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Franklin County starting 2013 looking at $4.2 million budget deficit

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MALONE - As it prepares to begin its 2013 budget process, Franklin County is already facing a $4.2 million budget deficit – about 28 percent on the tax levy – but the county manager said this week that puts the county in better shape than it has been in recent years.

“There’s a pretty clear path to get to the tax cap,” Thomas Leitz told legislators at the county Board of Legislators meeting. “Maybe, not guarantee, but maybe without some of the more difficult decisions that were made last year.”

He noted the county started off its 2012 budget process last year looking at a 68 percent tax increase, and with budget surpluses at the county Nursing Home and Highway Department, the county may be eyeing an initial increase of 20 percent.

Mr. Leitz told legislators the computer system in which the county inputs its budget numbers will soon be open to county department heads so they can enter their rollover spending plans for the next fiscal year. He said he expects to have all of the starting spending plans by mid-July so he can begin preparing a tentative overall budget.

“It’ll take a few weeks to go through and get a true picture of where we are,” Mr. Leitz said.

Around the end of July or beginning of August, he said, the legislators can begin scheduling meetings with department heads to discuss their budgets for next year.

While Mr. Leitz said he normally tries to have agendas for such meetings, he said the discussions often stray from those agenda and instead suggested the legislature conduct the meetings in a committee structure. In that way, each of the legislative committees would meet to review the budgets of the departments that fall under that particular committee.

For example, Mr. Leitz said, the Public Safety Committee would convene to discuss the budgets for the departments it oversees, which includes the Franklin County Jail, county Office of Emergency Services and county Probation Department.

“I think that would help,” he said. “If someone has a question about a particular agency, well, obviously we’re going to answer it.”

Mr. Leitz said the nursing home has a positive fund balance that could be used to fund its operations or purchase a sprinkler system that may need to be installed in the facility, which is scheduled to merge with the Alice Hyde Nursing Home in about two years.

He also said the county is expecting more reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the cost of repairs to damage caused by flooding in the southern end of the county last year. That money will likely go back to the Highway Department.

“We can still protect the general fund,” Mr. Leitz said, noting those surpluses keep the county from spending money in those areas. “The fund balance is the last place you go.”

Mr. Leitz indicated the county’s economic picture is improving, after a couple of tough years that included deep spending cuts and some layoffs.

“Part of thinking last year was, right the ship a little bit,” he said. “That’s been done.”

As Mr. Leitz relayed the start of the 2013 budget process, Legislator Tim Burpoe (D-Saranac Lake), who chairs the Finance Committee that oversees the budget, suggested the county manager be sure to involve County Treasurer Bryon Varin, who also acts as the assistant budget officer, in the discussions of the next spending plan.

“You need to know what’s going into this, and I appreciate that,” Mr. Burpoe said. “But the team needs to know what they’re capable of doing and they can see all the information they think is important.”

Mr. Leitz said he also plans to schedule a voluntary meeting with just county employees – without department heads or legislators – so the employees can get information on how the county budget will affect them. He said the county began showing the impact last year by including narratives with the budget, and now a meeting will improve that communication.

“They’d like to know more about the bigger picture of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m going to review, as best I can, financial performance the last few years, where we are, what was done last year, where we think we’re going to be for the next year, and they’ll have the opportunity to ask questions.”

Legislator Sue Robideau (R-Brushton) asked if there has been any talk between the county manager and department heads about consolidating services.

Mr. Leitz said he gave department heads some examples of what could be done, with possibly consolidating accounting services and billing services or by putting some county departments together, such as the county Treasurer’s Office and Office of Real Property Services.

“I do think that, clearly, it will be an austerity budget,” Mr. Leitz said. “That gets a little better year after year.”

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