Reflecting optimism and effective management of county finances, County Executive Steve McLaughlin presented the 2020 budget proposal to members of the County Legislature on Friday.
The proposed 2020 budget totals $353 million and includes a slight decrease in the average county property tax rate, the second consecutive county budget to carry a modest tax rate reduction. The spending plan is McLaughlin’s second as County Executive, following his election in 2017.
Rensselaer County is in select company as the 2020 budget proposal is the ninth consecutive county budget to remain under the state tax cap. The county has been under the state tax cap every year since the cap was implemented.
The 2020 budget as presented will help the county maintain a solid fiscal position and provide for effective delivery of needed county services. The county earned an upgrade from Moody’s for the county bond rating, putting the county just below elite status.
“The 2020 budget, as proposed, slightly decreases the average property tax rate while maintaining services now provided by the county and making changes that will result in improvements in some service and governmental areas of the county. This is the second year in a row where our average property tax rate has decreased,” said McLaughlin.
“This is a balanced, forward-looking budget and a document, that when finally adopted after careful consideration by this body, will serve our county and our residents well during the coming year. There is reason for optimism, and reason to take pride in the effective management of the tax dollars carefully entrusted to us by our residents,” added McLaughlin.
The budget follows major developments in the county, including the Amazon warehouse project in Schodack, significant expansion of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in East Greenbush, growth in retail corridors in Brunswick, North Greenbush and East Greenbush, and other areas.
County finances have benefited from a strong performance on sales tax revenues, and the county’s full property value has also increased.
While the economy is relatively strong, the county has still pursued fiscally responsible practices, McLaughlin noted. In 2018, the county saved $1 million in personnel savings and $400,000 in purchasing savings. During 2019, the county has saved $600,000 in personnel costs and $200,000 in purchases.
These savings are important especially because they represent a day in, day out commitment to savings, to maximizing resources and efficiencies, while delivering needed service and assistance for our residents. Rest assured that we will continue those cost-saving efforts in 2020.
The county has also expanded road repair and improvement work, with over 20 miles of roads paved in 2018 and over 30 miles paved in 2019. The county has also purchased new trucks and equipment and continues to modernize highway operations.
The county is also continuing with work to replace the county emergency services training tower in North Greenbush. Engineering work was done in 2019, with construction of the tower starting in 2020.
The county’s ability to effectively manage fiscal issues and provide services is undercut by the continuing problem of unfunded state mandates. Each of McLaughlin’s predecessors as County Executive has noted the enormous burdens caused by unfunded mandates, and the 2020 budget includes a staggering $140 million of local tax dollars to be spent on mandated services.
“The difficulties and challenges created by unfunded state mandates are well-known by this body, and every one of my predecessors has detailed the cost of these mandates. Next year, Rensselaer County will spend in excess of $140 million of local tax dollars on mandated services,” said McLaughlin.
The county is doing more to potentially reduce costs for some mandated services. Earlier this month, McLaughlin announced a partnership with CDPHP and United Concierge Medicine for E.R. Anywhere. E.R. Anywhere allows Medicaid recipients to access medical advice and information via an app on their cell phone or tablet, creating avenues for taxpayer savings, and helping free up resources for real emergencies.
“E.R. Anywhere allows the county to create avenues for potential savings while ensuring that medical services are provided, in a more convenient and comfortable setting, and that medical resources are available for real emergencies,” said McLaughlin.
One area of concern is the state’s so-called criminal justice reforms, which included a series of changes to how individuals are charged with crimes or incarcerated. The changes are expected to result in some cost increases and cost shifts within law enforcement and the court system, with even the state unsure of the exact expenses. The state has also failed to provide any funds for the criminal justice changes.
McLaughlin said he anticipates an ongoing discussion and collaboration with legislators and the District Attorney, Sheriff and law enforcement over the criminal justice changes during the budget process and the 2020 fiscal year.
“Unfortunately, these changes may result in a New York State that is less safe. These changes were adopted by the state with little attempt to address the costs and overall impacts fiscally to counties and even municipalities. It is our sincere hope that these changes are reviewed by state lawmakers without further delay, with due consideration given to the public safety impacts and expenses to taxpayers,” said McLaughlin.
The budget now goes to the County Legislature for consideration, as required under the County Charter. The Legislature is required to consider the budget for approval by early December, under the provisions of the Charter.