For the second year in a row, the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Southern Saratoga have joined forces in co-hosting the annual State of The County address. This year’s speech took place on Thursday, April 19, at the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Springs, where County Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Wood delivered a stark but hopeful appraisal of the challenges facing the county.
“Saratoga County is the best county in the state of New York and quite possibly in the entire United States,” Wood said after he and chamber members heard some less than encouraging numbers about the county’s budget.
Of the many issues discussed, the Maplewood Manor nursing home’s operating costs to the county seemed to take center stage. But it wasn’t the only player.
2011 deals county a blow
County Administrator Spencer Hellwig recapped the 2011 budget, which was $294 million in January. Of that, $231 million was for general fund expenses and covered by state and federal revenues as well as taxes. The unappropriated fund balance at that time was $22.2 million.
Within a couple of months, though, the county’s net operating deficit had fallen to $5.2 million and the fund balance sat at $16.8 million due to unforeseen expenses, including those incurred at the county nursing home.
“We still do have, in spite of all this turmoil…the lowest property taxes in the state of New York of the 62 counties. In addition to the nursing home deficit, it was also projected a negative revenue bearings of $1.7 million in our 2011 state aid based on changes being implemented during the state budget cycle last year. That brought the projected fund balance number down to $11.7 million,” Hellwig said.
More bad news followed in the form of sales tax collections. They had been budgeted at $103 million, eight percent above the prior year total, but trended toward a “mere two percent increase” creating another “gaping hole” of $5.5 million that never materialized.
At that point, Hellwig pointed out, “If there was ever a time for Saratoga County of being pushed to the brink, this was it. And the phrase that ‘No news is good news’ took on new meaning.”
By June it became clear that the county’s troubles were perceived as unprecedented and a hiring freeze was put into effect with a projected savings of nearly $2 million. Surplus funding of $2.4 million was identified from three capital projects and returned to the general fund.
Late summer brought news that federal Medicaid revenue for Maplewood Manor was being rebased at a higher rate.
“Although this rebasing was insufficient, to make a significant dent in the multi-million dollar operating losses that Maplewood has been experiencing for the past eight years, it did allow us to take advantage of an intergovernmental transfer program that provided a net increase of $5.9 million in unanticipated revenue for the nursing home,” said Hellwig.
The expense requests totaled $327 million and the corresponding revenues totaled $295 million, resulting in a $32 million shortfall, in part because of state mandates.
“Even with the current property tax levy of $50.7 million we’re still $10 million short in covering those mandates,” he added.
Approximately $16.5 million was cut from many places, including defunding vacant positions and making cuts to funding to all outside organizations. The chamber was one of those groups.
In addition, the county did not garner the support of the state Legislature to sponsor home rule legislation required to affect an increase in the sales tax rate. The county had hoped to increase that by 1 percent to help with some of the shortfalls. Amendments were instead made to the tentative, budget including an increase to the property tax rate to $2.23 per $1,000 of assessed value, an 8-cent increase.
Infrastructure and road maintenance were among other programs cut by $3 million. Still, the county is operating at a less than desired fund balance of around $8 million. This could cause problems with cash flow and potentially harm the county’s high bond rating, according to Hellwig.
“As we go forward this year we’re doing so with our eyes wide open to the challenges we face. … But make no mistake about it, we are in for another difficult budget cycle this year and it will take a number of years and a number of painful decisions before we’re out of the woods,” he said.
Nursing home likely issue going forward
Wood, supervisor of the Town of Saratoga, then took to the podium and spoke of changes and modifications the county has made. He also talked about a trip by county officials to Albany to meet with legislators, where they were told that there is “not a lot of sympathy for Saratoga County.”
“Saratoga County is looked at as being a little better off than most of the other counties in the state and there’s probably some truth to that statement…we’re in a tough budget year and the prospects for next year are for more difficult times,” he said.
The county has begun holding community forums to serve as platforms for residents to voice their concerns and issues. In this effort, Wood himself as also set up a webpage at www.communicatingwiththechairman.com.
A new budget committee has been formed as well and is chaired by Law and Finance Committee Chairman and Town of Charlton Supervisor Alan Grattidge.
“As part of our ongoing efforts to analyze the cost drivers in our budget, the county has contracted with the firm of Harris Beech to do an in-depth study and investigation of all aspects of the operation of Maplewood Manor,” said Wood.
A review of options will then be conducted by the Public Health Committee and ultimately the full Board of Supervisors. A report by Harris Beech is expected by July or August, according to Wood.
It is project Maplewood Manor will operate at a $10 million deficit in 2012. Since 2004, the county general fund has lost over $41 million operating the nursing home.
“The magnitude of this loss is unsustainable and has nearly depleted the county fund balance,” said Wood.
Patient cost is said to be $330 per day. The county is reimbursed at a rate of $160 per day.
Looking to revenue generators, options for the landfill in Northumberland, which “has never seen a bag of trash,” according to Wood, are also being explored.
Wood added that the county has also been coordinating with GlobalFoundries to have an informational session in order to find out more about what that major Malta player is doing.
“We are experiencing some tough times but I know tough times never last, tough people do,” said Wood.