The Chemung County Legislature’s Budget Committee met on Monday night in what turned out to be an extremely informative meeting that touched on a number of important issues.
Even though the committee is only comprised of seven members (Chairperson Dave Manchester and Legs. Joe Brennan, Mark Margeson, John Burin, Marty Chalk, Bill McCarthy and Rodney Strange) all members of the Legislature are permitted to weigh in and ask questions along with other county officials and/or community members who are asked to provide additional information.
A full recording of last night’s meeting is embedded below:
Introduction of Megan Hill, Chemung County’s new Deputy Clerk
The meeting started with a brief introduction of Megan Hill who has finished orientation and begun working in a full time capacity as the Legislature’s Deputy Clerk. Hill, who grew up in Chemung County, has an impressive professional background and most recently served as the Residency Coordinator at Arnot Ogden Medical Center since 2010. We are very excited to welcome her on board!
Presentation by Chemung County Treasurer Jennifer Furman
Following Hill’s introduction Treasurer Furman gave an overview of the state of Chemung County’s Financials. Her report can be viewed from approximately 0:25 – 41:10 in the video.
Embedded below is a Memorandum Furman provided to the Legislature ahead of the meeting, the Power Point slides she used in her presentation and a table highlighting the major Chemung County funds.
I had three main take-aways from Furman’s presentation:
Chemung County had a fairly good financial year
According to the numbers we were presented along with the accompanying Memorandum, it appears finances overall in Chemung County were fairly good last year, helped in large part to an unanticipated growth of sales tax revenue of 6.8% ($57,180,048 in 2017 compared with $61,054,125 in 2018).
Treasurer Furman explained that even though we finished the year with a $252,000 deficit, the significant sales tax growth allowed Chemung County to provide additional money to the Chemung County Nursing Facility through an inter-governmental transfer (IGT) that secured a dollar-for-dollar match from the New York Department of Health (technically what is called a Medicaid Upper Payment Limit), as well as a renegotiated sales tax plan that provided more funds to all local municipalities except the City of Elmira.
However, at the meeting Budget Director Steve Hoover explained it is not clear Chemung County will see that type of spike in sales tax revenue again this year, as it was likely tied to the growth seen in many parts of the country from the income tax stimulus bill passed by the US Congress. The two excerpts below are from the narrative accompanying the 2019 Budget
Sales tax revenue was down approximately .39% in the first quarter of 2019, echoing Hoover’s projection for modest growth in this metric this year.
Chemung County is carrying a substantial amount of debt
During the presentation Treasurer Furman stated Chemung County is carrying roughly $47 million in debt, a number she says is somewhat higher than neighboring counties.
I am unclear how the $47 million figure comports with the $42 million dollar long term debt number shown in the Financial Summary (above) or page 106 of last year’s Comprehensive Annual report (image below and entire report found here) that seems to show a figure of $54 million in 2018 with an upward trajectory in terms of total debt. (The confusion is undoubtedly on my part as I begin to understand how this all fits together.)
However, regardless of precise figure, it is clear the county debt-load is something we all need to be very cognizant about as we will face several large infrastructure projects and other items in the coming years that will need to be financed.
Projected five year fund balance is…?
Along with debt, the other important metric we need to watch is the level of reserves (or fund balance) Chemung County is carrying. Chemung County’s reserves have fallen steeply over the past decade, and projections made by Hoover in the 2019 Budget predict a fall from where we are right now (somewhere around $22 million) to $7 million – or less – by 2023.
According to the 2019 Budget narrative, we are expected to spend $867,000 from our reserves this year just to cover anticipated expenses.
The long-standing rational in Chemung County has been that deficit spending was undertaken to hold the line on taxes. Protecting against tax increases is obviously a laudable goal, but it comes with attendant problems of shrinking reserves.
Legislator Marty Chalk asked Treasurer Furman and Budget Director Hoover at 32:15 in the video if they thought we should consider a tax increase for the first time in 14 years. They both declined to offer an opinion, but rather stated that we will need to wait to see what the County Executive proposes in the 2020 Budget.
Although Hoover is known to be very conservative in his predictions, many things we have seen so far this year suggest we are going to have a lot of expenses that have not yet been anticipated by or fully included in the five-year economic projections. With the added possibility of a stock market correction after a decade of growth, lawmakers and the public need to always be fully informed of our financial picture in order to make fiscally responsible spending decisions going forward.
Senior citizen tax exemption
The legislature discussed an amendment to the sliding scale partial tax exemption on real property for persons sixty-five years of age or over beginning at approximately 47:54 on the video.
People ages 65 and over are eligible for some property tax relief if they meet certain minimum income levels that have remained unchanged in Chemung County since 1998. This resolution raises the minimum income level from $13,500 & under to $16,500 & under for a 50% exemption to a maximum income level increased from $19,200 to $22,200 to receive a 20% exemption, numbers that have been in place in the City of Elmira for a number of years.
Deputy Chairperson John Burin strongly pressed Hoover for why economic impact data had not been provided prior to or at Monday’s meeting. It appears that information will be made available before the Full Legislature votes on this resolution next week.
Update on the litigation regarding the Legislative Attorney
Toward the end of the meeting Chairman Manchester addressed the ongoing litigation beginning at approximately 57:19 on the video wherein he provided a timeline of events as it is important to be factually accurate when discussing what has transpired.
The Legislature agreed that he should be the spokesperson for us regarding the litigation going forward, something that makes a lot of sense for everyone involved to avoid creating ambiguity or confusion within the public.
Live-streaming in Chemung County
Finally, we had a discussion about the issue of live-streaming public meetings beginning at approximately 1:04:30 in the video.
Many other counties provide live-streams and/or recordings of public meetings, and it is something that many people – including myself and County Executive Moss – ran on during our respective campaigns.
My understanding is that the County Executive’s Office has been looking into providing the service. However, at the meeting there was concern expressed about the cost of providing an official live-stream service.
To that end, last year Samantha Potter, the former communications director under Tom Santulli, live-streamed a number of legislative meetings and presentations to the official Chemung County Facebook Page. I recall appreciating it, not only when I couldn’t attend but also when I could go back to verify exactly what was said. To the best of my knowledge, Potter’s streams did not cost the county anything.
I have been attempting to fill the gap until we have something in place by live-streaming from my phone. It seems to be largely well received from what I can tell aside from occasional audio-visual problems. One question arose during the meeting about the ability for people to FOIL the recordings. Apparently the answer is no, but they are all publicly archived on the Chemung County Matters Facebook page and are free to be watched, embedded, linked etc. by anyone without my formal permission.
The idea for the county to record and post but not live-stream meetings is interesting, but I have to believe there is a way to accomplish both for a relatively low cost. I have probably spent a total of about $250 (upgraded data plan, tripod and small microphone that I don’t really use because it introduces other issues), and the quality is okay-ish. We can get this done cheaply if we want, something I would greatly like to see happen soon.