By NICOLE ANTONUCCI
Recorder News Staff
FONDA -- Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort is proposing a $109 million budget for next year that uses less fund balance than the current budget, while increasing spending and taxes, and introducing a new fee.
Ossenfort presented the first draft of the budget Wednesday at the county courthouse. It is the first executive budget proposed since the county's government changed from a board of supervisors to a charter form of government in January.
"I wanted to take a collaborative approach to this budget, and that means a collaboration among key stakeholders," Ossenfort said. "What we did is shot down the middle and we tried to achieve our overall goals."
The budget reflects an increase from last year's spending plan by $7.75 million, using additional revenue projected by county departments, and revenue received through the dissolution of the Montgomery-Otsego-Schoharie Solid Waste Manage-ment Authority and the county's Health Trust.
The spending plan includes a $27,108,714 tax levy, a 2.98 percent increase from last year's levy of $16,367,462. It is below the county's calculated state-imposed property tax cap by .57 percent.
Ossenfort also factored in the state's new tax freeze plan -- a two-year plan that will reimburse homeowners and decreases local property taxes on primary residences. In order to meet eligibility requirements, the first year of the plan requires the levy to stay within the tax cap, while the second year requires the creation of an efficiency plan.
Ossenfort said during the past several years, the tax rate in the county has been unstable, with significant increases and decreases, something he hopes to address while in office.
"What I want to do is level this out over time and begin planning for the future," he said. "I think we can do a better job finding stability for people inside the county or taxpayers out there so they can have a more stable future."
At the same time, Ossenfort wants to minimize the county's reliance on fund balance, which was an issue cited by the state comptroller's office in an October 2013 audit of three county budgets.
Compared to the current year budget, Ossenfort is proposing to reduce fund balance spending by $1.1 million, from $3.9 million to $2.8 million. While the county will still have to use the fund balance, Ossenfort said it is a start.
"We can cut our reliance on the fund balance and bring it down over the years to have a truly balanced budget," he said.
The additional $7.75 million in spending includes $2.9 million for solid waste operations and $550,000 for landfill post-closure operations but Ossenfort said they will be offset by revenues.
"It is a neutral line item," he said.
Other appropriations include $1.1 million for "one-shot" expenses, such as four sheriff patrol cars, Department of Public Works equipment, a handicap-accessible veterans van, community service work crew truck, and a capital project proposed by Fulton-Montgomery Community College. These projects are outlined in the county's first capital project plan, which is required by the charter.
Ossenfort said the one-shot expenses are a result of unanticipated revenues from the closing of MOSA, and dissolution of the Montgomery Count Health Trust.
"We are going to save a significant amount of money because we don't have to pay the interest for bonding on these projects," he said.
There are also increased appropriations for specific county departments, including $1.6 million for the Department of Social Services, $280,000 for the sheriff's office, $208,000 for the community development fund, $224,000 for the county road fund, and $680,000 in the road machinery fund.
While spending is on the rise, Ossenfort said it will be offset by approximately $81.9 million in revenues that are anticipated in addition to the tax levy. This represents a $7 million increase from last year's revenues.
For example, the sheriff's office proposed $304,000 in additional revenue, and DSS anticipates $1.98 million, which exceeds the spending increases for those departments, Ossenfort said.
There is also a $370,000 increase from a proposed vehicle use tax, which Ossenfort said is something that other counties use. Residents of several counties in the state must pay a vehicle use tax when they register a passenger vehicle or renew a passenger vehicle registration. It involves a $10 use fee for registrations on vehicles, and a $20 fee for commercial vehicles.
"You are going to see that increase in spending, but it's the shot in the arm that the county needs and it is coming from outside revenue sources," Ossenfort said.
The next step in the budget process is for the legislature to review the budget through public hearings. However, legislators indicated after the meeting that they don't foresee any major changes.
Legislature Chairman Thomas Quackenbush of District No. 2 said his major concern is the impact on the taxpayers, but since Ossenfort had the legislators involved from the beginning, many of their concerns have been addressed. He said he was pleased with the final product and would vote in favor of the budget as is.
"Looking at the budget process, we made a commitment to leave politics at the door, which is what we have done," Quackenbush said. "I think the people of this county want a budget process that is not battling back and forth. By having everyone involved from the start, makes for a smooth process."
District 5 Legislator Terry Bieniek said after the meeting that the budget touches on all the issues that the county faces, from individual departments to the county as a whole.
"The old board was a board of town supervisors, and while I am not saying anything bad against them, a lot of their interests were for their own towns. Now we have people who are interested in the county," Bieniek said. "We want the departments to come to us and talk to us. If you think you need another person in the department, tell us why. I think we need to know what they are thinking and we accomplished that. We want to make the county better. That is why we are here."