Schoharie County budget in crisis


By Patsy Nicosia

Schoharie County’s finances—and future—are in crisis.
The 2019 tentative budget, put together and released by Administrator Steve Wilson Monday, adds $1.65 million to last year’s budget for a 7.89 percent increase in the property tax levy.
And 2020 looks even worse with what looks to be another $2 million and an additional 8-10 percent increase in taxes.
For 2019, Mr. Wilson is proposing a $90.9 million budget, a figure that includes $1.9 million in spending to refinance streambank debt ($819,095), getting the jail off the ground ($940,383), and increased Indigent Legal Services costs ($285,533) mandated by the state.
The budget also adds about $160,000 for three priorities identified by supervisors: Economic development ($20,000), additional EMTs ($136,335), and employee engagement ($3, 000)—“good-faith awards” as the CSEA approaches another year without a contract.
Additionally, the budget calls for an additional $446, 852 for things like computer upgrades.
The tentative budget does predict an increase of $1 million in sales tax revenues but as proposed, it still needs $2 million from the fund balance to work.
Without that, the tax levy increase would be 17.47 percent.
Mr. Wilson’s proposal trims $1 million from department heads requests. With them, he said, the 2019 property tax increase would have topped 20 percent.
But even at 7.89 percent--an increase that far exceeds the tax cap, the increase “will most likely hinder economic development effort,” Mr. Wilson said. “If the economy continues in its current state, we will not be able to afford the current level of county government.”
Two things not included in the budget: Any increases in spending on health care—Mr. Wilson said those figures aren’t yet available--or salary increases for CSEA employees since there’s no new contract.
In one of the budget add-ons Mr. Wilson suggests supervisors consider, a very rough estimate puts additional health care costs at $850,000—a figure that would add 3.34 percent to the property tax increase, bringing it up to 11.84 percent.
The second, again a very rough two percent salary increase, would add $332,000 for another 9.45 percent increase.
If both those options are added to the budget, the tax levy increase would be more than 20 percent.
There’s a final add-on that Mr. Wilson also believes is essential for supervisors to consider as the county begins its “second recovery” from the devastation of Hurricane Irene, “when we wean ourselves from the assistance of others and build a new economy where we leverage our own competitive economic advantages…”
He is suggesting the county uses the $5 million it has left from the last streambank Bond Anticipation Note along with an additional $2.9 million from the fund balance to pay off the first $8.5 million BAN, a move than will save 10 years of interest over the life of the BAN for a total of $1.3 million, lower total appropriations to $89 million, and increase the property tax levy by 3.24 percent instead of the baseline 7.89 percent figure.
It doesn’t, however, include the health care or salary add-ons.
Growing the economy in crucial, Mr. Wilson said.
“Could we get the budget under the tax cap? Yes. But it would mean eliminating everything we’re doing on the economy, the five new EMTs, and assume no chances in health care and no new contract…Everything I’m presenting to supervisors is bare bones.
“This will mean two or three years of higher property tax increases before things straighten out, but if we do nothing about the economy, eventually we will have to shrink the size of our government. We can’t support county government on just property taxes…we have to get going now on building business.
“This isn’t a routine budget. Everyone needs to pay attention.”