The Oswego County Legislature passed the 2015 budget Thursday night, approving an almost $197 million spending plan with a 1.15 percent increase in property taxes — a far smaller hike than the legislature initially planned.
The county budget will be $196,850,567, which is $305,040 less than the 2014 budget and $700,000 less than the tentative budget for 2015.
The budget includes a tax levy of approximately $53.8 million with a tax rate of $7.49 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The levy in the draft budget released in October was $55.4 million and the rate was $7.72 per $1,000 of assessed value.
“I want to thank both caucuses. It wasn’t easy on either side of the aisle,” said Legislature Chairman Kevin Gardner, R-New Haven. “Nobody wants to increase taxes. It’s a lot of better than where we started.”
“Unfortunately it had to be a slight increase. It was a good budget. There’s some things we’re pretty proud of,” added Gardner.
“I’m never happy with any tax increase,” said Majority Leader Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal.
The budget passed without support from the Democratic legislators.
“I’ll be voting no on this budget,” said Minority Leader Michael Kunzwiler, D-Oswego, adding that many of his ideas for cutting the budget were rejected.
“There’s too many unknowns in this budget. It’s projected revenue we don’t know we have. I hope they’re right,” said Kunzwiler, referring to the idea that revenue from the nuclear plants could fluctuate due to ongoing litigation.
Members of the public expressed their concerns to the legislature regarding the budget in a hearing prior to the vote.
“I want to say that we in the libraries have a passion for teaching and service. Most of our salaries are below poverty level. We can’t cut anything. The expenses keep climbing. I’d like to encourage you to visits your libraries. See where your money is going,” said Beth Ripka.
Ed Taverni, a former teacher, was not happy with the way he has seen the county develop since moving here in 1977.
“Year after year services are taken away,” Taverni said. “I see our roads and public health getting worse. It’s putting everybody in a terrible situation,” said Taverni.
Wilbur said one of the merits of next year’s budget was that it did not rely significantly on the fund balance.
“We have a plan where we’re not relying on that. In next year’s budget it will be even less,” said Wilbur.
According to Church, the fund balance will be approximately $20 million, or equal to 10 percent of the budget, which could be put toward infrastructure projects and emergencies.
One of the primary concerns with the budget was the ongoing tax litigation with the nuclear plants. Payment in lieu of tax (PILOT) agreements with both the Entergy and Exelon nuclear plants have expired, placing both facilities back on the tax rolls.
The county is in litigation with both facilities, prompting an increase in legal fees in the county budget.
The county also budgeted an extra $400,000 for housing local jail inmates at jails in other counties due to overcrowding at the Oswego County Correctional Facility.
The final budget was also reduced by $700,000 in part due to a reduction in public assistance as a result of declining demand since August and new disability funds from the federal government, according to county officials.
Legislators also cut $109,000 budgeted for gas and oil to reflect the decrease in the price of gasoline.
Legislator Frank Castiglia, D-Fulton, made a motion to cut $33,500 of fringe benefits that the legislators receive including mileage reimbursement and Flexible Spending Account (FSA) that legislators receive to pay for minor medical expenses.
“There’s $48,000 worth of fringe services that should come out. What are we going to give up?” Castiglia asked.
Legislator Shawn Doyle, R-Pulaski, defended the mileage reimbursement saying that the county has been paying compensation to legislators since the 1840s.
“I don’t know any part-time job that gets $14,000 in benefits,” said Castiglia said of the FSA.
Doyle replied that since no more legislators are able to receive health insurance, “I think it’s fair the only remaining people that have it.”
The motion failed to pass the legislature, as did a motion to eliminate the FSAs.
Kunzwiler added that he suggested that the county study its airport and staff to look for areas to cut, while Legislator Amy Tresidder, D-Oswego, suggested the county look to downsize the legislature to save money.
Legislator Doug Malone, D-Oswego Town, made a motion to eliminate all unfilled positions.
“We hired 21 people. I was in the legislature the year we voted to layoff 80,” said Malone, whose motion failed.
Church explained that he doesn’t believe that there are a lot of open positions. He pointed out that some positions fall under state and federal mandates, such as correction officers.
“That’s not good management,” Church said, explaining that it doesn’t take into consideration the nature of the positions and the services that they provide to the public.
“We have a very deliberate process on every position on whether to refill a position or not,” Church added, explaining that when a position becomes vacant, it usually takes at least four months to fill.
According to Church, the county has saved $2.1 million in that fashion.