By HEATHER NELLIS
FONDA -- Montgomery County Treasurer Shawn Bowerman's tentative $101 million budget for 2014 calls for a 2 percent tax levy hike, and the use of $2.2 million in reserves to keep services and staff in-tact.
The use of reserves to balance the budget is a repeated practice the county was criticized for in a recent audit by the state Comptroller's Office. It said the Board of Supervisors hasn't adopted realistic budgets that are structurally balanced the past three years.
Bowerman's budget calls for no different, though he did cut out the majority of departmental requests for new equipment and new personnel.
"With the way things are in the county right now, we're not able to have a balanced budget," he said Friday. "For what we currently offer, expenses exceed revenue."
He said the situation was created by a combination of factors rooted in the board's past use of reserves to decrease taxes.
It created a hole in the revenue, a hole that was magnified by the state-imposed tax cap, Bowerman said.
"It's something the board shouldn't have done in the past to appease individual municipalities because of assessments and equalization rates. If anything, they should have done 0 percent tax increases, because now we have to keep making up for that reduced revenue," Bowerman said.
Though the state said the board's effort to minimize property tax impacts was "laudable," it sets the county up for future problems when the reserves are no longer there.
If the board decides against using reserves in the 2014 budget, they'll either have to cut $2.2 million from the plan, override the cap to raise taxes by that amount, or a combination of both.
Bowerman fears the opposite will happen. He said the county's fund balance is currently $7.3 million.
"I don't think anyone will see a lot of docking to the budget until after the elections," he said. "And this board is never in favor of even going to a vote to override the tax cap. I fear the board may try to appease all the departments and use even more fund balance than the $2 million that's already in there."
Department heads' requests were approximately $1.5 million more than Bowerman's tentative plan, most of which he did not honor. His plan is about $550,000 more than the current budget.
Bowerman said the projected increase accounts for $200,000 toward Fulton-Montgomery Community College's upcoming capital projects, a $250,000 increase in mandated contributions toward Medicaid, and $100,000 in "nominal increases here and there," including several vehicles requested by the sheriff's office and social services department.
Board Chairman and Root Supervisor John Thayer, a candidate for District 3 legislator, said he thinks this year's budget season will be business as usual, but seemed pleased with Bowerman's plan.
"I don't think it's going to be any different than past years," he said. "I will say any time we stay below the 2 percent tax cap it's a good thing. I think he used a little more fund balance than I would have liked, but if that's all we use this year, I'd be happy."
Amsterdam 1st Ward Supervisor Vito "Butch" Greco was more optimistic things could be different during this year's budget development.
"I think it's imperative that this body -- the end of the Board of Supervisors -- make a realistic budget, and cut the bull," said Greco, a candidate for District 8. "The new legislators need to come in with something realistic to work with. It won't be fair to the county executive either; whoever it is, he'll be the new budget officer."
A daily series of Finance Committee meetings have been scheduled next week so the committee can craft a response to Bowerman's proposal. It's due within 20 days of the document's release, which was Oct. 1.
Meetings have been scheduled at 4 p.m. in the supervisors chambers Monday through Thursday.