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Jefferson County budget approved; dispatcher discussion to be revisited

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A majority of Jefferson County legislators voted Wednesday to hold the line on additional spending for 2014, over the objections of three who insisted that the county find money to hire three more 911 dispatchers.

The Board of Legislators approved a $242 million annual budget after an extended debate. Legislators Michael W. Behling, R-Adams; Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, and Michael F. Astafan, D-Carthage, were opposed. The plan as adopted only includes funding for one additional dispatcher, not to be hired until July. Fire and Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer had asked for three additional dispatchers, citing excess overtime and fatigue on his employees who have been trying to keep up with an increasing call volume at the center.

The board rejected a proposal by Mr. Behling to portion off small amounts from other departments to pay for three dispatchers. Only Mr. Ferris and Mr. Astafan supported his amendment.

Ennio J. Corsi, general counsel of Council 82, the parent union of the dispatchers local, came to the meeting from Albany to urge legislators to hire the three additional dispatchers. Approximately 10 dispatchers also attended, holding signs asking legislators to consider the three positions.

After legislators voted to approve the budget without the additional positions, senior dispatcher Gail M. Sovie said: “I believe we opened up some good and important dialogue and we’re absolutely going to take it in good faith that they will take this up for discussion. We hope they do consider our health and welfare as well as the safety of the general population because our concern is public safety first.”

Board members pledged to revisit the dispatcher issue at a later date.

The budget calls for the tax rate to rise 2.21 percent, from $6.43 per $1,000 of true value in 2013 to $6.58 per $1,000. The owner of a property with a true value of $100,000 will see a $15 tax increase.

The budget introduced at the end of October by 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 over this year’s levy.

At the same time, the budget called for overall spending to drop nearly $2 million from the $244 million 2013 budget. Disappointing revenues, stagnating sales tax returns and a dwindling fund balance all put pressure on legislators to pass a lean budget.

According to Mr. Hagemann’s budget, the tax rate would have risen 1.97 percent.

But after reviewing requests from department heads, legislators agreed to raised the levy by $116,625, bringing it to $50,382,269 — a mere $1,375 below the limit imposed by the state property tax cap.

Legislators increased the salaries of the two county election commissioners by $1,500 and the salaries of the two deputy election commissioners by $1,000.

They also recommended that an additional $75,000 be added to the County Highway Department for the completion of a culvert project and that an additional $9,500 be provided to the Office for Aging for office supplies and adult day care expenses.

Mr. Plummer was told that one additional dispatcher was all that the county could afford without overriding the property tax cap or dipping into reserve fund balance until some legislators began pressing board leadership to include the additional three positions in this year’s budget.

Also Tuesday, the board unanimously passed a resolution to demolish the building that once housed the Jefferson County Home for the Aged, also known as Whispering Pines. The facility closed in April and its contents were auctioned off in July. Diversified Construction Services Ltd., Syracuse, will take down the building at an estimated cost of $188,000 — $62,000 less than the $250,000 the county had budgeted for the operation.

Mr. Hagemann said that the county hopes to have the building down by the end of the year. The land upon which it sits eventually will be used by Jefferson Community College, according to Mr. Hagemann.

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