This post was published in the Elmira Star Gazette on November 26, 2017:
As Tip O’Neill famously quipped, “all politics is local.”
Although much of the focus over the past year has been on what is happening nationally, there are pressing matters at home that also demand our attention. One of those is Chemung County’s fiscal health, and last week’s workshop on the proposed 2018 County Budget revealed just how serious the situation has become.
According to County Executive Tom Santulli – who presents a fairly rosy picture of Chemung County’s economy in his written narrative that accompanies the proposed budget – 2018 is projected to be the 13th consecutive year that the county has been able to either lower or maintain the tax rate for its residents. Not raising taxes is something that pleases nearly everyone. However, it comes with a steep price that ultimately must be paid.
And this is precisely where the problem lies.
During the workshop, Chemung County Budget Director Steve Hoover took a far less optimistic approach, describing our county’s economic situation as “alarming” based on several specific metrics.
First, he pointed out that Chemung County’s reserves decreased from $30 million in 2011 to a projected level of just $19 million in 2018, and are expected to drop below $10 million by 2021 if no changes are made to the way our county does business. Reserves of less than $10 million could threaten Chemung County’s bond rating, making it harder and more expensive for the county to borrow money. The decrease in reserves stems from an average yearly budget deficit of approximately $2 million that started in 2011.
Second, Hoover explained that Chemung County’s debt has risen by 25%, from roughly $40 million in 1999 to over $50 million in 2017, as its expenditures have far outpaced revenues year after year after year.
Dwindling reserves along with a ballooning debt is unquestionably cause for very serious concern.
Although the answer as to why Chemung County finds itself in this precarious economic situation is complex – as the combination of factors that came together to boost our reserves in 2011 turned out to be short-lived, and directives from Albany limit the amount of discretion local lawmakers have over how to spend our money – we must squarely address it now, and try to figure out how we are going to change course while we still have the chance.
What we cannot do is pretend these issues do not exist. Touting 13 years without a tax rate increase makes for a good sound bite, but it ignores the reality that we have been spending above our means for many years. How does our county government intend to move away from deficit spending? What steps are being taken to strengthen our reserves and lower our debt? Chemung County clearly has serious problems that need to be addressed. It’s about time we, as a community, start talking about them.