Press-Republican

November 23, 2012

County budget unlikely to change before vote

By JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Clinton County legislators have three weeks to make changes to the proposed 2013 budget, but nothing major is planned, despite some sharp dialogue at a recent meeting.

“I think for the most part, we are pretty satisfied and impressed with the work the county administrator and the department heads were able to accomplish in light of the tax cap and other issues surrounding it,” said County Finance Committee Chairwoman Sara Rowden (D-Area 4, Town of Plattsburgh).

County Administrator Michael Zurlo presented a budget that featured an increase in the tax levy of 1.9 percent, which is below the allowed state tax-cap limit of 3.2 percent.

The spending plan also features an increase in the composite tax rate of 6 cents, to $6.11 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The $155.9 million plan is about $1.8 million less than the 2012 budget.

The county benefited this year from hefty increases in sales-tax revenue, which is up more than $3 million, and the sale of home-health-care services to a private firm, which saved about $1.7 million.

The legislature will hold a public hearing on the budget on Wednesday, Dec. 5, and then vote on it at its meeting Wednesday, Dec. 12.

DAME MAKES WAVES

Rowden said she does not anticipate any major changes in the plan before the vote.

“I think our department heads have done a good job of making far-reaching decisions in the way they’ve run their departments over the years, and that really helps,” she said.

“They don’t come up with knee-jerk reactions. They think about the future and how things will be impacted.”

While the budget may be palatable to most legislators, not all is copacetic.

Legislator Mark Dame (R-Area 8, City and Town of Plattsburgh) spent about 20 minutes at the recent Finance Committee meeting going over many details of the budget, asking questions about the sheriff and health departments.

Dame, a city councilor from 1990 to 1993 who joined the legislature this year, was concerned that the budgets for both departments were up significantly. Zurlo explained that the rising costs were due mostly to salary and benefits for the staff in both departments, which are large.

Dame also wondered about a possible tax cut, since the county’s revenues are up and overall spending is down.

Zurlo said a tax cut this year would probably mean a double-digit tax-levy increase next year.

“It would be unwise because you won’t have that $1.7 million in savings (from the home-health-care sale), and you may not have the sales-tax increase again,” he said.

‘CAME TO CHANGE’

Dame’s persistence seemed to irritate some of his colleagues, who eventually spoke up.

“Do you think you are the only one who thinks that way?” Legislature Chairman Jimmy Langley (R-Area 7, Peru) asked.

“I’ve been doing this for 13 years — don’t come in here in one year and tell us how to do a budget.”

Legislator Robert Butler (R-Area 6, Saranac) joined Langley in admonishing Dame for his pesky budget interrogation.

“It’s the way you come across, Mark,” Butler said. “We’ve done this before; we know what to look at.”

Dame, who often argued vehemently with other councilors when he served on the City Council, seemed unfazed by the criticism.

“I didn’t come here to be status quo,” he said. “I came here to change things.”

QUALITY OF LIFE

Rowden said fresh perspectives, such as Dame’s, are good, but the legislature needs to keep its focus on serving the community.

“It’s about what kind of quality of life do you want? If you want quality of life, you have to spend some money sometimes,” she said.

“I don’t want to live in a community without a health department, I don’t want  to live in a community that is not safe, and I don’t want to live in a community that doesn’t have good roads. 

“If you have good quality of life, that is what will attract businesses to come here, and that is what will keep the tourists coming here.”

Email Joe LoTemplio: jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com