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Lewis legislators get early budget look, eyeing $330,000 gap

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LOWVILLE — A Lewis County legislative committee on Thursday got an early look at next year’s budget picture, including a roughly $330,000 gap.

“This is an awesome start,” Ways and Means Committee member Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville, said during a presentation by County Treasurer Patricia L. O’Brien. “I’m really glad we’re starting in July.”

“It’s kind of depressing, but nice,” fellow committee member Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, said later in the meeting.

Mrs. O’Brien said she had sent a memo to department heads to help determine expected changes in the 2014 budget.

“It’s just based on people telling me off the cuff what they’re going to need,” she said.

Some departments had not gotten information back yet, so there could be additional proposed spending increases that were not factored into those projections, Mrs. O’Brien said.

The treasurer’s listing included a request from the Highway Department for an extra $220,000 to undertake work on bridges and hire extra part-time help to handle duties, like mowing, that the department is having a difficult time completing this year.

Mr. Hathway said that while that may be needed, he would like to see legislative committees review such requests for increases, then make a recommendation to the full board on how much of a hike is necessary.

The county also recently was asked to repay about $203,000 to the state for an overpayment in 2010 of federal salary sharing in the Mental Hygiene Department, Mrs. O’Brien said. While the error apparently occurred because a state policy change was never received by county officials, it appears that the funding still will need to be paid back. It is hoped it can be incorporated into the 2014 budget, she said.

Other of the roughly $1 million in projected additional expenses or lost revenues for 2014 include $180,000 to cover the cost of a court-ordered mental health patient, $170,000 more for salaries, $64,000 in payment-in-lieu-of-taxes reductions, $47,947 for Office for the Aging revenue reductions, $38,662 for Medicaid costs and $25,000 in reduced interest earnings.

Mrs. O’Brien also included $50,000 to cover the retainer of consultants, which was an unbudgeted expense this year. However, she said, it will be up to lawmakers to determine if such an item would be needed next year.

On the bright side, Mrs. O’Brien said she hoped that pension costs would stay relatively stable next year after several years of skyrocketing payments.

And the county is expected to see a $725,000 budgetary reduction stemming from this year’s transfer of certified home health and hospice programs, offsetting many of the expected increases, she said.

Committee members directed Mrs. O’Brien to ask department heads to put forward budget proposals that, aside from salaries, show no hike in spending from 2013.

Legislator Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen, said he would like to put forward a budget with no tax levy hike, but that would require lawmakers to find ways to cut into the budget gap.

When asked about the possibility of projecting higher sales tax revenues, Mrs. O’Brien said that while the county is on track to take in well over the $9.5 million budgeted, she prefers to retain a buffer in case that revenue source dips, as was the case during the past quarter in Jefferson County.

While state lawmakers have approved an increase in the local sales tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4 percent, legislators at Thursday’s meeting reiterated their desire to earmark that extra $600,000 toward the emergency radio upgrade and possible office building project.

County officials last August began budget deliberations with a projected $2 million gap.

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