Comptroller: Franklin County is stressed out
Fiscally, Franklin County is the third-most-stressed municipality of any kind in New York, according to a study the state comptroller’s office released Tuesday.
It’s also the second-most stressed of the counties included in the report, following Monroe, of which Rochester is the county seat.
The study gave Franklin County a 67.5 percent fiscal stress score, making it one of six municipalities rated above 65 percent, high enough to be undergoing “significant stress,” according to the comptroller’s office. Monroe County topped the list with an 82.1 percent score, followed by the town of Ramapo in Rockland County, with 70.8 percent.
Six more municipalities with scores between 55 and 65 percent were labeled as having “moderate stress.” They includes Saratoga County (63.8 percent) and Albany County (57.9 percent).
The Adirondack town of Newcomb, at 47.5 percent, made a third list of municipalities “susceptible to fiscal stress,” meaning their scores were between 45 and 55 percent. Also in the North Country, this list included the St. Lawrence County towns of Clare and Clifton, and the Lewis county town of Lyonsdale.
The municipalities on these stress lists share common characteristics such as a low fund balance, a continued pattern of operating deficits and inadequate cash on hand to pay their bills, according to the comptroller’s office.
The study covered all the state’s towns and counties as well as 44 cities and 10 villages – those whose fiscal year ends on Dec. 31.
Its stress lists did not include 18 municipalities it said were “under review” because their information was being vetted: eight counties and eight towns, none in the North Country, as well as the cities of Glens Falls and Poughkeepsie.
There are also 124 municipalities that have not filed the required information with the state. In the North Country these included St. Lawrence County and several towns, none in the Tri-Lakes area: in Essex County, Chesterfield, Crown Point, Moriah, Ticonderoga and Willsboro; in Franklin County, Bombay and Malone; and in Hamilton County, Benson, Inlet and Morehouse.
Franklin County factors
Franklin County has to borrow money to pay some of its bills. In March, the county Board of Legislators gave the go-ahead to borrow $4 million short-term to cover its schools’ and villages’ unpaid taxes, plus $3.5 million long-term for a natural gas pipeline and road projects. Those bonds haven’t been issued yet, however, because the county is seeking a better deal from banks, Legislator Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, said Tuesday.
Maroun hadn’t seen the comptroller’s report yet when he talked to the Enterprise.
“I’m a little surprised because as of this minute, we are not actually in debt yet,” he said.
Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, said he was not surprised and expressed frustration that the comptroller’s report did not come with fiscal relief for stressed municipalities like his county.
“If the comptroller had been reading the newspapers up here the last two years, he could’ve saved himself a trip because we knew we were in a dire fiscal state,” Burpoe said. “I saw the comptroller’s letter, and it’s so authoritative, but there is no relief for any of these municipalities.”
Strained relations with the Akwesasne Mohawks are a unique fiscal stress driver for Franklin County. Both Maroun and Burpoe brought up disputed land claims on, or around – depending on one’s perspective – the Mohawk reservation. The county claims roughly $9 million in unpaid taxes on lands it says are not on the tax-exempt reservation but which residents say are. That complicated dispute is being negotiated, and Maroun said Gov. Andrew Cuomo is involved.
“I think we’re getting close to some kind of agreement,” Maroun said.
Burpoe said he asked the governor’s office, through the county attorney, to have the state pay the county the money it’s owed for the land claims and then continue negotiations with its own funds on the line. That hasn’t happened. He noted that the county is paying for police, social services, jail and other services for those people who aren’t paying taxes.
“We’ve been messing around with this for like 30 years,” Burpoe said.
On top of that, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino has withheld roughly $1.8 million in annual compact payments to the county for the last three years.
“Luckily we didn’t spend it, but we had it in our budget,” Maroun said. A deal recently struck between the governor and tribal leaders promises back payments, and “if that money comes in, we should be in fairly good stead,” Maroun said.
Both Burpoe and Maroun also pointed to ongoing subsidies of the Franklin County Nursing Home in Malone. Alice Hyde Medical Center is building a new section and plans to take over the nursing home next year – “not soon enough,” Burpoe said.
From the comptroller
The comptroller’s office began this municipal stress monitoring in 2012. It evaluates local governments on 23 financial and environmental indicators to come up with overall fiscal condition scores. Indicators include cash on hand and patterns of operating deficits, together with broader demographic information like population trends and tax assessment growth.
“The challenges facing local governments have reached a critical point, and these fiscal stress scores should serve as a wake-up call,” Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a press release. “Taxpayers, local officials and state policy makers need an objective analysis to help them understand the economic and budgetary challenges facing our communities. My office’s monitoring system was designed to do just that.
“I am confident this new early warning system will motivate elected leaders and their constituents to work together to help their municipality become more efficient, more creative, more forward-thinking and more effective with the resources that are available. It should also educate state leaders on the systemic challenges that our local communities are struggling to overcome.”
Although some, like Burpoe, say the comptroller’s office hasn’t done enough to help stressed municipalities, the comptroller’s office did announce some support. It released another report Tuesday on what drives fiscal stress and how municipalities can cope with it. The office also created a webpage for local officials with resources such as a self-assessment tool that will help them determine potential fiscal stress scores in future years. In addition, the office said, there are multi-year financial planning resources, capital planning templates, best-practice guides and information on how to register for training sessions.
DiNapoli’s staff also started a support program called Avoid Crisis Tomorrow with Fiscal Awareness Strategies Today (ACT FAST). If asked by a local government’s chief executive officer and its governing board, the comptroller’s office said it will “complete an accelerated risk assessment to determine what level of service would be most beneficial for that local government entity.”
For municipalities, according to the comptroller’s report announced Tuesday