I returned to work this week after 12 weeks of maternity leave, and in yesterday morning’s news department meeting found myself more than a little confused as new stories have materialized and old ones advanced dramatically in the time I’ve been gone. No big surprise.
One story that’s been changing recently is the St. Lawrence County budgeting process. You may remember that back in May, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli issued an audit of the county pronouncing it to be “walking on a financial tightrope…without sufficient cash available for managing unforeseen events or closing budget shortfalls.” Yikes!
One of the ways the county looked to address its problems (a dwindling bank balance, rising costs, property taxes many feel are too high, etc.) was by increasing the sales tax, which has been the lowest in the state for some time. They got permission to do that in August. This, along with the resumption of a state gaming deal that should result in millions of dollars from the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, looked like it was pointing the county in the direction of fiscal good health.
So what’s with the budget now?
County legislators got the tentative budget from St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen St. Hillaire in October, and some changes have been made since then as the plan moved through the process. Everyone met again last night, and it does seem there are still a few issues, according to Watertown Daily Times reporting on the meeting.
First, revenue projections in several county departments are substantially off, most notably Social Services, which estimated it would receive $1 million more than is likely this year (some legislators say this isn’t that big a deal with respect to the whole $230 million budget.)
And second, many county legislators fear that if ongoing land claims negotiations with the Mohawks don’t pan out, the promised gaming compact funds — which have already been included in the 2014 budget — won’t appear.
I spoke with St. Hillaire about these issues. She told me neither issue is as big a deal as it might seem. First, while revenues for departments including Social Services aren’t going to be as high as anticipated, expenses aren’t either. St. Hilaire says the fiscal picture is actually pretty rosy: Along with a 15.3 percent tax decrease for property owners, the new budget puts $1.2 million back into the fund balance.
As for the Mohawk gaming compact money, St. Hilaire says the story’s a little more complicated: The money’s been tied up in negotiations for several years, and although it wasn’t coming to the county she says she was told to include it in the budget. The county did this for three years, and stopped this year. Since the state struck a deal with the tribe and some money ($1.8 million so far, more on the way) has started flowing in, she put it back in the budget. But, she says, there is an element of uncertainty: The state and the tribe are still negotiating, and while “we’re optimistic that negotiations will result in some agreement…if they fall apart obviously there’s a chance that those moneys will not come forward.”
The county’s sales tax increase required permission from the state, and in the tax-increase-unfriendly environment that has been Albany of late, that was a political toughie. North Country Senators Joe Griffo and Patty Ritchie supported the tax, on the condition that the county would cut property taxes and plan responsibly for the future. That support, Ritchie told David Sommerstein today, wasn’t given lightly:
“They’re the legislators that will have to vote on the budget, and so they’re the ones that are going to have to live with it,” Ritchie said. “But I carried the bill because of assurances and promises made by the board to do the right thing for the taxpayers.”
St. Hillaire says this budget “keeps its promise to the people of the county.”
So what’s next for the budget? A public hearing next Monday night, followed immediately by a vote. If eight of the county’s 15 legislators say yes, we’ll have a brand spanking new budget! We’ll keep you updated on what happens with that.