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Tough budget work ahead for Jefferson County

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Jefferson County faces a $3 million shortage as it tries to balance the books and craft a 2014 budget.

“In total, it’s going to be a very challenging budget, but it’s a work in progress,” County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said. “We need to address a variety of reductions in revenue streams primarily coming through the state of New York.”

Sales tax revenues are down and the property tax cap has been lowered across the state, putting additional pressure on county officials, especially in a year with major spending proposals.

Costs associated with housing inmates in other counties because of Jefferson County jail crowding weigh on the books, as do major capital improvement plans, including a $15 million overhaul of the county’s aging public communications system and several proposed highway projects.

Those capital projects likely will prove to be contentious in light of the county’s financial standing, according to Board of Legislators Finance and Rules Committee Chairman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown.

Sales tax results for the third quarter should be released in the next two weeks, according to Mr. Gray.

Results from the second quarter were far less than stellar, with a 2 percent drop in sales tax revenue compared with the same period in 2012.

Mr. Gray predicted that any additional spending would have to be accompanied by a proposal to raise the tax levy.

In August, when budget issues began to loom, General Services Committee Chairman Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, argued that maintaining the county’s roads would save money in the long run and highlighted other options to fund the projects, including tapping into the county’s reserve fund.

But it’s not all bad news, according to Mr. Hagemann.

Pension contributions, which have increased by 4 to 5 percent a year over the past five years, have shown signs of slowing down, with no appreciable increase recorded this year, Mr. Hagemann said.

At the same time, Medicaid expenses have been frozen at their current levels, reducing some of the strain on the budget.

“That’s good news and very much appreciated,” Mr. Hagemann said. “Not having that would make it a lot more challenging than it is already.”

And the county will not be greatly harmed by the drop in the state’s property tax cap from 2 percent to 1.66 percent, according to Mr. Hagemann.

A variety of credits for payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements and other programs will give the county the ability to negotiate the cap, he said.

According to the 2013 adopted budget, more than 80 percent of the county’s property tax revenue is consumed by state-mandated programs, a formula that has become increasingly frustrating to county officials as they feel they are often forced to pay for programs without adequate support from the state.

“Mandates are increasing while the revenues for existing programs are decreasing,” Mr. Hagemann said.

The county will lose an estimated $235,000 in revenue this year as a result of changes primarily to funding of state programs, even though the county still will be required to offer those programs.

Budget workshops have been scheduled for Oct. 28, 29 and 30 in the Board of Legislators chambers on the second floor of the Historic County Courthouse, 195 Arsenal St. Those meetings will be open to the public, Mr. Hagemann said.

A public hearing on the tentative budget has been set for 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at the same location.

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