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We are in the middle of the budget process in Chemung County. County Executive Moss provided his proposed budget to the Legislature on November 12th. A copy of the budget is embedded below and can be found here.

The Legislature held four budget workshops during November. Chemung County Budget Director Steve Hoover led three discussions where he allowed for a very candid exchange in a question-and-answer format among himself and legislators as we attempted to learn more about what impacts the proposed budget would have on various sectors of our community as well as local government itself. The fourth workshop was an open discussion among legislators.

The first three workshops were live-streamed to the Chemung County Matters Facebook page, found here, where the videos remain embedded. I had to miss the final workshop due to a family obligation.

The Legislature’s Response

The Chemung County Charter requires the Legislature to provide a report back to the County Executive by November 25th with any recommended changes or amendments.

The document below constitutes the legislature’s report.

Of note, Exhibit “A” of the report, beginning at page 19, sets forth the Legislature’s budget recommendations.

John Burin, Vice Chairperson of the Legislature, did an outstanding job analyzing the budget and helping us brainstorm ways to possibly improve it. Drawing on his experience as the City of Elmira Manager at a time when Elmira faced extreme fiscal stress, Burin developed a proposal that calls for limited spending from reserves ($84,246) while accounting for additional mandates handed down from Albany this year.

An informal poll of the legislators has revealed unanimous support for the recommended changes. I embedded the recommended changes alone to make them easier to access.

An overview of the big take-aways from the budget process so far is set forth below.

Property Tax Increase

Chemung County has not had a property or sales tax increase in over fourteen years. In order to maintain fiscally viability, former administrations were forced to spend money out of our budget reserves almost each year (i.e. engage in deficit spending), forgo important infrastructure upgrades to buildings and roads, and enter into a new sales tax agreement in 2013 that stripped municipalities – including the city of Elmira – of vital revue.

The desire to structure past budgets in this way is certainly understandable. New York residents pay some of the highest taxes in the United States, and a disproportionate burden falls on rural, fiscally-strapped counties in upstate areas due to the huge amount of spending they are required to make for Medicaid services.

There appears to be consensus among the executive and legislative branches that we can no longer hold the line on taxes without doing a disservice to our residents. County Executive Moss’ budget calls for a 1% property tax increase, something that would generate $312,461 in additional revenue for Chemung County at a cost of seven cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value, or $7.00 for a person who owns a home valued at $100,000.

However, the proposed budget also calls for several measures on the expenditure side that legislators unanimously feel could be changed to create a stronger budget overall.

Specifically, the proposed budget calls for over $506,549 to be spent from Chemung County’s reserves next year. This represents a marked decrease from over $1,500,000 that was spent this year based on the 2019 budget, but is nonetheless concerning given Budget Director Hoover’s conservative predictions for the future of our fund balance.

In order to eliminate over $422,000 in reserve spending for 2020, the recommended budget changes from the Legislature call for an additional 1% property tax increase. In other words, the property tax rate would increase by 2%, adding a total of $624,922 in revenue while requiring property owners to pay an additional $14.00 on $100,000 assessed property.

The budget recommendations also call for an overall decrease in overtime for county departments by 5%, something that is estimated to generate roughly $80,000 in savings.

Increased Expenditures

Despite a unanimous desire to curb spending that is shared by the Legislature and County Executive, certain expenditures are out of our control based upon decisions made in Albany.

Most notably, Albany passed several criminal justice reforms that place huge burdens on local government but did not come with any state aid toward implementation. The Legislature feels it is prudent to budget $250,000 – a very conservative number compared to what other counties are estimating – to cover these costs, as well as $200,000 for the anticipated loss of state reimbursement to the Veteran’s Affairs Office.

Single rate salaries

Single rate employees are, in general, non-union workers in Chemung County who occupy many key leadership roles and are vital to the success of our local government. Although many employees are set to receive salary increases in the 3% range due to union contract negotiations, the proposed budget calls for single rate employees to only receive a 1% increase.

This might have been palatable, but at the same time healthcare costs and co-pays are rising in Chemung County such that a single rate employee receiving a 1% pay increase would have to make $65,000 just to break even.

In order to relieve these employees of the burden of escalating costs, the Legislature unanimously recommends single rate employees receive a 2% pay increase at a cost of $100,000 to Chemung County.

(It should be noted that my husband is a single rate employee. I disclosed this to the Chairperson of the Legislature and Attorney to the Legislature, and was assured it was not a conflict for me to comment on this aspect of the budget or vote on our recommendations. My views are not grounded in what the increase would do for our family, but rather fairness to the single rate employees in general.)

Organizational Funding

The Legislature recommends an additional spending of roughly $57,000 to fund certain important projects, akin to grants.

Sales tax revenue

To balance the proposed recommendations, the Legislature unanimously agrees we should adjust the expectation of the amount of total sales tax revenue Chemung County will expectation up by $638,565. This figure is admittedly speculative, but Chemung County budgets have historically underestimated this figure significantly, and trends across New York suggest this estimate is reasonable.

The Chemung County Nursing Facility

Finally, a discussion of the future of the Chemung County Nursing Facility has been delayed – for now. The proposed budget does not include funding for an intergovernmetal transfer (IGT), a fancy way of accounting that is critical for the Nursing Facility’s long term viability.

Instead, there appears to be consensus that a consultant should be hired to examine the facility and answer a lot of questions about its fiscal health.

Funding for an IGT can be made in 2020, though it will result in a shortfall as it has not been budegted.

What comes next

The remaining important dates in the budget process are as follows:

  • Tonight: Legislative Standing Committee meetings followed immediately by a Special Budget meeting. The Standing Committee meetings begin at 7:00.
  • December 7th: The date by which the charter requires the Legislature to vote on the budget.
  • December 9th: The date by which the charter requires the County Executive to veto the budget passed by the legislature.

–Christina Sonsire