By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Niagara County Lawmakers pledged spending cuts will be made in the 2013 tentative budget, which was released Thursday.
The general spending plan, rolled out by County Manager Jeffrey Glatz and management and budget director Daniel Huntington, anticipates a 23-cent or 3 percent increase in the average property tax rate to finance all "vital services." It also calls for elimination of 35 full-time county jobs, most of which are already vacant.
The proposed $321.9 million spending plan shows a $5.4 million, or 1.7 percent, increase in year-over-year county spending.
Huntington asserted the budget is more accurately termed a $229 million county spending plan, showing a less-than-1 percent increase in county spending, after subtraction of big line items that the county has no control over.
$47.2 million is the county's mandated contribution to New York State Medicaid, and $45.9 million is the amount of sales tax that it will turn over to local cities and towns. Those sums are merely "in and out" of the budget, Huntington said.
The budget keeps the county within the state-mandated "tax cap," according to Glatz. Municipalities are encouraged to keep year-over-year increases in the tax levy — the total amount of money raised from property tax — to less than 2 percent, with exceptions for appropriations including judgments, increases in employee pension contributions and big, sudden changes in Payment In Lieu of Taxes income.
The loss of $2 million in PILOT money next year, after modification of a tax-relief agreement for Somerset Power Co., helps drive the county's "hard" tax cap up to 5.08 percent, Glatz said.
The 2013 tentative general tax levy, $74.4 million, is $2.6 million or 3.7 percent more than this year's levy. The increase exceeds the 2 percent cap that's been so well publicized by state officials, but it's under the hard cap, so the county legislature would not have to take special measures in order to enact the budget as proposed.
There will be changes — i.e. more spending cuts — before it's adopted anyway, legislative Majority Caucus Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, said Thursday. Legislators have until Dec. 18 to propose line item changes and put them up to a vote.
"We intend to work these next few to lower the tax burden," Updegrove said in a statement. "We will seek input from our department heads and work with them to achieve further reductions ... ."
All department heads were given 2013 spending reduction "targets," averaging 3 to 3.5 percent, this past April. Since then, Glatz said, they reviewed staffing and operations with an eye on how to hit the targets without eliminating services. In case the department heads budgeted line items too conservatively, Glatz said the countywide contingency fund, raised to cover unanticipated expenses, was increased by $100,000.
Of the $5.4 million increase in year-over-year spending, $3.4 million comes from mandated, or non-negotiable, appropriations: Medicaid, employee pension contributions, welfare/safety net programs, preschool special education.
Add in the $2 million Somerset Power PILOT loss and the impact was a nearly 5 percent increase in the tax levy. Getting it under 4 percent meant "cutting things that are not mandated," Glatz said.
The tentative budget calls for eliminating 35 full-time jobs, 4 part-time jobs and 1 seasonal position. Most of the posts are vacant, or will be by the end of this year, after the sale of the county's Certified Home Health Agency to Catholic Health, and privatization of medical and mental health services positions at the county jail.
Affected departments and job cut counts are: Public health, 18 1/2; sheriff's office/jail, 9; social services, 3; public works, 2; Office of Aging, 1 (2 part-time); road machinery, 1; refuse district, 1; sewer district, 1; and emergency management, 1/2.
With the eliminations, the full-time county workforce will be 1,393 people, 97 fewer FTEs than in 2010, according to the budget summary.
Even after job cuts, the county's employee pension contribution tab will rise by $1.3 million, or 10 percent, to $14.1 million. The state is charging municipalities an average 21 percent of employees' salaries, up from an average 19 percent this year, Huntington said.
The tentative budget shows no across-the-board salary increases for employees, and anticipates a less-than-1 percent increase in health insurance costs, to $26.2 million, for active and retired employees. The collective bargaining agreements of six unions, representing more than 1,200 county workers, expired last year.
While the budget demands a tax increase in the general fund, two of three special district tax levies would be cut: the water tax levy by 2.5 percent and the refuse tax levy by 10.5 percent. The sewer levy would increase by 1 percent.
Of the refuse levy, Huntington said he cut $90,000 in spending requested by currently suspended refuse district Director RIchard Pope, by bringing line item projections closer to what the district actually spent in 2009 through 2011.
On the revenue side of the budget, Huntington is projecting a 4 percent bump in sales tax receipts next year, to $61 million. He attributes the estimate to "normal" growth, fueled in large part by Canadian shoppers. As of October 2012, year-to-date receipts were about 4 percent higher than in January through October 2011, he said.
The budget also calls for using $11.4 million in county fund balances as revenue. The general fund balance, currently $27.3 million, would be drawn down by $9.4 million.
Other budget highlights include:
• A $10,000 allocation for the Niagara County Historical Society, "raised" by cutting funding for five other outside agencies — Cornell Cooperative Extension, NIOGA Library, Niagara Community Action Program Inc., the Niagara County Soil & Water District and Mercy Flight — by 1 percent of each of their 2012 grants. Glatz said NCHS asked for a funding line and the budget office was agreeable. "I think we're trying to be Niagara County-wide sensitive to those things that affect the county," he said.
• The appearance of a year-over-year, $1.7 million increase in Medicaid spending, offset by the state's phasing-in of a "hard cap" on local-share increases. The county's 2013 share will be larger because the state is taking 53 weekly payments instead of 52, Huntington said. On the bright side, the state's three-year plan to cap counties' share of annual Medicaid cost increases gets under way next year. The current 3 percent cap will be reduced to 2 percent, then 1 percent in 2014, and 0 percent in 2015. However much the county's Medicaid share is in 2015, that number is supposed to be "locked in" every year after that so counties aren't footing any more of the rising costs of Medicaid.