Tioga County talks about the shape of its budget
New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli recently released a report on the fiscal stress of New York State municipalities. Tioga County received a very good score for 2012, 9.6 percent, and like golf, the lower the score, the better. To put that in perspective, all New York counties averaged 27 percent, Southern Tier counties averaged at 21 percent, and small upstate counties averaged 23 percent.
"That puts us in a good to excellent situation," Tioga County Chief Accountant and Budget Officer Chuck Shager said. "We have one of the best ratings at nine point six, it's the best in the Southern Tier and among small upstate counties," Shager added, "and I think we should have the same score next year, possibly improving over time. The taxpayer's money is well shepherded in Tioga County."
Shager then went into a detailed analysis of the various departments that comprise Tioga County's governmental services. Of the county's 16 listed appropriations accounts, only Family Assistance and Child Care are currently running ahead of their budgeted allotment for the current fiscal year. Shager said that Child Care is typically under budgeted, and is running over budget again despite an additional half million dollars being added to the current year's budget.
A big part of the reason for the overrun comes from foster care expenses, with some children being referred by outside agencies to more expensive care options. Another factor is that juvenile delinquency cases are up this year - there have already been more cases referred to the county than in all of 2012, Shager said. All together, the county's Department of Social Services costs Tioga County taxpayers $10 million dollars a year, something the county has little choice or control over, Shager noted.
Still, the overall budget picture for Tioga County is good. Because of good management of the county's departments, the county has spent $3,026,567.92 less than it had budgeted. Of a total budget of $70.6 million, $26.7 million has been spent so far, leaving $43.9 million to hold the county over until the new budget is approved in November. Revenue received from state aid, property taxes and other sources as well as sales and use tax income for the county are also ahead of budget estimates so far.
Shager said the county's budget will be hammered out during meetings this August. "We're trying to get it done a bit earlier this year," he said. As for the budget, Shager said there were a few areas which are not mandated expenditures from the state that the county can affect. "We should concentrate our efforts there," he said.
Those areas include several quality of life institutions which Tioga County has traditionally supported over the years, like the Tioga County Historical Society and Museum, Tioga County Council on the Arts, and the county's community libraries. "They have been added to the budget by legislators over the years, but aren't mandated by the state," Tioga County Treasurer James McFadden said. That's not to say libraries and the museum are on the chopping block, but there are really few areas of the county's budget that are discretionary.
"I think it will emphasize how bad New York is doing economically," McFadden said of the Comptroller's report, "no one is misusing funds, it's just a set of bad circumstances." McFadden also said that the Moody's credit agency has not reviewed the county's credit rating for 20 years, and that they are going to review the status for the county. "Our rating may be upgraded, our financial status is good," McFadden said.
The Tioga County Legislature also approved two bond measures totaling $10 million during the regular meeting on July 9, 2013. One for $8 million would go for bridge repairs to be done over several years, while another bond issue for $2 million would be to repair county buildings, including the roof on the Tioga County Jail and the roof on the County Office Building at 56 Main St. in Owego. The county could back out of those bonds if it reconsiders.
Meanwhile, 34 properties in the county are coming up for auction on Friday, Aug. 9, and for the first time in years several large properties will be on the block. Although the reasons for the foreclosures can't be known for sure, at least one legislator speculated that property owners have given up on the prospect of natural gas drilling in New York.
Before the moratorium imposed by the state recently, landowners were holding on to their properties in hopes for a windfall from gas leases. With drilling prospects fading and owners not getting any younger, several may have decided to let their properties go rather than wait for Albany to decide to let gas drilling go forward, an increasingly unlikely prospect