To the Honorable Michael Stammel, and Honorable Members of the Rensselaer County Legislature and the residents of our great, growing and strong county:
As Rensselaer County Executive, and in adherence to duties described in the County Charter, I am honored to present to you the annual budget for Rensselaer County for fiscal year 2020.
The 2020 budget is my second budget since taking office as County Executive. I appreciate the unanimous support given to the 2019 spending plan, following careful consideration by members of this legislative body. I am truly hopeful that we can reach mutual agreement on this budget, along with recognizing the priorities, issues and projects facing our county.
The 2020 budget, as proposed, avoids a property tax increase 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.
I look forward to working in the coming weeks with members of this body on the spending plan presented today and anticipate changes and new ideas being introduced by county lawmakers to this proposal. But I would ask each member to join me in resolving to avoid a property tax increase for 2020 and not change the tax rate and make any changes that would result in more costs for our taxpayers.
I believe 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.
With that in mind, I am hopeful this budget is recognized as a spending plan that continues to lay a foundation for the future while providing for strong and responsive services today. It is my further hope that this budget document be looked at as an opportunity for collaboration with the 19 members of the County Legislature.
Recognize that this document sets the course fiscally for the twelve months of the year 2020, but also shapes the future for the next generation, and presents great responsibility and opportunity for us as servants and representatives of Rensselaer County.
Our shared mission as elected officials representing this county is a mighty one and a task that we should not take lightly. Cooperation will further enhance our assets and resources, and also help us meet the challenges and burden that we jointly face. As I have said before, we have real reason for optimism in Rensselaer County, and let this budget reflect our optimism and pride in our county.
The budget for 2020 reflects our shared efforts to maintain hard-earned fiscal stability of this county, and to ensure adequate resources are appropriate to ensure county services are provided efficiently and at a rate our residents can afford. The budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year also seeks to continue momentum established by careful and proactive fiscal management of county resources.
These attributes include an upgrade of the county’s already strong bond rating. Announced in December following a review by respected analysts Moody’s, the upgrade saw Rensselaer County climb from A1 to Aa3. We can be proud that our county is approaching a top tier for bond viability, and we are continuing in our efforts to build on that work.
Our county has also worked to maximize resources. During the 2018 fiscal year, the county saw a savings of over $1 million in personnel savings. I am pleased to announce that work is continuing with those cost-saving endeavors during 2019, and to date, we have achieved over $600,000 in savings. During 2018, our county also saved $400,000 on purchases. This year, we continue these initiatives and anticipate saving an additional $200,000 in purchases.
The national economy continues to be strong, and an expansion of retail opportunities in our county have resulted in solid performance on sales tax revenues. Sales tax revenues for 2019 are expected to exceed 2018 numbers and continue a pattern of welcome growth in this county. Economic development has also been strong in our county, and I am sure every member of this legislative body remembers hearing the news of Amazon’s decision to locate a large warehouse in Schodack. This project will mean 800 new jobs, and our county already saw some of the positive effects of the project with the filing of an $82 million mortgage. We can expect more benefits to come from Amazon during 2020. So too from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which is continuing a major expansion in East Greenbush that will lead to creation of several hundred new jobs.
We have seen positive impacts from when our county is able to manage our fiscal issues without undue influence. Let us recognize that Rensselaer County is one of a few counties in the Empire State to adopt budgets that have stayed under the state tax cap each year the state tax cap has been in place. That is not an insignificant accomplishment and demonstrates continued fiscal stability, sound management, careful appropriation of resources and a skill in forecasting trends and changes that affect our economy.
There are still challenges. 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.
Unfunded mandates are a growing problem and have been a persistent and unfair burden on county taxpayers for generations. The New York State Association of Counties has presented many, many proposals for reform of mandates, and sadly, the vast majority of these fair-minded plans, often created with bi-partisan input, go unheard in our State Capitol.
While it has been said many times by my predecessors, it bears repeating, that New York is one of a handful of states to require counties to pay a portion of mandated expenses, in our case, a 25 percent share. It should also be said that our state requires counties to provide not just required mandated services, but all optional mandated services. In others, New York requires counties to provided 125 percent of federally mandated programs, not just 100 percent.
As I have said in previous State of the County addresses, counties could save tens of millions if a mandate menu was created and counties allowed to select which of the optional mandates are provided. Those savings could then be directed to tax relief, which still providing basic services to those in need.
Our county is not simply talking about the problems created by mandates. Instead, we are actively and creatively working to reduce costs in any way allowed. This fall, Rensselaer County became the first county to partner with health care providers with the E.R. Anywhere plan, which allows Medicaid patients and recipients to get medical attention and advice via a telemedicine app on their phones or tablet. E.R. Anywhere allows the county to create avenues for potential savings while ensuring that medical services are provided, often in a more convenient and comfortable setting, and that medical resources are available for real emergencies.
We look forward to potential savings from this arrangement and are proud that Rensselaer County is the first in the state, possibly the country, to enter into such a partnership. We thank our partners, CDPHP and United Concierge Medicine, for their service and confidence in this idea and Rensselaer County’s willingness to embrace innovation to create a savings while maintaining needed and life-saving services.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORMS
New York, without significant debate or consideration, enacted a series of so-called reforms of the state’s criminal justice system. These changes have been widely criticized by prosecutors and law enforcement. The changes will result in new procedures being placed on prosecutors and law enforcement for discovery and release of evidence, along with no cash bail for a number of offenses. This spending plan includes approximately $300,000 in codes throughout various departments including District Attorney, Sheriff and Probation, representing new spending. We recognize these numbers may not comprehensively address the issue and look forward to crafting a bi-partisan solution to this mandated new spending by the state forced on our county.
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.
For many residents, the county road network is the most important service provided by our county. In 2018, the county paved or repaired nearly 20 miles of roads. In 2019, the county paved or repaired 30 miles of roads. Also, during the past two years, the county has allocated extra resources not budgeted to allow for additional road work. The true resources allocated for road work are provided in a more transparent fashion in this budget, as it was in the 2019 plan. The county has also invested in new equipment each of the past two years. As the county seeks to expand paving services, the 2020 budget includes allocation for two new laborers, along with budgeting for approximately 25 miles of roads next year, and purchase of a new tandem dump/plow truck.
FIRE TRAINING TOWER
Rensselaer County is fortunate to be served by brave and dedicated men and women who respond to emergencies and calls for assistance. Our emergency services take pride in preparation, and Rensselaer County is known for maintaining a high threshold for training for fire and EMS services. For years, the county fire training tower has been in disrepair and not available for wide use. In 2019, funds were directed for the start of a project to plan, redesign and improve the county’s training tower and facility in North Greenbush. In 2020, funding is being allocated, within capital projects, for construction of the tower.
HUDSON VALLEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Rensselaer County has been proud to sponsor education excellence and access at Hudson Valley Community College during the more than 60 years of the college’s operation. Hudson Valley has rightly become known nationally as one of the top two-year colleges. This summer, the college took another step forward with the opening of the Gene Haas Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which will provide state of the art instruction and skill lessons. In recognition of the college’s outstanding performance, enrollment is up for the 2019-2020 academic year. Hudson Valley has positively influenced so many lives, and the county’s 2020 budget proposal includes an increase in the annual sponsor contribution of $200,000.
TROY SENIOR CENTER
Rensselaer County can be proud to be one of only a select few counties to provide services at senior centers. To encourage investment and job creation, the county has agreed to sell the home of the Troy senior center to an artificial intelligence company. The proceeds of that sale are included in the capital budget for 2020. This administration remains committed to maintaining a senior center in Troy and are continuing discussions with various entities to fulfill that mission.
Rensselaer County recognizes much of our professional and private worlds center around technology and state of the art communications. The county has encouraged expansion of broadband service via an innovative partnership with Hudson Valley Wireless in which county facilities, including the County Office Building, and towers are utilized to strengthen signals. This effort was recognized this fall with a visit to county facilities by a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. The 2020 budget includes appropriations for development of a new county website, development of a mobile app to expand communications and constituent services, along with on-line bill-paying. The county’s E.R. Anywhere app is also included in this effort.
NEW STORAGE FACILITY
For years, Rensselaer County has been forced to rent space for required storage of county documents and materials. In 2018, the county acquired property in Schodack that is being utilized as a storage facility, and work to refashion the building has been underway through 2019. The new facility will be a significant improvement for county storage of documents related to law enforcement and requiring HIPAA compliance. The 2020 budget includes funds for renovation and other county services.
REAL PROPERTY MANAGEMENT
As detailed in my State of the County, the county would benefit from real-time information about delinquent properties in the county. Currently, properties are usually auctioned 6 years after they go delinquent. After becoming delinquent on taxes, properties often deteriorate, resulting in a decline of value for the property and often causing loss of value in nearby properties and quality of life. A new position to assist in monitoring delinquent properties will provide the county with more flexibility and better information to maximize returns and efficiency.
BOARD OF ELECTIONS
The State Legislature, during the budget process, mandated early voting for local elections. The 2019 elections are the first year the early voting is in effect. The costs for this exercise will be considerable, with additional costs in 2019 possibly reaching $300,000. In 2020, as early voting and other changes are expanded, costs could rise another $200,000. The new costs include new equipment, increased staffing at polling, printing and related expenses. Like the various and expensive criminal justice changes, the changes to the electoral process were unfortunately made with little to no consideration about the impact on taxpayers at the county level.
Rensselaer County recognizes the enormous expenses created by welfare and related services and is taking steps to erase fraud and abuse in the system to safeguard taxpayers and ensure resources are available for those truly in need. The county recently partnered with local and federal authorities for a crackdown of EBT fraud, resulting in several arrests. The county has also continued a public awareness campaign to help in the fight against fraud.
The Rensselaer County jail continues to be a strong performer for the boarding of federal inmates, with revenues expected to surpass $4 million during 2019. Revenues from this operation help offset jail expenses. County fiscal staff will be monitoring the jail operations as new rules that relax many laws and bail standards are implemented, possibly creating additional space at the jail.
In 2018, Rensselaer County and other counties were no longer solely to use Albany Medical Center Hospital as a site for required autopsies. The county now has autopsies handled at both AMCH and Ellis Hospital. There is the real possibility of changes in the future in this important field and our county and other counties should begin jointly exploring possible partnerships and shared services.
The respite care concept was discussed during the 2018 State of the County address, and recognizes the growing trend of seniors living longer in their homes. Respite care would give seniors and their families an option to allow for broader care than provided at senior centers to be accessed, enabling seniors to live independently for longer and thereby, reducing significant expenses for nursing homes and more advanced care.
The 2020 budget plan was formulated through months of work by a number of dedicated and hard-working members of Rensselaer County government. Thank you to Budget Director Stacey Farrar for her dedication and effort, along with members of her staff, including James Breig, Marc D’Amore and Ellen Christiansen, along with Chief Fiscal Officer Michael Slawson and members of the Finance staff. Thanks also to Director of Operations Richard Crist and Executive staff members Paula Carpinello-Goca and Hannah Zinoman.
We further recognize the shared partnership the annual budget process represents under the County Charter between the Executive branch and the Legislative branch. Thank you to Chair of the Legislature Michael Stammel, Vice Chairwoman Kelly Hoffman, Vice Chair for Finance Robert Loveridge and Majority Leader Ken Herrington, along with Minority Leader Peter Grimm, and other members of our county’s law-making body. We also recognize Clerk of the Legislature Jessica Charette, Auditor Lori Ruffinen and other legislative staffers. We share a responsibility for crafting and adopting a document that will faithfully serve the more than 150,000 residents of this great and growing county. We look forward to a productive and positive review and eventual consideration of this budget document for fiscal year 2020. The spending plan as presented reflects month of hard and honest to forecast often challenging fiscal currents and ensure taxpayers are protected and residents served. The work done in the coming weeks, and indeed, during the upcoming fiscal year, will hopefully strengthen our county, expand on recent successes and improve quality of life and prosperity for all in Rensselaer County.