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Legislators fail to approve county budget

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 4 December 2013 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – County Legislator George Bower, right, states his objections to the budget. Legislator Don Allport, left, also opposed the $79.8 million spending plan.

ALBION – Orleans County legislators failed to approve a budget this morning that would raise taxes 5 percent and also fund a long-awaited upgrade to the emergency communications system.

Three legislators – Don Allport, George Bower and Henry Smith – all opposed the budget. Chairman David Callard and legislators Lynne Johnson and Bill Eick both supported it. Legislator Ken Rush was absent. The budget needs four votes to pass.

The Legislature has until Dec. 20 to approve a budget, or the tentative budget submitted by Chuck Nesbitt, the chief administrative officer, will take effect. Nesbitt submitted that budget to the Legislature on Nov. 13 after working with county officials since late summer on the document.

The impasse on the budget frustrated Callard, Eick and Johnson who demanded a rationale from the three legislators who opposed it. Callard said the three against the budget haven’t voiced concerns in recent months about the spending plan. He asked them to provide specific recommendations for cuts after they said the tax increase was too high.

“The government should be run like a business,” Allport responded.

He said some county positions should be made part-time. He said department heads should have been forced to reduce their budgets by 10 percent. The department heads should have been told to identify job cuts and other cost savings.

Callard said it’s up to legislators to make those decisions, not the department heads.

Allport said he would lay off workers in social services, who work with residents to access welfare.

“If people on welfare have to stand an extra hour or two in line that’s not my problem,” Allport said.

Callard said the county is mandated by the state government to provide programs, including social services. The county has eliminated 40 jobs in county government in recent years, including several positions in social services.

Allport as a legislator has the highway department as one of his committees. Callard asked Allport if he had recommendations for cuts in the highway department.

“No,” Allport said. “I’m told they’re understaffed.”

Allport faulted the state and federal governments for shifting costs to the local government, forcing the county to be “the evil people.”

Legislature Chairman David Callard voted for the budget, as did Lynne Johnson, in front, and Bill Eick. Henry Smith, back left, opposed the budget.

Smith said he couldn’t make any specific recommendations to cut the budget, but he said the county can’t simply blame the state for the tax increase.

“There has to be cuts made,” Smith said. “Although the state and federal governments push down to our level, we still have to respond.”

Callard pressed Smith by emphasizing the county has to provide mandated services and the radio upgrade is badly needed. That $7.1 million project will require a $475,000 debt payment for the first time in 2014.

“How do we respond?” Callard asked Smith. “What specifically would you recommend? We’ve had a year to work on the budget and now you vote against it.”

Bower said he opposed the process for putting together the budget. He said legislators seemed left out of the decision making. They used to work with department heads to shape the budget and that didn’t happen this year, Bower said.

He wanted reasons for the escalating costs of community college charge backs, which total nearly $2 million a year for Orleans, and Bower said he didn’t get answers.

He cast the lone nay vote last February when the county created a local development corporation to sell the nursing home. Bower said the Legislature should have handled that process, rather than handing off its responsibilities.

Bower has requested the bid proposals for the nursing home and has been denied those numbers. The LDC board has cited confidentiality of a real estate transaction for not making the proposals public. The board doesn’t want to see the price drop for the nursing home. The potential buyers could lower their offers if they see what the others have bid for the 120-bed Villages of Orleans, Nesbitt said.

Bower offered one specific cut. The Office for the Aging has two directors, he said, and one should go. The agency actually has a full-time director, Melissa Blanar. The past director, Pam Canham, has retired but she continues to work as a part-time assistant director. When Canham was full-time, Blanar was a full-time assistant director.

The county has reduced its staffing for the top two management positions, reducing a full-time position to part-time, Nesbitt said.

The Legislature has another meeting scheduled before Dec. 20. The Dec. 11 regular meeting is at 4:30 p.m. Legislator Ken Rush could be at the session and could cast a fourth vote for the budget to pass. Callard sets the agenda for the meetings and he could opt to not put the budget on the agenda. The tentative would automatically take effect.

The county had a public hearing on the budget Monday. Only one resident voiced a concern about the 5 percent increase. Paul Lauricella, vice chairman of the County Conservative Party, said the 5 percent tax increase is too high.

He attended this morning’s meeting, again opposing the tax increase. He was critical of the welfare programs that will increase county costs by $558,000 in 2014.

“Welfare dehumanizes people,” he said. “It puts people in a mindset of dependency. It’s destroying our country. Those that are capable of working should work.”

Callard responded: “Let the record show that I agree with Paul Lauricella.”

For more on the budget, click here to see an article from Monday’s public hearing.