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St. Lawrence County trying to avoid layoffs

JOHNSON NEWSPAPERS
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CANTON — Faced with a projected budget deficit of $11 million to $14 million next year, St. Lawrence County legislators Monday scrutinized dozens of possible ways to reduce costs without having to lay off county employees.


Proposed cuts ranged from scaling back highway projects to reducing the size of the work force by leaving vacant several county jobs after people retire or resign, including two road patrol jobs in the sheriff's department.


The 21 outside agencies that receive county funding, such as public libaries, the county Chamber of Commerce and Cornell Cooperative Extension, could see their allocations drop by 10 percent to 20 percent.


"We've got some tough decisions to make if we want to hold firm to the idea of no layoffs," said Finance Committee Chairman Peter W. FitzRandolph, D-Canton. "I know a lot of people want to think things are going to get better. I don't I think they are going to get better. I think they are going to get worse."


The list of proposed cuts totaled $4,115,063 and was presented by County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire, who has been meeting with department heads and a panel of legislators over the past several weeks to identify places to save money. The panel also identified $472,123 in new revenue.


Several department heads proposed lowering their mileage costs by having their employees drive a county-owned vehicle rather than their own car when on county business, including social services staff and attorneys driving to court proceedings.


The Legislature's Finance Committee discussed the proposed cuts to 14 different county departments but took no action on measures included in a 10-page summary from the board's budget subcommittee.


"This budget is going to be a bear," Ms. St. Hilaire said. "The budget team has been meeting weekly and we'll be meeting daily starting next month. We have about five more small departments to review."


Proposed cuts included trimming $238,235 from the county Sheriff's Department, including the two road patrol jobs, and saving $135,000 in car purchases for 2011.


The job cuts drew opposition from Sheriff Kevin M. Wells, who said trimming deputy jobs would affect the county's Drug Task Force efforts because road patrol deputies are the "eyes and ears" for those investigating drug-related crimes.


"If I'm minus two deputies, there is going to be a trickle-down effect," the sheriff said. "We are already at a bare bones number. We are not seeing a decrease in calls and we haven't increased the number of road patrol deputies in 26 years."


A proposed $1,827,371 cut in the county Highway Department includes eliminating $600,000 worth of projects in 2011 and saving $450,000 by delaying roadside equipment purchases.


County Highway Superintendent William E. Dashnaw said trimming $80,000 in traffic safety maintenance would involve replacing road signs and striping less frequently.


Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-Hermon, said he was concerned about spending cuts that could jeopardize the safety of county residents.


"A lot of the cuts we're looking at are related to safety. It really bothers me that's one of the first places we look," Mr. Morrill said.


A few legislators questioned why the Social Services Department was able to identify only $49,000 worth of cuts in local spending from the $30 million it receives in county funding, a figure that has increased by about $4 million since 2008.


Ms. St. Hilaire said $22.4 million of local cost is for Medicaid expenses, which the county is required to provide for eligible residents.


"The problem is there is no way around it. Virtually all of the Social Service programs are mandated," Mr. FitzRandolph said.


The amount of cuts proposed by department are: Public Health, $236,731; Highway, $1,827,371; Governmental Services, $468,410; Community Services, $130,525; sheriff, $238,235; Probation, $216,040; Social Services, $49,000; Real Property, $64,045; Planning, $80,000; conflict defender, $12,000; district attorney, $11,373; public defender, $13,000; Office for the Aging, $166,934; Transportation Program, $6,839; 20 percent cut to outside agencies, $194,560 (10 percent would save $97,280).


The county also will save $400,000 next year as bonds for the courthouse are retired.

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