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Lewis County legislators may seek input on bridging budget gap

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County legislators may seek public input on how to bridge a $5 million budget gap for 2012 while operating under tax cap restraints.

“It would be just to listen,” said Legislator Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen.

County lawmakers, at Mr. Fanning’s suggestion, recently discussed holding a few town hall meetings to explain the county’s budgetary situation and solicit advice on budget development. While all legislators expressed interest, no firm decision has been made.

Given the state’s 2 percent tax cap, the tax levy could be raised only by roughly $250,000, according to county calculations.

Meanwhile, County Manager David H. Pendergast has identified $4 million worth of known cost increases for next year, including $900,000 in payments to the state retirement system alone. County officials are also projecting increases for Medicaid, Social Security, debt service, contractual obligations and several other state-mandated programs.

The 2011 budget also appropriated $569,469 from the county fund balance to keep taxes down and $445,000 in one-time federal stimulus funds. So, assuming no fund balance usage, the budget gap would be more than $5 million. However, county officials have determined that an across-the-board cut of 19.6 percent would cover the $5 million gap. Mr. Pendergast acknowledged that small departments will be unable to slash that much, but he has asked department heads to prepare prospective budgets showing such a cut for informational purposes.

According to county officials, elimination of all non-mandated services — economic development zones, fire and building codes, human resources, junk yard review, planning and economic development, reforestation, tourism, trails, the Sheriff’s Department’s road and recreation patrols, Drug Abuse Resistance Education and youth programs, sending home health aid and hospice programs to Lewis County General Hospital and privatizing most Mental Health services would provide a net savings of $4.6 million. That figure factors in revenue that would be lost if all those programs were eliminated.

County officials are also researching if any cost reductions may be attained in state-mandated programs.

“It will probably be a mixture of some or all of these options,” Mr. Pendergast said.

County legislators have scheduled a committee-meeting-of-the-whole for 8:30 a.m. Aug. 29 to review departmental plans and further discuss this year’s budget development schedule.

Despite the sizable projected budget gap, Lewis County’s fiscal situation isn’t completely dire.

The county’s fund balance, essentially its savings account for unanticipated expenses, was estimated at $12.16 million at the end of last year. However, legislators on two occasions have lent a combined $5.8 million from that fund to the county-owned hospital to cover operating expenses.

The hospital is to pay the money back when it receives federal intergovernmental transfer funding, but there is no timetable for receipt of that funding, intended to partially reimburse health care facilities for losses incurred on Medicaid, uninsured and charity-care patients.

Legislators appear reluctant to heavily dip into the fund balance in anticipation of retirement costs and other mandated expenses continuing to escalate over the next few years.

The county also receives about $2.4 million annually from the Maple Ridge Wind Farm. However, legislators have expressed the desire to use most of that funding for specific projects, like a proposed new office building on outer Stowe Street, rather than dump it into the general fund.

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