Schenectady County legislators approved a $298.99 million 2014 operating budget Tuesday that will hike the property tax levy by 0.74 percent, well below the state-imposed tax cap.
The adopted budget calls for $68.79 million to be raised through the tax levy, about $507,000 more than this year. The Legislature also adopted a $5.64 million capital project budget, the lion’s share of which will go toward highway improvements.
Philip Fields, the chairman of the Legislature’s Ways and Means committee, said the 1.2 percent spending increase over last year’s budget could largely be attributed to unfunded state mandates. He said reaching a minimal increase in the 2014 levy was a result of the county’s long-range fiscal planning.
“We really had a multiyear process here to resolve this budget,” he said.
The budget relies on shedding two dozen positions from the county’s workforce, all through attrition. The 2014 spending plan also taps about $5.7 million from the county’s fund balance, about as much as was used to balance the 2013 budget.
“This is a responsible budget,” said Majority Leader Gary Hughes.
The Legislature passed the budget by a vote of 13-1. Minority leader and lone Republican James Buhrmaster was the only legislator to vote against it. Legislator Brian Gordon was absent from the meeting.
In explaining his vote, Buhrmaster questioned the accounting practices used to bring the budget below the tax cap of 1.66 percent. Though he credited the budget with being better than last year’s “train wreck,” he was uncomfortable with tapping the county’s reserve funds and took issue with borrowing to pay for pension costs.
“We’re borrowing money to ameliorate the pension,” he said before casting his vote. “We are, right now, creating a huge problem down the road.”
Buhrmaster blasted the budget for not including details of the future cost of the new county nursing home, now nearing completion in Glenville. He also questioned whether the majority Democrats would push through spending measures beyond what is allocated in the budget as they did in June, when they pulled an additional $150,000 from the fund balance to provide discretionary funding for the city firefighter-staffed hazardous materials response team.
“What we have is a nice, almost zero budget this year,” he said. “It won’t be the same next year.”
Fields said the proposal to borrow money to pay for state retirement costs — estimated to run the county $13.5 million next year — doesn’t mean the county actually will do any borrowing. But it wasn’t clear where the money would come from if it wasn’t borrowed.
Fields said the county’s fund balance is well above the acceptable amount outlined by the state comptroller’s office. The county ended 2012 with a fund balance of $32.8 million. Fields predicted that the fund balance could drop to about $29 million by the end of 2013 but gave assurances that it would remain above the 10 percent of the operating budget recommended by the comptroller.