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Jefferson County fund balance dips

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The amount of undesignated money that Jefferson County keeps in the bank dipped to $8.6 million at the end of 2011, from $11 million the year before, according to its auditors, who warned against further raids of the rainy day fund.

“Keep your eye on that,” Thomas P. Malecki, of Drescher & Malecki LLP, Cheektowaga, told the Board of Legislators at its monthly meeting on Tuesday. “If you use too much, you’re going to run out of fund balance for future uses if an emergency does come up.”

After a brief presentation, only one legislator asked a question of the auditors about their 78-page report. Legislator Michael J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent, asked where to find the breakdown of the fund balance in the document.

Pages 57 and 58 outline how much money the county has in its bank accounts. Its total fund balance — which includes money that it is legally obligated to pay out or money that has been set aside for certain projects — stands at $39.8 million, down from $41.4 million in 2010.

The fund balance is composed of $2 million in funds that cannot be spent in 2012; $3.2 million in funds restricted for spending this year by law or creditors; $5 million in funds promised to the assisted living facility in the county; $20.6 million in general funds that have been assigned for a specific purpose like workers’ compensation or welfare; and the $8.6 million in unassigned funds.

Unlike in years past, the discussion of the fund balance hardly caused a stir at the old courthouse on Arsenal Street. County government had come under criticism for keeping too much money stashed away. The county used an extra $1.5 million in extra fund-balance money toward the 2012 budget.

But Mr. Malecki advised against dipping into those funds again. The unassigned fund balance is just less than 5 percent of total spending. Five percent is the goal for a rainy day fund, Mr. Malecki said.

“I don’t think you want to use much of that unassigned fund balance going forward into the future,” Mr. Malecki said.

He said that the county spent $1.6 million more than it took in, which, given the size of the budget, wasn’t a reason for concern.

Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, said after the meeting that the declining fund balance will give pause to legislators and the administration as they put together the budget in the coming weeks and months.

“We’re going to have to be a little more cautious this year (in using fund balance) to balance the budget or reduce the property tax levy,” said Mr. Gray, the chairman of the Finance and Rules Committee.

The audit did criticize two deficiencies in the county’s operations, which the auditors did not discuss during their presentation.

Jefferson County’s information technology practices are lacking, the audit concluded. The county doesn’t have a “formalized set of IT policies and procedures,” it said, which “could expose the county to unwanted risks and malicious threats.”

In response, the county management told the auditors that the county is drafting improved IT policies.

The auditors also recommended that the county look into an upgrade of its financial accounting software, which is currently a patchwork of old technology. County management told the auditors that the county is “exploring the possibility.”

In other action Tuesday, the Board of Legislators approved Babette M. Hall, a 17-year veteran of county government, as the Democratic elections commissioner after Sean M. Hennessey stepped down this week. Patricia A. Shaughnessy will serve as deputy commissioner.

Mr. Hennessey has also resigned from the chairmanship of the Democratic Party. Ronald Cole, a former chairman and the current vice president, will serve as interim chairman until the party’s reorganizational meeting in September. Nancy D. Brown, the former Jefferson County treasurer, reiterated that she has a “small” interest in the position, but believes the committee should consider a wide variety of applicants.

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