Saratoga County has nearly doubled its year-end surplus from a year ago, marking a dramatic improvement in its financial condition.
The fund balance was $20.2 million on Dec. 31, up from $10.5 million a year earlier, when officials worried that available reserves had dropped far too low for comfort.
The financial problems in recent years prompted the Board of Supervisors to decide to sell the Maplewood Manor nursing home and impose a hiring freeze. Officials said those moves are now paying off.
“This is good news for the county,” County Administrator Spencer Hellwig said Wednesday in releasing the year-end figures at a meeting of the county’s Law and Finance Committee in Ballston Spa. “It speaks for itself in terms of the decisions made by county staff and by the board.”
Hellwig attributed much of the $9.7 million fund balance increase to savings, rather than new revenue.
In one example, the county put $2.9 million in last year’s budget to subsidize losses at Maplewood Manor, but didn’t need to use it. The nursing home lost $7.5 million, but county officials said a combination of cost-saving measures and intergovernmental transfer payments covered the losses.
The county also received $3.5 million more in revenue than it planned on, including a court-ordered property-tax settlement with the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District.
The county’s financial situation has been considered precarious enough that Moody’s Investors Services in February downgraded the county’s credit rating from Aa1 to Aa2.
Hellwig said preliminary information in the year-end improvement was shared with Moody’s, which said in the downgrade statement that it was concerned about the declining fund balance and structural budget imbalances.
“Not to criticize Moody’s, but we were very certain the county’s financial situation was improving,” Hellwig said.
Supervisor Matthew Veitch, R-Saratoga Springs, chairman of the Law and Finance Committee, said the fund balance should be $35 million, given the county’s $313 million budget.
“We still have work to do,” he said. “In order to build our reserves back up to healthy levels, restore our bond rating and ensure a solid financial foundation for years to come, we need to continue to tighten our belts in the coming years.”
Based on current budget projections, Hellwig said it’s expected the surplus will also increase in 2014.
Veitch credited decisions made by earlier board chairmen Tom Wood and Alan Grattidge as bearing fruit, leading to lower spending that’s led to the improved financial picture.
Grattidge, who chaired the board last year, oversaw the still-pending sale of Maplewood Manor, and also the recently completed sale of the county landfill. He said there were also collective-bargaining agreements reached with two employee unions that reduced health care expenses.
“Our success with these initiatives was essential to improve our finances last year, set a stable foundation for the county’s financial future, and ensure that we will not experience the level of disruption we have seen over the past few years,” Grattidge said in a prepared statement.
Board Chairman Paul Sausville, R-Malta, said the financial position improved even while the county kept property taxes low. Tax rates rose less than 0.5 percent this year, after rising 1.6 percent in 2013 and 3.5 percent in 2012; they remain, however, among the lowest county tax rates in the state.
“Our plan is to maintain our fiscally conservative approach toward governance,” Sausville said.