money to pay for state retirement costs, which are estimated to cost the county $13.5 million next year.
But Fields said this doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how the Legislature will opt to pay for those costs, which could ultimately be covered without borrowing money.
“And that has happened in the past,” he said.