The 2014 Chautauqua County budget has much that is good, and plenty of reminders that there is still much work to be done next year.
County Executive Greg Edwards presented the Chautauqua County Legislature a $230.8 million 2014 budget proposal that came with a proposed tax levy increase of 3.4 percent from $62,135,666 to $64,263,004.
Legislators' first easy call was to recommend cutting $1,050,000 in IGT funding for the Chautauqua County Home. Legislators have also acknowledged that Edwards' decision to add money to Office for the Aging operations will save Medicaid dollars, but proposed cutting the increase this year from $500,000 to $250,000.
Taken together, legislators have recommended cuts that eliminate the need for $1.17 million in local spending, an amount that equals more than half of Edwards' proposed tax increase.
As a policy statement, Edwards and legislators are saying all the right things. The county needs to do what it can to keep taxes at least close to the same as in 2013. Roads and bridges need attention. A little more local spending can lead to major decreases in county Medicaid spending. One can even defend adding two probation officers, at a total cost of between $110,000 and $130,000, because it may take a bite out of the county's jail overcrowding problem and possibly make room for money-producing federal prisoners in the jail.
Legislators have recommended cutting $1,169,999 from the budget, a number that brings the tax levy increase to roughly $957.338, or 1.3 percent. With a little luck, however, taxpayers could be looking at either no tax increase or a tax cut.
The budget could have an even smaller tax increase if a way could be found to decrease the number of people in the Chautauqua County Jail so Sheriff Joseph Gerace can house more federal inmates in the facility. The county finished 2013 with an $860,000 deficit in jail revenue, and it would have been unwise to expect fewer people in the jail this year. So, Edwards had to include $860,000 in new spending for the jail in his 2014 budget - an expense that underscores the importance of finding reasonable alternatives to incarceration in the coming year. A task force is being formed, but its recommendations should come as quickly as possible.
Also, county officials must do all they can to limit wage and benefit increases to county employees. It is a fine line to walk, being fair with employees without driving costs up too much. The total cost of employee wages and benefits is $82,743,445, or roughly $18.4 million more than the entire proposed 2014 county property tax levy. Increases in wages and benefits are proposed to increase $883,587 in 2014, which means 92 percent of the $957,338 tax levy increase is for employee-related costs.
We all know such a course of constant escalation is unsustainable, especially with uncertainty over the future of NRG, the county's largest taxpayer.
The county must find ways to decrease such costs before they crowd out beneficial spending, such as money for the county's crumbling infrastructure or probation officers that could help with the jail overcrowding problem. These discussions in Mayville are evidence to voters that there are local decisions that can be made to save taxpayers money and provide important services.
We hope the voting taxpayer is paying attention.