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Budget talks end with overall increase

    WATKINS GLEN–The Schuyler County Legislature held a workshop on Wednesday, Nov. 30 for further review of the tentative 2012 county budget.  The budget was initially scheduled for a vote on Nov. 14, but was postponed at the request of Legislator Barbara Halpin.  At the workshop, Halpin proposed funding cuts to several departments and programs, some of which were adopted. However, an increase in the Sheriff's Department's cost to board females in other jails resulted in an overall increase to the 2012 budget of $19,905.
    The proposed cuts were spread out across many different departments within the county. The legislature had asked each of the department heads to be available to explain their respective budgets.  As the sheriff and the jail were major targets of Halpin's proposed cuts, Sheriff Bill Yessman was one of the first to speak to the legislature.  He explained that his department is “literally holding things together with tape.”  Any increases, he said, were necessary for his people and for the county, adding, “every department head in the county worked hard on this budget, there is no fat on this budget.” Halpin responded, “my responsibility is to sit down and go through every line in this budget in tough times.” “If you need the money I have no problem with that,” she concluded.
    Yessman thought “the proper way to have done this would be to have legislative sessions where we could talk about this.” Instead of what he perceived as “arbitrary” cuts. He addressed Halpin directly, “I wish you would have come and talked, we could have gone over each line,” he said, “my door is open.” Halpin bristled at the “arbitrary” characterization and Legislator Tom Gifford added that “we have a budget officer,” meaning county administrator Tim O'Hearn, “he does what you're talking about all year long. He meets with department heads all year long and prepares a budget that works.”  
    The legislator ultimately approved a $40,000 increase to the jail budget.  The Schuyler County Jail is not equipped to house females, forcing them to board them elsewhere.  In 2011 there was $20,000 budgeted for boarding females but an additional $50,000 was needed.  The tentative 2012 budget accounted for $30,000 to board females and the legislature approved an increase to the full $70,000 for the final budget.  Yessman explained that housing females in county would cost taxpayers more overall because of increased personnel and supply expenses.
    The board of elections was another department selected by Halpin for budget cuts.  Board of Elections Commissioner John Vona emphasized that “everything we do is mandated.”  Halpin clarified that her proposed cuts were determined by “looking at prior years expenditures. She said, “if there is a reason for going up, I need to know why.”  Vona explained that the increase was due to an increase in the number of elections in 2012, “we have to buy ballots for all these elections. If you don't want to buy ballots that's fine, but you can deal with it when someone goes to the federal government and says they were denied their right to vote.”
    The cuts that were made were mostly done with the acquiescence of department heads.  George Roets, the director of community service and public health, identified areas in his budget that could be trimmed without significantly impacting services. With his recommendation, the legislature voted to reduce the budgeted amounts for postage, copying, car operation and program supplies for the watershed and mental health departments.  Other departments saw similar decreases.
    A fair portion of Halpin's proposed cuts were either mandated or grant funded. Cutting the grant funded programs would have had no net effect on the budget as any extra revenue would have to be returned.  In those instances, Halpin withdrew her requested cuts. In other instances, her motions to approve cuts failed to reach a vote as they received no second from her fellow legislators. “The government can not fix all that is wrong with this county, this state or this county,” she said. Overall, the legislature approved roughly $20,000 in cuts along with the $40,000 increase.
    Chairman Dennis Fagan then took the opportunity to respond to comments that had been made by the public throughout the budgeting process.  He explained that Chemung County has been able to maintain their tax rate because the county's levy has increased by an average of 3.8 percent.  This increase was coupled with an increase in sales tax revenue and because of the vast difference in the size of the counties they are not conducive to comparison. He also said that, while he could “certainly relate” to a number of public comments, he did not “think that people commenting realized the extent that our hands are tied by state mandates.”
    “Until there is a crisis in Albany this won't change,” he added, “eventually we will see insolvency, communities will have to go bankrupt before there is any relief from Albany.”  Fagan concluded, “my job is walking a fine line between costs and services. We will continue trying to find that line and continue to sharpen our pencils.”
    The legislature is scheduled to vote on the final 2012 budget at the regular meeting to be held on Monday, Dec. 12.


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