Essex County has mixed feelings about the state budget, which was passed last week.
ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County sees a mixed bag when it comes to the state budget.
County Manager Dan Palmer said speaking from strictly a fiscal perspective, he liked the funds for bridge repairs, source water protection, road salt management projects, food donation initiatives and anti-heroin efforts.
Funds for the Olympic Regional Development Authority are also welcome, as is the increased state match on Environmental Protection Fund projects to 75 percent of total costs.
The extension of the 911 surcharge to pre-paid mobile devices is also a win for the county, he said.
But many other cuts and policy initiatives presented headaches for local governments.
It’s been over a week since the budget deal was reached, Palmer said. But county executives continue to lack clarity on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest salvo against high property taxes, the consolidation proposal that will require counties to form panels to explore ways to share services with other taxing entities, including school and fire districts.
Not only is the bill language murky on what is actually required, but it’s unclear if counties have the statutory ability to shift functions like tax collection, for instance, from town to county control.
Furthermore, Palmer said, while the state has said they will pick up costs associated with the shift of juvenile criminal offenders into family court (Essex County will likely have to hire more family court attorneys, he said), those funds are contingent upon staying within the cap.
But the county will likely exceed the cap by taking over local services, he said.
“In order to do consolidation that absorbs local functions, invariably the county cost is going to go up,” Palmer said. “If you don’t stay within the cap, you’re not going to be able to get this money — and this money is serious money.”
Palmer also said prior areas of shared services — including highway maintenance, paving and transfer stations — will not count towards the proposal.
“There’s not one single thing in place now that counts,” Palmer said. “I’ve been 25 years in local government and it’s the worst-written piece of legislation I’ve ever seen.”
Cuomo last week said counties needed to wrap up the process by Oct. 15.
“County executives are going to have meetings and they’re going to be open to the public and you’ll hear the dialogue,” Cuomo said in Syracuse last week. “Local government officials can vote yes and vote no but they’re going to have to explain their vote in writing to the people of their district.”
Palmer said the state-mandated timeline for implementation doesn’t take into account their ordinary schedules.
“The biggest problem for me is the August to October timeline,” Palmer said. “We start budgeting in July.”
Palmer also expressed concerns over possible reductions in aid to local governments under the provision allowing the governor to accommodate for expected slashes in federal funding.
If federal support is reduced by $850 million or more, the state budget director will develop a plan to make uniform spending reductions.
The plan would take effect automatically unless the state legislature passes their own plan within 90 days.
And yet another point of concern:
The state has allocated $75 million for a septic system replacement fund for counties.
Under the legislation, the county would seek authority through the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation to aid homeowners in linking up septic systems. The state would then make monthly payments to the county to help with costs.
While the initiative may prove to be beneficial for local homeowners, the voluntary effort would require the county to create and operate a new program.
Palmer said it’s another example of how the state starts a new program, but doesn’t allocate enough funding to aid in operation costs.
“It doesn’t seem like we can take on something like that,” Palmer said.
And as part of a series of widespread reforms championed by the business community and Republicans in the state legislature, workers compensation boards may no longer disallow claims of stress by first responders.
The measure may lead to higher costs for Essex County.
“We will probably see larger claims, but also a higher increase in (the pharmaceutical industry) in terms of oversight because it will be an impact that way,” Palmer said.
But, he added, prescription drug costs will likely drop as part of the same reform package.
Palmer also said he was frustrated in $19.3 million in state funding cuts to county-run foster care programs — especially as the entrenched opiate crisis is leading to an increased need for families across the region.
“Until we actually get into program costs, we don’t know what that cost is,” Palmer said.
The county also awaits more info on the $81 million in state aid for county governments as part of ongoing indigent defense reforms.
More details will emerge after the Office of Indigent Legal Services submits a required plan by the end of the year detailing caseload caps for public defenders and arraignment coverage, Palmer said.
“If they’re going to put a cap on caseloads, we’re probably going to need to hire more public defenders,” Palmer said.
The same goes for nighttime arraignments.
“This is a pretty significant negative impact for us,” Palmer said.
The $163 billion state budget was signed on April 9.