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November 8, 2012

Otsego clerk threatens to cease services

By JOE MAHONEY
Cooperstown Crier

---- — With cash-strapped Otsego County considering layoffs in several agencies, county Clerk Kathy Sinnott-Gardner said her office will cease processing passport applications and stop issuing veterans’ identification cards if it is stripped of any positions.

Sinnott-Gardner, agitated by the possible reductions in the county workforce, said that if the Board of Representatives takes even a single job from the clerk’s office, she will have to cut the amount of revenue she generates by $200,000.

“They are making themselves look good while they are hurting all the departments in the county,” Sinnott-Gardner said. Arguing the cuts being discussed by the board will cause further deterioration in the county’s finances, she said. “They are going to take two steps forward and three steps backwards. It will be ridiculous.”

In addition to being the county’s keeper of records, Sinnott-Gardner oversees the county’s two Department of Motor Vehicle offices, one in Oneonta and the other in Cooperstown. A third office in Cooperstown files and stores records relating to mortgages, leases, easements, civil documents and court papers.

All told, Sinnott-Gardner said, she has 13 employees. An independently elected official, Sinnott-Gardner said she has projected that the office’s personal services costs next year will amount to $435,883, while she estimated that total revenues for the year will be approximately $825,000.

“Where is the logic in putting people out of work?” she said. She suggested that the board consider a moderate increase in the property tax before making decisions that would curb services and inconvenience the public. She also suggested that county lawmakers spend more time defending county finances by fighting state officials for more relief from state-mandated programs.

At a meeting earlier, members of the board’s administration and Otsego Manor committees went over the county’s financial picture with county Treasurer Dan Crowell.

By the end of the meeting they had reduced the budget gap by more than $1 million, Crowell said. But that still left a deficit of $1.9 million.

Potential cuts discussed by the representatives include taking one job from the county clerk, two Sheriff’s Department road patrol positions and one each from the public defender’s office, the highway department, the health department, the buildings department and the code enforcement office.

Crowell said he will be meeting with the county’s department heads over the next few days to help the board evaluate where cuts could be made.

He said he was sympathetic to Sinnott-Gardner’s effort to shield her office from any job cuts.

“None of them are going to be easy decisions,” Crowell said. “There is nothing else we can cut that is not going to have an impact on services.”

Driving the difficult choices the board will have to make by Crowell’s Nov. 15 deadline to craft a balanced spending plan are the escalating costs at the Manor, the 174-bed county-owned nursing home that the board has decided to try to sell to the highest “responsible” bidder.

The public subsidy for the Manor in the coming year is projected to rise to $5.6 million. If the board does move forward with the plan to sell the facility, the transaction would likely not occur for more than a year, Crowell said.

The discussion by county lawmakers meandered from one suggestion to another on ways to trim the costs of various departments, and no firm decisions were reached.

Among programs being weighed for possible cuts or elimination were those providing meals to senior citizens, which is not mandated by the state.

Rep. Donald Lindberg, R-Worcester, who has long advocated the privatization of the nursing home, said he would prefer to eliminate jobs from code enforcement, the road patrol and the secretary’s job in the county Planning Department before targeting any more programs serving elderly citizens.

“We can’t keep hitting the old people,” Lindberg said. “We don’t want to put them in a home and we don’t want to feed them.” He also suggested making cuts to the motor vehicles department, noting he has not seen any long lines at them. One idea, he said, is to reduce the number of days each office is open so that only one office would be staffed for each weekday.

Rep. Edwin Frazier Jr., R-Unadilla, said his own observations of a senior meal event led him to conclude that eliminating that service would not create a financial hardship for those who partake in the meals.

Frazier also suggested that the Office for Aging’s information and assistance services program be closely scrutized to determine if any reductions could be made in that program.

Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, who owns seasonal rental property, said he believes the county’s fire inspection service could be expendable because it is not required by the state and landlords have plenty of incentive to make sure their properties are safe to keep tenants coming back.

But Rep. Rich Murphy, D-Town of Oneonta, said he was reluctant to do away with a program aimed at ensuring safe conditions. “I think that’s a terrible message to the county,” he said.

County Rep. Betty Anne Schwerd, R-Burlington, suggested that the four half-time public defenders could have their work hours cut in half to save the county money. But other lawmakers said the county could end up paying more if defendants get assigned counsel, who are paid at a higher hourly rate.

A significant decision that will impact how deeply cuts will be made to county departments involves a choice of how much money the panel decides to channel to the unappropriated fund balance, designed to allow the county to pay its bills when unexpected emergencies arise.

Crowell offered two options — dedicating 16.7 percent of the total budget to the fund, or 15 percent. The latter option would decrease the amount of cuts that would have to be made, while the former option would provide the county with a stronger financial safety net.

The representatives did not reach a consensus on that option. Kosmer said he preferred taking the 15 percent option to spare cuts to services and jobs.

Board of Representatives Chairwoman Kathleen Clark, R-Otego, said later that she believes the board will seek to stay within the state-imposed 2 percent tax cap when it adopts a final budget. She said she sees no support for raising taxes beyond that, noting that many residents are already struggling to pay their property tax bills and the county auctioned off 55 tax-delinquent properties earlier this year.

“We have to make decisions on what we can and cannot do,” Clark said. “People are elected to make tough choices, and people will be targeted for the choices they make. This board, to its credit, is grappling with some of the tough issues that in the past hadn’t been dealt with.”

Clark said she favors sticking with putting 16.7 of the budget into the reserve fund.

The board has already reached consensus in reducing its appropriation to the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service from $175,000 to $125,000.

The board has also decided to cut five unfilled positions at the nursing home and take away funding for one job at the highway department that was left vacant through a retirement.