OTSEGO COUNTY BOARD, 5-6-20
NYSAC Expected We’ll Lose
Equivalent Of Twice Tax Levy
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Today started with bad news for Otsego County’s 14 representatives and ended with worse.
When the county board’s May meeting convened at 10 a.m. via Zoom, the county reps thought they were struggling with an $11 million deficit from coronavirus-related cuts. When it end, that had doubled to $22 million, double the county’s property tax levy.
To keep current levels of service, the property tax levy – and hence the tax rate – would have to be doubled.
The discussion was focusing on whether to freeze one promotion and two potential hires in the Department of Social Services when County Treasurer Allen Ruffles looked up from his cell phone.
“I just got the latest from NYSAC,” the state Association of Counties, he said.
It included a worst-case scenario, a 50 percent cut in sales and bed tax revenues, and reimbursements from the State of New York, amounting to $11 million. “It could be even worse,” said Ruffles, quoting the new report.
Add in a $9.7 million loss in sales tax and $1.5 million in bed tax revenue; that equals $22 million “if their scenario is right,” he said.
The report also said that New York counties depending on tourism, recreation and restaurants – like Otsego – are going to be hardest hit.
At that point, board chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, called a recess.
When the reps returned to their computer screens – the meeting was held via Zoom – the focus of the conversation had changed.
In addition to Social Service vacancies, the board had discussed: Should layoffs be done quickly, so those laid off could benefit from the $600 per week in “enhanced unemployment”? How could county employees eligible to retire after 20 years be enticed to do so? How to deal with the CSEA, the union?
After the recess, there was a new reality.
County Rep. Dan Wilber, R-Burlington, withdrew Resolution 162, halting work on the new fire training center. It was a favorite project, he said. County Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, another supporter, agreed this just isn’t the time.
The county board usually meets once a month, but Bliss scheduled another meeting for 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 20, to begin making the tough decisions, particularly about layoffs.
Personnel Director Penny Gentile reported she’d asked department heads to propose an A-list and B-list of layoffs, and that yielded 18-22 jobs that could be cut, most of them positions that are funded but unfilled. She agreed to email that list to all the reps.
“I think we will probably have to dig deeper,” she said.
Ruffles said he’s talk to county leaders across the state in the past few days, and “we’re already behind” on layoffs.
County administrators, executives or managers have been able to make cuts quickly; because of Otsego County’s structure – a committee system that makes decisions and passes them on to the full board monthly – it takes more time here, he said.
In his remarks early in the meeting, Ruffles reviewed numbers he’d developed, using the latest data, from 2018, showing – because of sales and bed tax paid largely by tourists – Otsego had the lowest county taxes in the state.
County taxes were $183 per capita, compared to $564 in Montgomery County to the north, and $652 in Schoharie to the east. “We rely very heavily on sales tax,” he said; it makes up 37 percent of county revenues.
Ruffles, who also chairs the county COVID-19 Task Force, said the county is required to make school districts “whole,” to make up for delinquent taxpayers. This morning, he’s issued $1.7 million in checks to school districts, after $6.5 million last week.
“Schools are passing budgets now. I’m hoping some schools will reduce their budgets,” he said. It was suggested that he meet the county’s school superintendents to express the county’s concern.
He reminded the county reps of Steve Jobs’ “30 percent rule.” Any organization does 30 percent of its functions well. “What can the county do well?” he asked. Perhaps the county should job out the rest – solid waste, for instance. (That raised the ghost of MOSA.)
Ruffles also suggested it’s time for a serious reorganization. His treasurer’s office, for instance, could take on additional functions, including personnel management perhaps.