Oct 11, 2010 Ami Olson Uncategorized
The Onondaga County Ways and Means Committee had a $50 million gap to fill in the 2011 county budget, but the solutions they’ve recommended to the full Legislature – representing more than 60 changes to County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s proposed budget – have been scrutinized for a lack of long-term foresight.
Mahoney’s $1.2 billion budget, released mid-September, represented a 2.7 percent property tax decrease and dropped the county tax levy $3 million.
When the Ways and Means committee, chaired by Casey Jordan, 14th-R, presented its list of proposed changes on Thursday Sept. 30, the committee recommended about $45 million in adjustments through a combination of funding cuts, eliminated positions, and controversial decisions like selling the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department’s helicopter.
But some – Mahoney and the sheriff’s department, for starters – have voiced concerns over how and where the committee found $45 million to slash from the budget, saying that the recommendations provide only quick fixes, at best, and at worst would jeopardize county residents’ safety.
Mahoney said the committee did manage to find $5 million in “real” savings, mostly by cutting funding to arts and cultural programs and events, like eliminating county funding to RedHouse.
“Those are things the community is going to have to debate and decide on,” Mahoney said.
The committee also recommended the county close Pratt’s Falls County Park and eliminate the four employee positions there, in the hopes that it would be taken over by the town of Pompey.
Jordan said the committee was also able to reduce the costs of employee benefits and pensions, thanks to early retirement of many employees.
But the rest of the cuts — “the vast majority,” said Mahoney — were the result of “gimmicks” and raiding savings accounts.
Roughly $12 million of the savings the committee found would be pulled from fund balances, Mahoney said.
“Even that’s bad, but at least it’s real money,” she said.
But Mahoney’s chief concern were the increases in estimated revenue from sales tax revenue, room occupancy taxes and other revenues, from Mahoney’s 1.1 percent to 3 percent.
“We put in a responsible amount of money that we think we’re going to get in sales tax … and they just simply said, ‘we think there’s going to be $5 million more,'” Mahoney said.
Jordan, though, said the increase is more realistic without being risky.
“Based on what’s happened in 2010, we felt 3 percent was certainly a very realistic number,” Jordan said. “They’re using what we think are unusually low or conservative estimates for certain numbers, and we think we’ve raised those numbers in accordance with what’s forecasted.”
He also pointed out that tourism is expected to pick up in 2011, citing the national women’s bowling tournament that is expected to bring 44,000 tourists and competitors to Onondaga County.
Mahoney’s not convinced.
“Onondaga County hasn’t done it this way. These are the kinds of things that they do in Albany and in Washington, and it causes trouble,” she said.
Two birds, one budget
Jordan admitted that while some of the committee’s suggestions are one-time fixes, it doesn’t mean they are short-term.
Selling the helicopter, for example, would be a one-time windfall but in coming years would eliminate the annual operating costs budgeted for the chopper, costs that are estimated to range from $700,000 a year to more than $1 million.
“It seems like it’s a very expensive tool that we have for not a great deal of usage, and I don’t know that at this point in time we can really afford it,” Jordan said.
He suggested the duties currently covered by the county helicopter could be picked up by Mercy Flight, an air ambulance helicopter that already takes 200 to 300 calls a year in Syracuse, and the state police.
But Sheriff Kevin Walsh, who has served as sheriff for 15 years, said that idea is ridiculous.
The state police helicopter in this region covers a 17-county area, Walsh said, and state police pilots are already spread too thin.
“Any thought that they’re going to increase staffing in Syracuse while they’re having trouble meeting staff needs elsewhere is just ludicrous,” Walsh said.
The helicopter isn’t the only hit the sheriff’s department would take if the Legislature adopted the committee’s recommendations. Ways and Means suggested a nearly 20- percent cut to the police budget, the half of the sheriff’s $60 million budget that is not allocated for the justice center.
That translates to eliminating 29 positions and zero new patrol cars; Walsh said the department receives an average of 22 new cars annually and had asked for 17 this year.
“That’s the budget that really impacts the safety of the community,” Walsh said. “This is the most devestating hit that has ever been taken against the police protection of this community. It will devastate our ability to provide a safe community.”
Next stop: the public
From here, the 2011 proposed county budget will go to a vote of the full Legislature at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 12, with one more stop one the way: the public hearing.
All county residents are encouraged to attend the public budget hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday Oct. 7 at the OnCenter ballroom. The hearing was originally set to be held in the Legislature’s chamber.
For more information and budget documents, visit ongov.net or cnylink.com.