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County Executive’s 2012 budget released

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, County Executive William Steinhaus issued his final county budget, for which the Legislature will spend most of November scrutinizing and amending before final adoption in December.After 20 years at the county’s helm, Steinhaus will retire in January. In a sense, his final budget appears a parting gift. It includes not a single cut to county contract agencies, including Millbrook’s Cornell Cooperative Extension. In fact, the proposed budget includes funding for a new 4-H leader; agriculture and soil and water conservation projects; and a new domestic violence position — oddities, since recent executive budgets followed a pattern of austerity.The budget is not, however, without its sting. As has become commonplace in today’s economic environment, the Department of Mental Hygiene is the budget’s biggest target. During last year’s budget process, the county’s outpatient clinics where patients receive psychiatric medication were targeted. I fought relentlessly — and successfully — to maintain their funding. Then came the severe cuts by the state in the April state budget. These included the slated closure of Hudson River Psychiatric Center and the Taconic DDSO, and eventual privatization of mental hygiene services affected by downsizing counties to “consultant” roles. Continuing this trend, Steinhaus’ budget seeks to privatize the county’s five continuing day treatment centers (where daycare programs are provided). Such a shift will capture previous unavailable Medicaid funding, but will do so at the expense of county jobs. Forty-nine mental hygiene jobs are slated for elimination including 22 current employees.The budget raises the tax levy 3.3 percent to $411 million, which is above the state-imposed 2 percent limit but is a permissible increase since it includes state pension costs, which are exempt. Pension costs have grown enormously ($3 million growth in one year) but even with the 3.3 percent levy increase an average household should expect to see taxes rise only about $20 for the year under Steinhaus’ plan.Steinhaus complains in his budget message that the state Legislature failed to enact any meaningful state mandates relief. State mandated costs have grown by nearly $7.3 million since 2007. Rising mandates would have forced him to cut essential county services to keep the budget within the property tax cap, something he was unwilling to do. Instead, Steinhaus anticipates Albany’s eventual mandate reform by under-budgeting the county’s required share of Medicaid and early intervention costs by $2.2 million.The Steinhaus budget balances itself by an unprecedented dependence on fund balance. This is the reserve that government maintains for rainy days as well as to preserve its bond rating. Dutchess County enjoys an Aa1 rating (only two counties enjoy a higher rating). Bond rating agencies like to see 5 to 10 percent of the budget kept in the fund balance. Steinhaus’ budget borrows $27 million from fund balance, reducing the reserve to 1.3 percent of the budget.The Legislature must wrestle through these budget considerations as well as form policy decisions in other areas, including whether to transform indigent legal counsel at family court to a public defender model.Steinhaus’ final budget ends his 20-year reign with continued fiscal discipline. Once again no county employee receives a COLA, and the workforce is leaner than it’s been since the mid-1980s. He proudly acknowledges this in his budget message that “Dutchess County taxes its residents 23 percent less per capita and spends 26 percent less per capita than the statewide average, ranking us among the lowest of all 57 New York counties for spending and taxes per resident.” Michael Kelsey represents Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.

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