State has set Franklin County up for problems

To the editor:

There has been much discussion in the past few years about the economic climate in Franklin County. The recent Report of Examination by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli defining Franklin County as under fiscal stress has been the cause of great concern for many county residents.

On the surface, many people’s reaction to the comptroller’s report was to blame Franklin County legislators for poor budget planning or excessive spending. If only that were true, then the solution would be far less daunting. More than 90 percent of the county budget is mandated spending; in other words, county legislators do not get to cut, trim or reduce them in any way. For example, health insurance costs for the county workforce, which rise in double digits every year – legislators, and therefore county taxpayers, are legally required to pay that expense. Contributions to the state pension fund have risen dramatically since 2007-08. This is a mandated cost; the comptroller’s office bills Franklin County (and other local governments) an amount of money to fund the state pension system. That money comes from local taxpayers, and the amount has risen dramatically during the worst fiscal crises since the Great Depression.

The state requires a certain level of staffing for various departments, and the legislators may not reduce that number, no matter how tight money is. There are mandates to provide legal assistance for those who cannot afford it. There are mandated costs for all types of social welfare programs at a time when the number of people who require that assistance a rising. The county legislators cannot and may not reduce the number who seek that assistance, nor may they reduce the cost to provide that assistance.

The possible closure of the Chateaugay Correctional Facility would result in a loss of nore than $7 million in payroll. That payroll is spent locally and generates a significant amount of revenue for funding county and local government services. If the state follows through with the plan to close it, in spite of a Herculean effort by county legislators and residents, New York state will have caused a reduction in municipal revenues while mandated expenses will still be rising.

Keep in mind that these rising mandated costs are happening at the same time as county sales tax revenues (the county’s largest source of revenue) are falling.

The legislators’ reliance on the fund balance to avoid raising the tax levy was a conscious and responsible decision. While having a larger fund balance may be the ideal, raising property taxes in this fiscal climate is not the best choice.

There are many challenges facing local government, and there are some exciting opportunities as well. It is essential that we look further into the root causes of the fiscal stress and not oversimplify the problem by blaming county legislators for problems created by New York state’s growing mandated costs.

Hugh Hill