Northern New York Newspapers
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Mon., May. 4
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Figure it out

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Jefferson County legislators seem to have lost the ability to budget wisely.

On the one hand, they say they cannot afford to hire any new dispatchers for the Office of Fire & Emergency Management. But on the other hand, legislators can afford to budget at least $210,000 per year in overtime pay so current dispatchers can cover all shifts.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The $210,000 that the county may spend in 2014 for overtime costs for its dispatchers could easily cover the salaries and benefits of new staff members. Legislators must stop saying they can’t afford to hire new dispatchers. The money is obviously there; they merely have to make the proper budgeting decisions to free it up to take on additional personnel.

The Jefferson County Board of Legislators is slated to vote on its proposed 2014 budget tonight. Government revenues are being placed under greater strains all across the nation, and it’s no different at the county.

Legislators do not want to vote to override the state’s 2 percent property tax cap. And many also are reluctant to dip into the county’s fund balance as their auditors have advised against it because the fund is below the recommended level.

So board members find themselves in a sharp dilemma. Taxpayers are not in a position to shell out more money for higher property taxes. And the county must maintain a certain level of revenue in its fund balance in case it has a financial emergency on its hands.

But maintaining the status quo isn’t working. Dispatchers fret that they are becoming burned out by all the overtime they have to work, and two employees are now on sick leave. This will only become more stressful when the weather turns warmer and people want to start taking vacations.

The delay on the part of legislators to do anything about this situation is made worse by two factors. If there are any new hires, they wouldn’t be done until next July. And it takes six months to fully train a dispatcher, so any overtime savings wouldn’t occur until late next year or early the year after that.

So, hire someone right now — not in six months. The earlier a new dispatcher can provide relief on shifts, the sooner the county will see savings in overtime costs. And it would be worth the short-term investment in new personnel to dip into the fund balance for the coming year.

The Finance and Rules Committee recently voted to add to the 2014 budget a request to increase the salaries of two election commissioners by $1,500 each and two deputy election commissioners by $1,000 each. No, this $5,000 won’t cover the expenses of hiring new dispatchers.

But it shows that county officials must do a better job in prioritizing what’s vitally important and needs extra funding — and, frankly, election commissioners with higher salaries is not a priority. This is especially true after an election in which the commissioners misread city law, sent the wrong absentee ballots to applicants and were accused of mishandling the ballot in the town of Lyme.

Legislators can move funds around to make sure the Office of Fire & Emergency Management is properly staffed. The money is there; officials just have to be more creative in how it’s divvied up.

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