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Storm clouds gather over St. Lawrence County budget

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CANTON — Call it the lull before dark storm clouds roll in.

The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators is looking at what could be an ugly budget season, going line by line over potential cuts that may not have that much of an impact on any tax hike because more than 90 percent of services are mandated and some of the big increases are for health insurance and pensions, costs out of the control of local lawmakers.

Add to the mix a severely depleted fund balance, a board that has balked at cuts in the past, ongoing negotiations with its unions, a workforce already shrunk over the last few years by 100 positions, and state senators that have dug in their heels about a sales tax increase for the county.

“We in St. Lawrence County, we feel somewhat abandoned,” Legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, said.

The dire budget projections for next year get underway Monday with a request by Treasurer Kevin M. Felt for the county to borrow $12 million because of projected cash shortages. The county borrowed $8.5 million last year which Mr. Felt will pay back before the due date of Thursday.

“We’re going to pay it off and then turn right around and borrow,” Mr. Felt said.

He projected shortfalls of over $11 million due to money owed the county by the state, including $7 million just in back payments for the Department of Social Services and $3 million in compact gaming money.

“When you borrow $8 million to pay bills and burn through that and then borrow $12 million, you’re going behind,” Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said. “The big issue is we’re mandated to do the services.”

Although the preliminary budget will not be unveiled until early fall, the county will have a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday on overriding the tax cap. Even though the state bills the cap at 2 percent, allowed additions brought this year’s maximum for the county to 4.8 percent. Legislators ended up raising taxes 5.5 percent.

The exact number for next year’s cap is not certain yet, but is expected to come in at about the same as this year. It should equate to about $2 million, Mr. Felt said. A 1 percent increase in the tax levy is the equivalent of about $450,000.

Health insurance and pension costs alone will increase $1.5 million each, Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

“Those far exceed the tax cap before we look at anything else,” she said. “I just don’t know how it’s going to shake out.”

Increases in revenue from sales tax and the Department of Motor Vehicles will not be enough to make up the difference in increases, Mr. Felt estimated.

The county’s fund balance is also not healthy.

It ended 2011 with $7.8 million and legislators appropriated $4 million of that to offset this year’s tax levy increase. If all of that money ends up spent, that would leave the county $3.8 million at the end of the year, but $3 million of that is compact money that is sitting in escrow while the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the state bicker over a gaming exclusivity issue.

“I’m not going to write off the compact money although it could take years to come in,” Mr. Felt said.

The fund balance could be helped by small increases in sales tax that were not budgeted and a settlement of over $1 million through DSS, he said.

“Based on early numbers, we’re either going to have to make significant cuts or override the tax cap or some combination of both,” Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, said. “The numbers are not good. It’s going to be very challenging.”

Many of the county’s non-mandated services are not big ticket items.

It could phase out Public Health’s Certified Home Health Agency, which was saved by legislators earlier this year, but which has been under intense scrutiny to justify its continuation.

“That is an issue that will be resolved sometime in October,” Mrs. Brothers said. “I make no predictions.”

Eliminating CHHA might save $1 million, but some legislators believe it will cost the county because it helps to pay portions of administrative costs that would otherwise have to be picked up elsewhere in Public Health.

“I think we have to try not to do foolish things that cost us more,” Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said. “You need to cut with a scalpel, not a chain saw.”

Eliminating the Sheriff’s road patrol might cut $3.5 million, but the county would still have to come up with a way to transport prisoners that could add the bulk of the cost back in, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

The Planning Department could be eliminated for a savings of about $500,000 but its staff aids municipalities across the county and provides a lot of backup work for legislators, she said.

Community Services could be cut but the county remains obligated to provide its essential services. Getting rid of the Youth Department would save $100,000 but communities would lose a lot of funding that is funneled through the office. Highway projects could be cut but taxpayers like it when bridges and roads are improved, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Payments to outside agencies could be slashed for a savings of about $250,000 but many of them perform jobs for the county. Cutting their funding also often hurts them gain matching money from other sources.

Laying off county employees would not result in instant savings either because of unemployment and other legacy costs.

“That is indeed the conundrum we face,” Mrs. Brothers said. “It is not a pretty picture. It is going to be a difficult, emotionally draining experience.”

The makeup of the board also does not lend itself to cuts as the background and experience of some legislators may give them a viewpoint more sympathetic toward employees.

Mr. Morrill has relatives who work for the county and his wife works for Cornell Cooperative Extension, which receives county funds. Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, has a relative who works for the Sheriff’s Department. Legislator Scott M. Sutherland, R-Pierrepont, is retired from the Sheriff’s Department. Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, was a union official.

In addition, a majority on the board are Democrats who principally believe in an important role for government. Mr. Morrill said he votes like a Democrat because he is one, not because he wants to benefit family members.

“Our political leanings are to provide services. You can’t provide services without people,” he said. “That’s our philosophy.”

The county’s situation is not partisan, Mrs. Brothers said.

“It doesn’t mean Democrats or Republicans have a hold on fiscal responsibility,” she said. “It’s where are we and what can we do?”

Issues often cross party lines and it has proved difficult in the past to find eight votes to cut programs.

Mr. Lightfoot said he hoped legislators recognize that property owners do not want the county to exceed the tax cap, no matter how difficult the task.

“Cuts are certainly in order,” he said. “I don’t see how we can ask people to dig deeper in their pockets when they’re already digging.”

Economic doldrums appear to be catching up to some property owners.

The county has about 200 parcels in foreclosure for back taxes this year, compared to an average of 100 to 150 properties in years’ past, Mr. Felt said.

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