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Saratoga County board passes $313M budget

Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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— Saratoga County supervisors on Wednesday approved a $313 million budget for next year that includes a one-cent-per-$1,000 property tax increase.

It includes $500,000 for unspecified county economic development spending that Supervisor Patti Southworth, I-Ballston, called a “slush fund,” though supporters denied that that’s what it is.

Members of the Republican majority defended it as money the use for which couldn’t be known until a new county economic development plan, now being prepared by a consultant, is finished.

“It’s not a slush fund,” County Administrator Spencer Hellwig said during a brief debate before passage of the budget at a meeting in Ballston Spa.

The proposed property tax increase — with the average tax rate rising from $2.27 to $2.28 per $1,000 of assessed value — had generated no public comment at meetings on the budget. Supervisors approved the spending plan with a 21-1 vote, with only Southworth dissenting.

The budget, which is up from $301 million this year, means a house assessed at $200,000 will get a $456 county tax bill in January.

“We are still one of the lowest-tax counties in the upstate area and proud of that fact,” said county board Chairman Alan R. Grattidge, R-Charlton. “We think that contributes a lot to our economic development.”

Grattidge said the new budget is more stable than the county budgets of the past two or three years, which saw the county draining surplus funds to support the losses at the Maplewood Manor nursing home and to make up for tax revenue lost during the recession.

“We’ve made some difficult decisions with the privatization of the landfill and turning Maplewood Manor over ... to sell it. I think the fruit of our labor is coming through,” he said.

The $500,000 in economic development funding that was questioned by Southworth is tied to the county’s break earlier this year from the Saratoga Economic Development Corp., which had long been the county’s independent marketing arm.

A consultant is now developing a strategic economic development plan for the county, with a draft due early next year. County officials say the money will be used to follow through on any recommendations in that plan.

Southworth, who leaves office at the end of the year, questioned the vagueness about its use in a budget that will require more county employees to start contributing to their health insurance premiums.

“With any other department, I could go to the department head and they’d tell me just how the money would be spent. I’m a little uncomfortable with $500,000, not knowing what it will be used for,” she said. “It seems more like a slush fund to me.”

The vagueness is necessary until the draft economic development plan is in, according to the budget’s defenders.

“The use of that money can’t be characterized in any specific way until we have a plan,” responded Hellwig, who is the county budget officer. “It is not a slush fund.”

Economic Development Committee Chairman John E. Lawler, R-Waterford, said the county will get “substantially more economic development services” than it did for the $200,000 paid this year to the SEDC. Some of the money, he acknowledged, “will be used for salaries.”

Among budget highlights:

• The budget assumes the county will receive $4 million from the pending sale of the county landfill in Northumberland to Finch Paper of Glens Falls. That deal was supposed to close this year but now is expected to close in January.

• It also assumes the county will receive $7.8 million from the sale of Maplewood Manor by the end of next year, though no private buyer has been identified for the public nursing home.

• It includes $50,000 as the county share of what would be a comprehensive traffic management study for the area around the Luther Forest Technology Campus in Malta and Stillwater, the home of GlobalFoundries.

• The budget calls for no new county jobs, even though a hiring freeze over the past two years has eliminated 100 positions.

• It includes the provisions of a six-year agreement with the Civil Service Employees Association that was also approved by supervisors Wednesday.

“I’m happy with the budget we have prepared,” Grattidge said. “I’m happy we have a long-term agreement with the CSEA.”

 
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