Chautauqua County farmers know the perfect time to plant their crops.
All they have to do is look for the surest sign that spring has finally sprung: County Executive Greg Edwards again calling on the state Legislature to approve a sales tax increase to help close the county's annual budget deficit.
Chautauqua County lawmakers plant the seeds for this process every October by approving budgets with structural deficits. Balancing the budget with use of a leftover fund balance or with one-time revenues like federal stimulus money doesn't eliminate the problem. The county simply spends more money year after year than it takes in.
And so sure enough, speaking to members of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce recently, Edwards detailed the $13 million to $14 million deficit the county faces in 2013. That brought us to the annual springtime talk about taking in more revenue by bumping up the sales tax.
But since we all know the state Senate simply is not entertaining legislation to allow sale tax increases, the only option for county officials to eliminate the structural budget deficit is to cut spending.
And, yes, there are ways to bring spending down.
To cite a few:
The Chautauqua County Home is projected to lose $3.7 million in 2012. The county is spending $1.6 million this year to prop the home up.
Don't forget about the similarly insolvent Chautauqua County Airport. The county's taxpayers made up for nearly $1 million in losses in 2011 and about $900,000 a year from 2006 to 2010. A task force has studied the airport and made recommendations to the county about turning the operation over to a private manager, but a decision has not been made.
Are there other services provided by county departments that should be privatized? It's a discussion worth having publicly.
Fireworks displays, concerts, brochures, billboards - all of which received funding in 2011 - are wonderful things for an area trying to grow its tourism industry. But while the toursim infrasture goes begging for funds, are those one-shot expenditures the best use of tourist dollars?
The legislature's directive to increase the number of welfare-to-work participants - thereby decreasing the number of people receiving public assistance - is a good first step. But more must be done to cut Social Services spending. Taking Medicaid out of the discussion, Social Services is the biggest expenditure in the county budget at $57.9 million, costing nearly twice the entire Sheriff's Department budget.
The toughest cost-saving measure will come in the form of people and paychecks. With contracts being negotiated for all but one of the county's labor units, now is the time keep those costs level for future years. The 1,000 members of the CSEA, for example, would have cost taxpayers an additional $2.7 million just in health insurance and pension costs with its last offer before breaking off contract negotiations. And that figure doesn't account for shift differential increases, paid time off that, for some union members, totals eight weeks or more, a no-layoff clause and requested pay increases.
While there are these and other ways to cut spending, nothing will change for county taxpayers until county officials show the will.