Every year, the supervisors are presented with a worst-case scenario budget that originally projects a massive tax increase, which is usually followed with another plan that calls for massive layoffs and cuts to programs and services. The supervisors then put on a performance about horrible the county's fiscal situation is and how sweeping changes are needed to keep the government afloat.
Then, they simply apply a bunch of fund balance to the budget to keep taxes artificially down, restore all cuts and move on. Jan. 1, 2014, which is when the new government takes over, can't come fast enough.
For 2013, the $92 million budget calls for the use of $1.59 million in fund balance, leaving the county with approximately $4 million to $4.5 million in reserves for the following year. The tentative spending plan's tax levy stands at $244,000 below the state-imposed cap, but tax increases are predicted in all towns except Canajoharie, as well as the city of Amsterdam. St. Johnsville is in line to be hit the hardest.
We understand that unfunded state mandates and employee contracts make it difficult to maintain municipal budgets at any level, but the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors' continued unwillingness to recognize that the way it used to be simply doesn't work now is a major reason why the operations in Fonda are an inefficient mess.
There's still time for the supervisors to go back to the budget and make the necessary adjustments to maintain a reasonable spending plan. Consolidation of services, eliminating waste, and finding new revenue streams should be what's studied and explored by lawmakers. No municipality can afford to operate in the same way that supposedly worked 10 or 20 years ago.
Continued reliance on reserves to balance budgets is short-sighted and bad fiscal management, as any expert in municipal government will tell you. It may keep taxes down and services intact for the current year, but what happens when that fund balance runs dry? It's also a way for supervisors to take the easy way out instead of making hard decisions that could be unpopular in the short-term but beneficial in the future.
A public hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 18, and the board is expected to adopt the budget afterward. The plan can still be amended before a final vote is taken, but we're not betting that the board of supervisors will do any additional work on the plan. Lawmakers haven't done it for years, and now that they're on their way out, there's no reason to believe they'll start making changes now.
Fortunately, the voters in the county have recognized the need for meaningful change, which is why they approved a plan Nov. 6 to run the government differently. We hope the new county executive and legislature will hear that message loud and clear when they take over.