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Jefferson County administration unveils proposed 2014 budget

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Tonight, Jefferson County legislators will begin reviewing a budget that will raise property taxes while reducing overall spending during a difficult period for the county’s financial standing.

Legislators will work through a budget prepared by county administrators this week before voting to adopt a final version at a Finance and Rules Committee meeting Nov. 6.

A public hearing on the budget is set for Nov. 12.

In total, the budget would spend a little more than $242 million, a $1.8 million drop from the $244 million spending plan adopted for 2013.

County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III proposed increasing the tax levy — the amount to be raised by taxes — from $48,619,644 to $50,265,644, an increase of $1,646,000.

According to the proposed budget, the tax rate would rise 1.97 percent, going from $6.43 per $1,000 of true value in 2013 to $6.56 per $1,000. A property with a true value of $100,000 would see an increase in county taxes of $13 a year under the plan.

The budget attempts to address three significant challenges that have been introduced this year.

Revenues across several funds did not meet projections. In the case of the general fund, revenues were nearly $3 million off target. Mr. Hagemann attributed this shortfall to a multitude of changes to state and federal grant programs, including the replacement of annual program allocations with competitive grant programs and unilateral decisions to provide a smaller amount of annual support to certain activities.

At the same time, a lack in sales tax growth for the year, attributed to the effects of sequestration on the spending habits of Department of Defense employees and contractors working on Fort Drum, exerted additional pressure on the budget process.

Finally, concerns over the use of the fund balance, which can act as a pressure release valve or “rainy day fund,” have emerged, given the tight fiscal situation and the county’s long-standing policy of keeping at least $32 million in reserve to cover two months’ worth of expenditures.

The county now is at 63 percent of that reserve, according to Finance and Rules Committee Chairman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, who called the proposed budget one of the closest to being adopted “as is” that he has seen in his tenure on the board.

“This is the second cycle where we’re going to be spending fund balance to meet day-to-day operations,” Mr. Gray said. “We’re violating our own policy. We need to break that cycle.”

Board Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown, agreed with Mr. Gray, calling the budget “one of the toughest I’ve had to look at in my 14 years as a legislator.”

Beginning tonight, department heads and other agencies supported by the county will have an opportunity to appear before the board to comment on their individual spending plans or ask for more funding.

The proposed budget already reflects a $14.3 million reduction from initial department requests, according to Mr. Hagemann.

A spirited discussion is expected over the county’s highways, which some legislators have said need significant capital investment to prevent further deterioration.

The discussions will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the Board of Legislators Chambers on the second floor of the old County Courthouse, 195 Arsenal St.

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