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A few words of caution for the new legislature

Saturday, September 21, 2013 - Updated: 4:08 AM

A draft state audit of Montgomery County's budget practices obtained by The Recorder this week contains some harsh criticism of the way officials have put together budgets in the past three years.

In a nutshell, the state comptroller's office said the board of supervisors has not adopted realistic spending plans that are structurally balanced.

Surprised? We're not, and the public shouldn't be, either.

During the past three years -- and, frankly, even before that -- the county budget process has been the same: Supervisors are presented with a worst-case-scenario plan that calls for massive deficits and huge tax increases. The elected officials all agree they need to "do something" but refuse to make real cuts or look at alternatives like consolidating operations with other municipalities. Then, at the year-end deadline the board simply uses a pile of reserves to balance the budget and then goes home.

It's an example of how dysfunctional Montgomery County's government has been. It's also further proof that voters made the right decision by overhauling the way things operate in Fonda.

The state audit backs up what supervisors have been warned of for quite some time. Continuing to use fund balance to fill budget gaps will eventually deplete the county's reserves and will force officials to make it up by increasing taxes or cutting expenses, which in turn means a loss of services.

State officials also rapped county officials for not looking at cash flow, blaming the treasurer for not providing the board with cash flow reports. Even worse, supervisors never asked for that information. It's an example of what happens when no one minds the store.

The county was also criticized for not planning for emergencies or unforeseen expenses, such as paying for heavy damage caused by recent flooding. That's because, auditors said, supervisors emptied contingency accounts by the end of each year because they never planned ahead.

It would be easy to say we told you so, but what's the point? The current board is out of a job Jan. 1, and we have little to no confidence that the supervisors will budget responsibly for next year. However, the draft audit should serve as a warning to the incoming legislature and county executive -- all of whom will be chosen in November.

It's no secret that public bodies at all levels are in a tight financial spot, and massive reform is needed from Washington to Albany to Fonda. Counties are strapped with paying for mandated programs and services that are no longer affordable.

But irresponsible budgeting and the shirking of responsibilities can put counties into a worse situation -- as highlighted in the draft audit -- and local governing bodies are bound by duty to ensure their budgets are sound. If that means unpopular cuts or alternatives like consolidation in order to keep one's head above water, then those avenues must be explored.

Voters should take that into consideration when they pick the county executive and legislature in November. The new elected officials will be walking in to a bad situation, but we're hopeful they'll be willing to do the job this current board has failed to do for so many years.


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