Democrats call for independent review of budget; propose focus on the opioid epidemic, cuts to bloated government
Marc Molinaro’s proposed 2019 Dutchess County budget uses $8.5 million in fund balance transfers to cover up a recurring structural deficit in his budget while setting aside nearly 20% of the general fund balance ($10M) in the hopes that extra sales tax revenue and other savings will materialize in 2019. And despite record spending of over half a billion dollars, the budget offers no new initiatives on fighting the opioid epidemic, while it continues to grow his own office’s budget.
Of particular concern in the budget is the use of $4 million from a debt reserve fund. Such funds are typically held in reserve for fiscal emergencies in order to reassure investors that bond payments will not be at risk. To unnecessarily dip into a debt reserve fund could hurt our bond rating and raise interest rates on future debt. There is no discussion in the budget of how the fund will be replenished to reassure investors.
County indebtedness is at $133 million and is projected to grow significantly over the next few years. Dutchess County has another $177 million in authorized debt waiting to be spent; the capital plan for 2019 could mean an additional $60 million in new debt. Debt service will consume 18% of the 2019 property tax levy and with interest rates rising, interest payments will soon bust the tax cap. This will result in sharp tax hikes and/or service cuts for our most vulnerable citizens.
The capital plan fails to show any appropriation in 2019 for the new county jail; in fact, the project has been delayed. This is worrisome given the mistakes and cost overruns on other, smaller capital projects like the new public defender’s office (45 Market Street) and the Stabilization Center (230 North Road).
Democrats are also calling for the county legislature to resume the annual practice of having an independent budget review, something that has not been done since Molinaro took office in 2012.
“The economy is healthy. Now is not the time to be using our ‘rainy-day’ funds to cover up deficit budgets,” said Legislator Francena Amparo (D-Wappinger). “And if there were to be an economic slowdown, the impacts would be even more devastating to taxpayers.”
The budget process allows for county legislators to offer amendments to the County Executive’s proposed tentative 2019 budget. Throughout the time legislators spend representing their constituents, they often take on issues most prominent within their district and advocate for such issues to be resolved by providing better, cost effective programs/services during the budget process.
In 2017, a record number of Dutchess County residents lost their lives to the opioid epidemic; that grim statistic is sure to climb for 2018. Despite record spending of more than half a billion dollars, the budget outlines no new initiatives of note to fight the opioid epidemic. Instead it relies heavily on “continuing” and “maintaining” prior efforts.
“If you look at the fine print, much of the proposed budget calls for ‘maintaining’ and ‘continuing’ what we’re doing. Other communities are adopting effective, cost-saving innovations in areas such as addiction recovery, environmental protection, transit, and more. We can experiment with some of these for very low cost, and we should be doing so,” said Legislator Rebecca Edwards (D-Poughkeepsie).
Democratic legislators will continue to push for providing addiction treatment at the county jail. Research shows that Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), incorporating suboxone or methadone, is a particularly effective aid to successful, long term recovery. At least 80% of current inmates, most convicted of non-violent misdemeanors, have pre-documented addiction and/or mental health diagnoses. Yet MAT has never been offered at the jail. Providing MAT and stronger mental health support would save lives, reduce recidivism, lower the inmate population and save taxpayer dollars in the long run.
Additionally, Democratic legislators propose to fund the county’s Opioid Task Force to implement safe prescription practices, make Narcan available at every pharmacy, train a wider network of first responders, and ensure that MAT is available 24/7 at the Stabilization Center.
“How often do we hear that everyone has a loved one who suffers from opioid addiction? Admitting that we have a real crisis devastating our community is simply not enough. There’s no better time than the present to turn this crisis around with making it our main focus,” said Minority Leader Hannah Black (D-Hyde Park).
“Opioid addiction is a serious problem in Dutchess County and whatever the legislative body can do to assist individuals and families, we must provide assistance,” said Legislator Barbara Jeter-Jackson (D-City of Poughkeepsie).
Cuts and Redirecting Funds Toward Priorities
Democrats propose redirecting some existing funding lines to the fight against opioid addiction. For example, diverting some of the existing advertising and marketing monies into a comprehensive public education program aimed at helping residents with addiction and mental health disorders.
“Given recent difficulties with project cost overruns, we are also recommending that upcoming capital project plans be reconsidered or delayed to avoid higher debt service payments,” said Minority Whip Kristofer Munn (D-Red Hook).
Democrats also recommend cuts to the bloated budget of the County Executive’s office. The 2019 budget proposes to increase Molinaro’s office budget to 150% of the 2012 baseline – seven times the rate of growth of the overall county budget (22%). Democrats recommend reducing his budget to a 22% increase from the 2012 baseline saving over $700K.
“It is time for the County Executive’s office to evaluate why their office’s budget has grown exponentially compared to the rest of the budget,” said Legislator Craig Brendli (D-City of Poughkeepsie). “The money from this bloated budget could be better spent creating community programming, addressing deficiencies in other parts of County government, or improving grant opportunities for our local cities and towns.”
“It is unacceptable for the County Executive for the third year in a row now to allocate $4.8 million for wasteful overtime at our county jail— especially seeing as there are 57 nonviolent substance abusers locked up there now (each costing taxpayers $125/day— not charged with aggressive or violent acts or drug dealing) charged with nothing more than “criminal possession of a controlled substance”— the second most common charge for folks incarcerated at our county jail,” said Legislator Joel Tyner (D-Clinton Corners).
Expanding the Agency Partnership Grants to support vital community agencies, especially those supporting youth. Effective after-school programs and youth employment should be priorities. Prevention and youth support are the most effective investments we can make in the health and growth of our community. Democratic legislators are proposing an emphasis on youth summer jobs that are provided through local not-for-profit agencies.
“Youth summer jobs have proven to reduce future rates of violent crime by up to 43%. It is time to make our at-risk youth a priority by providing them with real life-changing opportunities,” said Legislator Giancarlo Llaverias (D-Poughkeepsie).
Implementing a climate change action plan via a full time Climate Smart Coordinator position that would bring considerable state funding to tackle environmental issues including green job creation, green energy production, green infrastructure and building practices, responsible waste disposal, and climate change preparedness. For example, a composting and recycling program could divert 1.5 million tons yearly of wet, heavy organic waste, turning it into a $230,000 asset per year rather than a cost burden such as Rockland County already successfully does.
“Neighboring Counties have reaped significant financial benefit by pursuing such opportunities. Ulster County, has secured millions in environmental grants since appointing a Climate Smart coordinator. It would be prudent for Dutchess County to follow suit and pursue a professional, effective response to climate change,” said Legislator Nick Page (D-Beacon).
“When you look at the budget, there’s no consistent, overriding structure to the whole thing providing for long term, fundamental solutions to the problems the county faces. Instead, it’s a bunch of band-aid style fixes,” said Frits Zernike (D-Beacon).