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St. Lawrence County rode budget seesaw in 2013

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County’s spending and revenue were roughly balanced for the past year despite wide budget variations in departments.

The county is $94,460 in the black for 2013, according to a report to legislators Monday by Treasurer Kevin M. Felt.

“I would call that uncannily accurate,” said Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction.

However, Public Health is reconciling its books after the closing of the Certified Home Health Agency and Long-Term Health Care Agency. The agencies reported uncollected revenues that officials believe are unrealistic.

“That may erode that $94,000,” said Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler. “The county’s financial health has deteriorated one more year. I think we are setting ourselves up for failure. I think the 2015 budget is going to be a challenge. We’re in for a lot of trouble.”

The county cannot cut money out of department budgets without corresponding reductions in staff and services and expect the fund balance to grow, Mr. MacKinnon said.

Among the budget’s major variations, the county clerk’s revenue was off by $223,000 even though money from the downstate dealer business was up $100,000. This led Mr. Morrill to wonder whether the staffing level was correct.

County Clerk Mary Lou Rupp said she warned legislators to expect a dip because of a down cycle in license renewals caused by the state’s switch from five- to eight-year intervals. Legislators increased her anticipated 2014 revenue.

“That was the legislators’ budget, not my budget,” she said. “I met my budget. As far as staff, we’re spot on right now.”

Sheriff’s office overtime was up $175,000 over the amount budgeted. This occurred primarily because the county jail’s inmate population averaged in the 160s, following the previous year’s 140s, Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said.

The only way to reduce overtime based on minimum staffing requirements at the jail would be to add officers, Sheriff Wells said. Overall, the department’s budget was down $148,000.

A vacation payout of $373,000 was off-budget because $250,000 earmarked for that was removed from contingency during talks. Budgeted revenue was down $200,000 in Community Services, although that is expected to improve this year as the agency is in full “walk-in” mode for clients, which could result in more billable hours.

Revenues for the Department of Social Services were down $3.6 million while costs diminished $3.1 million. Institutional and foster care placement costs were $1.6 million over budget.

Overall revenue declined $6.8 million, said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg.

“We need to look at how it happened so we can adjust it,” he said. “We really need to have an in-depth discussion on revenue.”

On the plus side, the county received several million dollars in state-tribal compact money, some of which was not budgeted.

It collected $650,000 from an increased sales tax that went into effect Dec. 1. The county spent $500,000 less than expected in health costs and $100,000 less in unemployment than it had budgeted.

“Those were the big things that hit the budget,” Mr. Felt said. “There’s some good things that happened. There’s some bad things that happened. Frankly, they kind of washed each other out.”

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