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Orleans named one of best-run county governments

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 4 April 2014 at 12:00 am

Photo by Tom Rivers – This file photo shows the top of the Orleans County Courthouse, a building constructed in 1858 and the focal point of a historic district in Albion.

ALBION – A new report puts Orleans County near the top of the list for the best-run counties in the state.

The county has a low debt per capita, doesn’t overspend its budget, has a strong rating from Moody’s, and hasn’t neglected infrastructure maintenance, according to the study in the New York State Bar Association.

The study includes a new set of metrics for evaluating a county. James Coffey, Dr. Robert Christopherson and Patrick Bowen presented the results of their study in the winter issue of the New York State Bar Association’s Municipal Lawyer.

The authors urged municipal attorneys to weigh the factors in the report as they advise municipal boards. The authors say many elected officials don’t look at the long-term health of a government. That includes tackling needed infrastructure projects without taking on too much debt. That may mean raising taxes to maintain and improve the community, the authors said.

The report is critical of “those leaders who cut taxes irresponsibly while allowing the infrastructure of the community they represent to deteriorate.”

They argued that municipalities must be profitable, or they risk bankruptcy. Well-run governments also promote confidence in their communities, spurring investments in housing and businesses.

Orleans is the fourth-rated county in the report, with Herkimer the top-rated followed by Clinton and Seneca. Delaware rounds out the top five.

The five lowest of 62 counties ranked include Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, Westchester and Saratoga. Those counties have budgets where their revenue doesn’t cover expenditures. They also have high debt per capita, which results in a larger percentage of tax money going to interest payments rather than directly to services.

Orleans carries a per capita debt of $347 per person, compared to $1,286 in Westchester County and $3,026 in Nassau. Orleans, from 2008 to 2012, also underspent its revenues by 2.68 percent a year. Saratoga was over by 6.08 percent and Nassau went over by 13.28 percent.

“We’ve been conservatively run for a long time,” said Chuck Nesbitt, the county’s chief administrative officer.

The county’s budget for 2014 totals $79.8 million. That includes a first-time debt payment of $475,000 for an upgraded emergency communication system.

Nesbitt said the county is looking at other projects, including new roofs for the County Administration Building and Public Safety Building. It also has 68 bridges and about 500 culverts in its inventory.

The county has an A1 rating from Moody’s, which County Treasurer Susan Heard said, “is a great rating for a county our size.”

Moody’s gives the county a high rating partly because of a low debt burden and a stable tax base. Moody’s has recommended a larger fund balance for the county. Orleans has about $5 million in reserve funds, but Heard said county legislators have opted to not raise taxes to grow the reserve funds.

“It could be higher but the county has chosen to instead lower taxes,” she said.