The latest Franklin County disappointment

Several weeks ago, we learned that County Manager Thomas Leitz, is “miffed.” Now the Adirondack Daily Enterprise is reporting that Legislator Paul Maroun is “really disappointed, really disappointed.” Please let me explain why I share both of these strong sentiments.

In the last several months, we’ve been treated to two utterly damning Office of State Comptroller audits of the county’s finances.

The first, “Franklin County Fiscal Stress,” found that the county Legislature failed to adopt realistic and sustainable budgets, routinely drained reserves to finance operations, didn’t maintain adequate levels of surplus funds, and didn’t develop comprehensive, multiyear financial and capital plans. The audit concluded that “these declining trends could result in fiscal instability if allowed to continue” – an accounting euphemism for financial meltdown.

The second, “Reimbursement of Social Services Costs,” the one that miffed Mr. Leitz, stated that the Legislature failed to seek reimbursement on almost $458,000 of program expenditures to which it was entitled.

So, in rapid succession, we have separate OSC audits finding that Franklin County is unable to perform two of its most basic responsibilities: competent and prudent budgeting, and getting the most amounts allowable in order to keep the taxes on county residents as low as possible. Put another way, OSC has found that the county, in effect, drove us into the financial ditch, and then failed to claim some of the money needed to get us out.

But there’s more. The county Legislature’s response to the mess it created was to adopt a 2014 budget that breaks the state-imposed 2 percent property tax cap, by 5 percent. Bad timing. This year’s state budget contains a $1.5 billion property tax relief initiative that would provide an estimated 2.8 million homeowners a tax credit equal to the growth in the county’s property tax – but only if the county stayed within the 2 percent tax cap.

As a result, we’ll not only have to pay the extra 5 percent tax levy, but we’ll be further penalized by having to forego the tax credit. If the county had been following prudent budgeting and income collection practices over these many years, there would have been no need to break the cap, and, therefore, no loss of the rebate.

But wait. There’s even more. You may recall the $1.452 million the county paid in 2013 for the construction of a natural gas pipeline through the northern portion of the county.

(Most of this cost was to have been put “on the credit card” and repaid over several years at low interest rates, but the OSC audit found that the Legislature failed to realize that it didn’t own the infrastructure, and as anyone should know, you can’t borrow against what isn’t yours. Unable to finance the cost, the Legislature paid the entire $1.452 million in cash, thereby sinking the county’s 2014 budget and earning a failing financial grade from the OSC.)

I knew that our local legislators – Paul Maroun (Tupper Lake and Santa Clara) and former Legislator Tim Burpoe (Harrietstown and Franklin) – voted in favor of the gas project. But I always assumed they got their constituents something in return for their support, especially since a natural gas alternative to fuel oil and propane bestows an enormous economic windfall on the northern part of the county, and as Jim Ward, manager of the gas company, recently confirmed, extension of the gas line down here is, pardon the expression, a “pipe dream.”

Apparently we got nothing in return. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise recently reported that Mr. Maroun claimed that even though they knew it wouldn’t benefit their end of the county, he and Mr. Burpoe voted for the project because they thought it would “help convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to keep the Chateaugay Correctional facility open” by reducing the heating for that facility by about 50 percent. The Enterprise went on to quote Mr. Maroun as saying, “I am really disappointed, really disappointed the governor didn’t take that into consideration.” Another “pipe dream “

But not to worry. The Enterprise says Mr. Maroun would “like to get a railroad running again through his community.” He’s quoted as saying, “We’ve talked about using the rail line to ship gas into a compressed gas farm that would service Saranac Lake and Tupper. It’s being looked at.”

A train carrying a flammable cargo some 40 miles, transferring it to a “gas farm” and then loading it on a truck for delivery to your house. That deserves a lot of looking at, especially in terms of both cost and safety issues.

Mr. Maroun did tell the Enterprise, “A lot of people said we should have levied a utility tax on this so the taxpayers in the whole county wouldn’t have to pay for this if they weren’t using it.” Sounds like a no-brainer, especially since the spread between the cost of natural gas versus propane or fuel oil is sufficiently large that the imposition of a utility tax would still provide a huge economic benefit to northern Franklin gas customers.

This option was not adopted, and Mr. Maroun’s comments to the Enterprise offer no reason for its rejection.

It should go without saying that Franklin County legislators, including those from southern Franklin, have a duty to legislate wisely on behalf of the entire county. Indeed, I wholeheartedly support the gas pipeline project as an engine of economic development.

But the legislators also have a responsibility to represent the financial interests of their constituents. When it comes to the natural gas pipeline, the legislators apparently failed in the latter responsibility, even though the southern county towns would be contributing more than half of the money to provide the northern end with massive savings. Just as the OSC has found that they’ve failed by running the county into the financial ditch.

Perhaps you can understand why I, too, am both miffed and really, really disappointed.

Edward Murphy lives in Vermontville.