As chair of the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee, my top priority is to lead the County’s budget process. The approved budget establishes the county’s agenda for the coming year — fiscal and otherwise. Thanks in part to a solid initial budget proposed by the administration and incredible support from our legislative staff, my colleagues and I delivered a finished product aligned with the needs of taxpayers.
The 2019 budget process was also full of surprises. County Executive Joanie Mahoney resigned. The legislature voted to appoint Chair Ryan McMahon to the post of county executive. A week later, Dave Knapp of LaFayette was elected chair and I was elected majority leader by my caucus. If you see me on the street, please don’t ask, “Who’s on first?” because I’m still not sure…
Here are a few things I am sure about: Since joining the legislature, I’ve watched Chairman McMahon grow as a leader, colleague and friend. I am very confident Ryan will do a great job in his new role, which includes a promising partnership with the Legislature.
As for County Executive Mahoney, she always did what she believed was best for our community. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes we didn’t — but I always respected her conviction for the beliefs she held. I wish Joanie all the best in this next phase of her career.
Getting back to the budget, the legislature established three goals for the initial budget presented by the Administration, which proposed a 1-penny rate reduction, use of $1.5 million of fund balance and a $30 increase to the annual sewer rate. The goals we set — and were accomplished — were as follows:
1. Eliminate the proposed use of fund balance. My colleagues and I made extensive budget cuts to eliminate the use of fund balance and create allowances for essential programs such as Air One, the Ag Council, veterans support, tick and Lyme disease management, pay-as-you-go road work, Drug Task Force, Cornell Cooperative Extension, homeless assistance programs, public safety programs and the Canton Woods Senior Center, in our own backyard.
2. Improve our cash position (liquidity). We extensively discussed and scrutinized county programs and initiatives requiring reimbursement from other entities, such as New York state. Our liquidity affects our ability to borrow and maintain one of the best bond ratings in New York. The result was a strong message that timely and efficient systems and processes for reimbursement are a priority going forward. Commitment to this objective will be critical as the county takes on $16 million in spending associated with new mandates for the incarceration of 16- and 17-year-old minors in 2019.
3. Reduce debt service. The legislature built on its custom of evaluating proposed capital projects for the coming year at the onset of the budget process. We also evaluated the effect of the proposed debt on future budgets and our ability to borrow. While about 75 percent of the total debt is mandated and associated with Onondaga Lake clean-up, our total debt is well below the allowable threshold and we are seeing a positive downward trend in borrowing.
We reduced the proposed sewer rate increase to $24.97 and adopted the increase for two highly strategic reasons. First, infrastructure across the county is aging and requires constant maintenance, if not replacement. The current sewer rate is lower than communities of comparable size and our system must be adequately funded to stay compliant with regulatory demands while protecting natural resources.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is to provide new infrastructure assistance and partnerships with local municipalities where all stakeholders, especially ratepayers, stand to benefit. I am particularly excited about our future commitment to towns and villages in this meaningful way.
Ultimately, my colleagues and I approved a budget featuring greatly refined structural spending, eliminated the use of fund balance and improved upon a historically low property tax rate and levy. There is also a new county executive and I look forward to what the future holds in this new chapter in county government.
Onondaga County Legislator Brian May represents the First District which includes the Town of Lysander and the western portion of the Town of Clay. He can be reached at 315-430-2070.