ALBANY COUNTY—Albany County Executive Dan McCoy unveiled his $652 million proposed 2017 budget on Friday, Oct. 7 — a budget that keeps county spending under the state-mandated tax cap for the fourth consecutive year, and will not raise the property tax rate, cut programs or utilize reserve funds.
It also includes a 2 percent raise for non-union county employees.
McCoy said the growth of the real property tax base in the county allowed his office to increase the tax levy by 1.38 percent, which will actually result in a slight decrease—about $5—in residential tax bills for an average $150,000 home.
“For four continuous years we have presented budgets that have been structurally balanced, without the use of reserves or one shots and we have avoided the past practice of short term cash-flow borrowings,” said McCoy in a budget message released that morning. “We have notably stayed under the mandated tax cap, but for two consecutive years we have not raised real property taxes. During that time period, despite the pressures of unfunded mandates, and the slow growth of our national economy, we’ve nearly doubled our available budgeted reserves to the highest amount in recent county history.”
According to McCoy, approximately 60 percent of budgeted expenditures go towards paying for programs mandated, but not funded, by the state or federal government. Another 20 percent are expenses required by local laws, resolutions or the county charter, and the final 20 percent pays for non-mandated programs deemed necessary by the county.
McCoy pointed out that Albany County’s financial situation has continued to improve since he took office in 2011. Its fiscal stress rating, per an annual report recently released by the state Comptroller’s Office, has moved from “susceptible” to fiscal stress to having “no designation” of fiscal stress. As recently as 2013, the second year the comptroller’s fiscal monitoring system was in place, Albany County was classified as being in a “moderate” amount of fiscal stress, one step up from the most worrisome designation of “significant” fiscal stress, a specter currently facing the City of Albany.
The executive budget includes a proposition to place an expected one-time $1.7 million payment from the Schenectady casino project into a “tax stabilization” reserve fund, rather than funneling it to residents through a tax credit as proposed by several republican members of the county Legislature.
“The intended use of this reserve would be to permit us to offset or minimize tax increases in future budget years due to unforeseen or unquantifiable occurrences,” said the county executive.
“We need to look at all the services we provide and at the impact that this casino is going to have—on health, mental health, things like Gamblers Anonymous and people that wind up losing their homes or having to go on food stamps,” McCoy said in a subsequent phone interview. “There are all kinds of things associated with casinos that people don’t want to talk about, but most of those are costs that are going to be absorbed by the county and so we have to be cautious of how we go forward.”
A $250,000 grant has been proposed for the Albany County Land Bank, bringing the total amount the county has committed to the corporation to $1.7 million. County funding, along with money from the City of Albany and the state Attorney General’s Office, has allowed the land bank to acquire more than 250 vacant properties in just two years throughout the cities of Albany, Cohoes and Watervliet, as well as the towns of Berne, Bethlehem, Colonie, New Scotland, Rensselaerville and Westerlo. Those properties are then improved and sold or otherwise made useful.
Another $250,000 has been proposed to create a “cultural and economic development fund” to “help stimulate and support cultural and economic development efforts and programs” throughout the county. McCoy said that he will be announcing more specifics in the coming weeks.
Finally, McCoy pointed out that his budget would consolidate recreation and youth sports programs into a new department of recreation that would oversee the sports programming on which the county collaborates with the Amateur Athletic Union, as well as be responsible for the rail trail, hockey facility and county parks.
“I look forward in the days and weeks ahead to reviewing this proposed budget with members of the county Legislature,” he said of those who will ultimately vote to pass, or not pass, his proposal.
McCoy credited the Legislature for its role in helping to improve the county’s finances, specifically mentioning changes that were made to reduce costs at the Albany County Nursing Home. “That’s why I had to have that epic battle when I first became county executive,” he said. “But it’s also the way we’ve been addressing the sales tax revenue, that we’re not going to the reserve funds. That $57.5 million is the most we’ve had in the reserves since two decades ago.”
“When I first ran for the office in 2011,” McCoy said, “I said I was going to leave county government a lot different than the way I found it. We’ve got to look at doing things differently, think outside the box and, most importantly, I’m going to turn over every rock and see how we can save money and do things differently.”
County legislators from both parties seemed largely content with the county executive’s budget proposal—Minority Leader Frank Mauriello (R-27) released a statement calling it “a good first step” and promised to look for more ways to cut costs and further reduce taxes.
Legislator Paul Burgdorf (R-23) said, “Any time you have a budget that doesn’t raise taxes, it’s a good thing.”
And Legislator Chris Higgins (D-5), while he would have liked to see more money going to the land bank, called it “a great budget” and, in particular, lauded the size of the county’s “rainy day reserve” fund.