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County budget forecast: mixed weather

Budgeting resembles meteorology. It requires sifting through known and measurable data to predict future trends and patterns for outcomes that may never be realized. But what happens when the forecast is wrong? A bride and groom who plan an outside wedding on a weatherman’s forecast of a sun-filled sky have every right to be outraged when it downpours.

The same is true for taxpayers in the severely frigid winter who found themselves pinned beneath the heavy weight of an energy tax that didn’t have to be. Instead of a $7.5 million budget shortfall that the Dutchess Energy Tax was meant to cure, the 2013 year-end review revealed that county government closed out the year with a $5.3 million surplus.

How could this be? I wondered the same thing.

As is custom, the county budget is prepared several months in advance of its December adoption. Budget staff makes projections and suggestions to the county executive who then crafts the budget decisions. In September it was predicted that the county would face $7.5 million in revenue shortfalls. (As it turned out sales tax revenue was in fact $3.4 million short, and mortgage tax was $4.8 million short.)

In late October, when Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro submitted his budget to the Legislature he proposed closing the revenue gap with a tax on residential home energy use. Faced between making severe cuts to services it deemed essential, a majority of legislators (the author excluded) ratified the executive’s proposal on the energy tax.

Despite a growing chorus of complaints from the public, the tax went into effect on March 1. Legislative leaders and the executive then pointed fingers at the county’s delegation of state leaders, first claiming that the state leaders caused the deficit by not increasing the mortgage tax, and then shifting the blame to unfunded mandates. The pledge was made that if state legislators produced mandate relief that the energy tax would be repealed.

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In mid-March, state legislators acquiesced; offering a one-time bailout of $5.25 million. The acceptance of the bailout led to the April repeal of the energy tax. Not once during this four month ordeal of implementing the tax, lobbying Albany for relief, accepting the bailout or discussing its repeal was it disclosed that the county finished 2013 with a multi-million surplus.

Where did the surplus originate? There were some cost-savings from sold–off properties (the county’s obsolete recycling center among them), but the bulk of the savings appears to have come from the pockets of taxpayers struggling to pay property taxes. The county brought in $1.3 million from the sale of foreclosed properties and $5.8 million from interest payments from people who couldn’t pay their property taxes on time.

It’s shocking — perhaps even scandalous — to consider that the 2013 county budget was balanced on penalty payments assessed on economically-challenged property-owners. Of equal dismay, however, is the realization that lawmakers endorsed — and maintained — an unnecessary economic energy hardship on all county residents because knowledge of the county’s true finances were withheld.

Considering the now known data of the 2014 budget fiasco, my forecast is: the transparency of sunlight will be limited to this column; a storm-cloud of public opinion may form, but that cloud will soon pass as initial outrage is replaced by complacency and ambivalence; a few clouds of renewed mistrust and cynicism may linger.

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As we age, dementia is a health risk for us all. While there are 47 diseases or disorders related to dementia (most notably Alzheimer’s disease), it is in itself not a disease. More accurately it is a term used to describe a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with the activities of daily life. As technology and medicine have increased life expectancy, so also has the prevalence of dementia increased.

In 1986, the New York state Legislature began monitoring Alzheimer’s disease through the creation of a statewide central registry. The same legislation mandated as part of the Public Health Law that New York’s 400 hospitals and 700 nursing homes begin reporting on the “occurrence, frequency, incidence, cause, effect and prognosis of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Through this reporting we know now that dementia accounts for nearly 58,000 hospitalizations in New York state each year.

In the late 1980s the Legislature declined to commit state resources to research or care for dementia-related illnesses. This has changed in part due to the registry’s findings. The 2014 state budget, for instance, includes $1.1 billion for Alzheimer’s research, which is $6.3 million more than last year.

New York state also provides funding for nine Alzheimer’s Disease Assistance Centers (Albany and White Plains being the closest to our region). These centers provide assistance to families with diagnosis, treatment, education and caregiver services.

Additionally, community service programs exist to provide respite and training to caregivers including support groups and information counseling. In 2012 there were reported over 1 million caregivers in New York state.

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Dutchess County also provides activities, programs and services geared toward seniors and caregivers alike including funding for Alzheimer’s Association support groups. The Dutchess County Office for the Aging provides case assistance, counseling, home-delivered meals, caregiver respite, senior centers and volunteer opportunities to keep seniors engaged in the community. Additionally the county organizes an annual full-day caregiver conference.

Proceedings are also available in our courts for the assignment of guardians in the least restrictive means for those whose functionality has become impaired who may not have caregivers available to them.

Attention to dementia has grown at both the national and state levels. Not only have pharmacological interventions to help improve cognitive functions been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), but a 2011 federal law now requires the Health and Human Services Department to have a national plan for dementia.

In New York, a Coordinating Council for Services Related to Alzheimer’s Disease has been meeting since 2007, providing periodic reports to the Legislature and the governor. The 2013 report cites early detection, shortage of geriatric human service workers and the need for more home health care and day services as among top needs.

Also cited was the heavy toll — both economically and health wise — that caregivers endure and suggested among other ideas that the state Legislature consider tax incentives for those who provide care to the elderly.

It is comforting to know that policy makers are paying attention to the present and future needs of the aging community.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. He also serves as a court-appointed guardian and a regular speaker at Office of the Aging law clinics. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.