On November 21st the County Executive’s $411.1 million budget was approved by the County Legislature’s budget committee including the controversial proposal to fill a $7+ million budget gap with a repeal of a decades-old tax exemption on residential energy use. The budget now heads to a public hearing on December 3rd and a vote by the full Legislature on December 5th.
Absent any amendments, county residents will be taxed next year on their consumption of electricity, fuel oil, natural gas, propane, steam, coal, gas and electric services as well as wood and wood products. The county tax will cost residents $3.75 for every $100 in energy costs. The county budget office predicts this will cost $95 per household. My calculations on my own 900-square-foot, oil-heated house resulted in a 2013 cost of $122.60.
Using the $95 per household figure the budget office predicts the tax will generate $7,897.29 in new revenues next year. By contract sales tax revenues are shared with local municipalities. Amenia will receive an additional $21,730, Washington $19,116, Stanford 18,728, Pleasant Valley $47,380 and the Village of Millbrook $18,728 in new revenues.
Had the State passed mandate relief repealing the exemption on home energy use would have been unnecessary, says the County Executive. Specifically he points to early intervention and pre-school special education programs that the State requires the county health department to deliver at a price tag of $7 million. The Legislature’s budget committee amended the budget to include a clause that when the State passes mandate relief that the Legislature will call a special meeting within 72 hours to reinstate the energy tax exemption.
My historical search of county records revealed that the last time county residents were taxed on their energy use was August 1981. In 1978 the County Legislature twice unanimously appealed to the State Legislature for the power to exempt home energy use from the sales tax citing that exempting energy use was both “desirable and in the best interests of the residents of the county.” If the budget remains unchanged, Dutchess County will now become the 19th county in the state to again tax home energy use.
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The County Legislature is now engaged in review of the 2014 county budget which will be adopted by committee on November 21st, and by the full legislature on December 5th.
The County Executive’s proposed $411.1 million budget is $2 million higher than last year’s $409 million spending plan, largely due to increases in jail housing out costs, pension costs and increases in unfunded mandates like Medicaid. While spending restraints naturally dominate budget hearings this year the central budgetary topic is revenue. For the past few years Dutchess County has faced shortages in revenue, in part due to economically-caused decreases in sales tax and partly due to legislative unwillingness to raise property taxes to meet budget needs. This has led to a tendency to rely on fund balance to meet budget shortfalls.
Over-reliance on fund balance has its risks as the bond rating is closely associated with the county’s financial reserve. This month the county was penalized as Moody’s Investor Service downgraded the county’s bond rating from Aa1 to Aa2, albeit at the same time upgrading our financial outlook from “negative” to “stable.” As bond ratings directly impact our interest rate on debts, it is of importance that the county actively restore its bond rating by building up its fund balance.
Last year County Government sought to increase the mortgage recording tax in an effort to bring in new revenue and avoid the need to take from the fund balance. We voted to increase the mortgage recording tax by 0.5 percent, but this tax increase needed approval from our state legislators. Unfortunately our state senators and members of assembly declined to sponsor the necessary legislation to permit Dutchess County to balance its budget with increased mortgage tax revenues.
The result is a 2013 budget shortfall of $4.5 million in mortgage tax revenue that did not materialize and an approximate $5 million in fund balance revenues that we cannot rely on to balance the 2014 County Budget. While legislators should and will look to cut spending, we simply cannot trim $9.5 million from the budget in one ...<< MORE >>
For the third consecutive year – and amid widespread county layoffs – the Public Defender’s office continues to swell with new hires. Recent years have seen: (1) the formation of a Family Court division in the Public Defender’s Office (now in phase two of staggered hires), (2) the creation of a shared services attorney position for purposes of legal conflicts with neighboring Ulster County, and (3) October’s Legislative decision to hire Arraignment Attorneys. The Public Defender’s Office is clearly defying the trend wherein other county departments are being asked to do with less.
To be fair, the new hires in the Public Defender’s office are almost entirely paid for (at least for now) – not by county tax dollars – but by grants received from the State’s Indigent Legal Services. ILS is in turn funded – not by state tax dollars – but by fees received in the course of practice of law. Public defenders are county employees admitted to the State Bar who provide legal representation to indigent persons in criminal and recently also matters of family law.
At our October meeting the Legislature received an update from the Public Defender on the effectiveness of the Family Court Unit. Due in part to the bad economy qualifying more people as poor, assigned counsel rates have skyrocketed in recent years. Readers will recall that two budget cycles ago the Legislature approved a plan to replace attorneys in private practice in family court proceedings with public defenders. While there have been some gains by employing public defenders, costs continue to rise. At our October meeting legislators approved an additional $525,000 for assigned attorneys because the 2013-budgeted sum had already run out.
Public Defender Tom Angel reported that the two Family Court Public Defenders hired last year have now handled 515 cases (as of September) which is 60 percent of the assigned counsel cases in one of the three family court judges’ courtrooms. This puts them well above their goal of 500 cases per year by year's end. Two additional Public Defenders were hired this fall. Even so, anticipated yearly savings is only about $500. Were it not ...<< MORE >>
In less than a month the county executive sends his 2014 spending plan to the county legislature for review and adoption. Through a series of town hall meetings the county executive has been reviewing the state of county finances and suggesting where his proposed budget might lead. As reported previously in this column, the situation is grim.
The modified 2013 county budget of $412.7 million had a revenue shortfalls for 2014 in the amount to $15.3 million due to anticipated revenue streams that did not materialize. If the final gap of $15.3 million was added to the current year’s property tax levy of $105.9 million the new levy would be $121.4 million for a tax levy increase of 14.4 %. It is important to realize that each 1% increase in property taxes amounts to a $1 million increase in the levy. With every $1 million increase, the average tax bill rises about $8.00.
The county executive’s presentations do not suggest that he will be proposing a sizeable tax increase, nor is there any indication that the legislature would vote to do so, but it suggests what might happen if control devices are not implemented.
The presentations suggest several possible ways to increase revenues to avoid the tax increase. The suggestions – none of which are actual proposals at this time – include repealing the sales tax exemption on residential energy. The NY State already imposes a sales tax on electricity and heating sources -- oil, gas, wood, etc. This is projected to produce $6 million in new annual revenues. The county could also seek to re-impose chargebacks to local municipalities for election costs or community college expenses for a possible new revenue stream of $14 million. The only other viable new revenue streams include raising fees on parks, bus fares, or vehicle registrations for an increase of about $2 million. While mentioned in the county executive’s presentation as options, these remain purely speculative until the actual budget is presented.
The ...<< MORE >>
The school year opened this year with an armed sheriff’s deputy patrolling school corridors in five of the county’s school districts. We call them School Resource Officers, a resurrected name for a program that once targeted teen-age substance abuse that was eliminated when federal grant money ran out. The present return of SROs is a reaction to the school violence incurred in Newtown, Conn., and before that in Columbine, CO. Five school districts have elected to participate including Pine Plains, Arlington, Wappinger, Dover and Pawling. Signed contracts assure SRO presence in these schools through the 2015-2016 school year.
Immediately after the tragedy in Connecticut school districts began meeting -- as they should -- to review security, and talk prevention. Superintendents convened in January asking County Executive Molinaro to restore SROs. Fast forward to the summer months when the Legislature was asked to ratify contracts between the county and participating school districts.
I voted YES for the SRO, as I think school boards are in touch with parents and I don’t think it’s my role to second-guess their prevention plan, but I did ask many probing questions at our legislative meetings as well as in the months preceding.
I remain concerned at the cost. I’ve been told that school districts will pay 10/12 of the SRO’s salary, and SROs would come from existing deputies meaning there is no increase to county cost. The flipside is that it means taxpayers will still feel the increase, just in their school taxes.
I’m also not convinced that putting a uniformed officer with a gun in the school buildings really amounts to a solution to the massacres experienced in Newtown or Columbine. The SRO model is intended to focus on prevention, education and intervention, but while law enforcement is trained to engage once criminal activity is underfoot I think that then it’s too late. If anything the events of Newtown and Columbine should tell us intervention needs to be earlier. We need to detect and address the root causes of youth disillusionment including mental distress and/or illness early on. We can’t just wait for it ...<< MORE >>
The waste-to-energy plant run by the public authority, Resource Recovery Agency, experienced a downfall this past June when its turbine went offline. The turbine produced income by generating electricity from the steam outputted by burning trash. The nearly three and a half months that the turbine was down resulted in loss of roughly $1 million in revenues. This caused trembles in Dutchess County government since by law RRA losses are met by taxpayer subsidies. In September gears once again began to turn at the Poughkeepsie Solid Waste Plant. The volunteer board members of the RRA (which includes three members from Millbrook) did a fine job in bringing the electrical generation back online while ably safeguarding the interests of taxpayers.
The turbine’s demise required a complete rebuilding. This delayed the replacement by approximately 14 weeks. The plant continued to receive and burn garbage at this time, only that the energy produced by the burning could no longer be captured and sold for a profit. Despite the losses, the RRA board was able to recoup its losses with insurance proceeds. How much of the insurance proceeds are shared with the site operator, Covanta, is still being negotiated, nevertheless the RRA Board Members are holding the line on the Net Service Fee. This means that they are looking out for the interests of the taxpayers so that the county share does not increase on account of the turbine malfunction.
The RRA board is also looking out for the county taxpayer in other ways. This August for the first time since the RRA board was created in 1984 the plant operator contract is up for renewal. More favorable terms are being looked at to reduce or eliminate altogether the taxpayer subsidy. Four proposals from prospective operators have been submitted. There is even an optimism that the negotiations might even result in a positive cash flow for the first time since the Clean Air Act bond improvements went into place in 1994.
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Dutchess County is quickly approaching its 300th anniversary of limited self-goverannce. Late next month the County will observe the tercentennial of when Great Britain first permitted its colonists living in the county of Dutchess the right to vote. The county has been celebrating these democratic roots all year-long based on legislation which I authored. Activity has been intensifying as the anniversary approaches.
In July, through an academic lecture we observed the 225th anniversary of New York’s ratification of the federal constitution which in 1778 took place in Poughkeepsie. That vote was the culmination of a spirited season of debate with Pleasant Valley’s Melancton Smith serving as the swing vote to allow the ratification to go forward. Smith’s compromise was premised on assurances that a Bill of Rights would later be added to the constitution, thereby making Dutchess County the birthplace of the constitutional protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The NY constitutional debates took place at the corner of Main and Market in Poughkeepsie at the courthouse, although the actual building no longer remains. The present building will be dedicated September 26th not to Smith, but to Lagrangeville resident Al Rosenblatt, a modern jurist who served as District Attorney from 1969-1975, Dutchess County Court judge until 1981, State Supreme Court Judge until 1987, Chief Administrative Law Judge and eventually associate justice of New York’s highest bench, the Court of Appeals until his retirement in 1998.
The week prior on September 20th, the adjacent County Office Building at 22 Market Street will be named in memory of Lucille Pattison, a Stanford resident who died last month. A county legislator and history teacher, Pattison was the first woman to serve as County Executive, a position she held from 1979 to 1991.
An equal tribute to William Steinhaus who served as County Executive from 1992-2012, and County Clerk from 1978-1992 is anticipated as the County reflects back on the men and women of government of the past three centuries who have made our county and our communities what it is today.
In August the sixth floor of ...<< MORE >>
Legislators received an update on the county’s finances at our August meeting. As we move into the budget season for 2014 the situation looks grim.
Despite sales tax revenue exceeding budget projections by $1.4million for a total of sales tax revenue of $134.5 million Dutchess County ended last year with $6.3 million in the hole. Loss of state and federal aid is partly to blame. The county received 13.5 million less in State Aid in 2013 from 2011 (but $1 million more than we received from the state in 2010), and $1.8 million less in federal aid than the previous year. However the greater issue appears to be spending. Losses resulted from more county resource being spent than was brought in on mass transportation (2012 loss of $1.7million) as well as the Dutchess County Airport (2012 loss of $185,704).
However the bulk of county resources were spent in seven cost areas. The county spent $45.2 million for employee pension & health insurance, $43.3 million on Medicaid, and $20 million on preschool education and early intervention programs. These are state mandated programs that afford us little wiggle room for budget cuts.
In 2012, the county spent $40.7 million on the sheriff and jail costs including $8 million for housing out inmates. We also spent $16.8 million on debt service for capital projects (more if the community college and airport are factored in). We also spent $12.3 million on public work projects. Lastly, $14.9 million of county funds were expended on Dutchess Community College. Absent new revenues the County will need to look to these final four areas to restore our budget to a state of balance.
During last year’s budget process county government took several steps to control spending and provide for new revenue with mixed results. We capped the sales tax revenues going to local municipalities thereby retaining more of the revenue for county use. The Department of Mental Hygiene which had appeared on last year’s high cost area list had its budget ravished almost to a point that the department is now unrecognizable. We also voted last year to adopt a ...<< MORE >>
The recent grand jury indictments against the current county Democratic Elections Commissioner (46 felony and 48 misdemeanor charges) and the immediate past Republican Elections Commissioner (one felony and two misdemeanors) is devastating to the public’s trust for election integrity. The election commissioners’ chief responsibility is safeguarding the election process. Yet if we believe the indictments, the converse is true. The charges are absentee ballot tampering and the altering of votes, both with the intended result of stealing elections. The indictments have now led to arraignments with trials soon to follow as our justice system performs its role. Even as the shadow hovers over voting integrity, it is important that that other venerable American principle be maintained: innocent until proven guilty.
Tthe present situation is an opportunity for meaningful reflection on the need for reform to our state election system. The indictments notwithstanding, New York State’s current model of bipartisan boards of election has consistently showed itself to be unworkable, duplicitous, highly expensive, and suggested by the present allegations, ripe for abuses. The logic that sought to safeguard elections by employing an equal number of Democrats and Republicans as staffers to serve as a check and balance to one another merely confuses justice with equality. It has politicized the election process. What is needed now is not party oversight, but voter oversight. It is beyond time that the State Legislature step in and reform the Boards of Election system.
Under the current model, election commissioners are chosen by their respective parties and then confirmed by county legislators. Once appointed the commissioners then hire political appointments as their staff, mostly from the ranks and leadership of the local party organization. Since political parties exist for the sole reason to elect candidates, can it be any wonder that corruption enters in and the ultimate goal of fair elections gets sidetracked by the zeal and gamesmanship of winning an election? The real reform needs to de-politicize the process.
Election Commissioners should not be chosen by party officials or by party conventions but determined directly by voters. This may eliminate the<< MORE >>
“Uncomfortable” is among the words to describe the atmosphere when representatives of Dutchess Community College came before the County Legislature in July to ask for acceptance of the college budget. The community college is almost universally praised for its academics and for the advancement opportunities it affords high-school graduates and adults, but in recent months eyebrows have been rising.
To be fair, some of the criticism is the result of rising tension between the college teacher’s union and the administration due to an expired contract and a breakdown in negotiations. Faculty have been attending legislative meetings in June and July to air their discontent during public comment. Compensation issues and disparities between full and part-time faculty exist. Larger controversies revolve around the dormitories that opened last August.
Questions have reached the ears of legislators regarding cost over-runs with the dorm’s construction as well as student misbehaviors. In February the college and the county were both named defendants in a notice of claim. While legislators questioned the college administration during our respective caucuses meetings, at the public sessions the legislative leadership shielded the college from questions related to the dorms.
The prevailing logic is a legalistic half-truth based on the claim that it is inappropriate for legislators to inquire about dorms since “the college” does not oversee them. The dorms are governed instead by the DCC Association, which is a not-for-profit corporation whose mission it is to supplement, enrich, and further the activities and services of the college as operated by the board of trustees. Led by the college president, vice-presidents and board of trustee members (alongside a handful of students and community members to make it appear independent) the DCC Association was created decades ago to run the for-profit campus entities like the bookstore, cafeteria and daycare (and now the dorms) that otherwise are unlawful for the college itself to operate. I have long claimed that it is a legal fiction to say the DCC Association and College are distinct, and have argued (as I did again this month) that the college is failing to maintain the necessary separation between the DCC Association and college to prevent would-be litigants from “piercing the corporate veil.” ...<< MORE >>