Cashless county looks to cut

HUDSON–Although the national economy is improving, Columbia County’s cash position is precarious, and a Cash Flow Subcommittee has sprung to action to address it.

According to County Treasurer P.J. Keeler, at the beginning of the Great Recession, the county had taxes receivable of $14 million. In January of each year, towns bill and collect property taxes and then pay the county in June. However, if there is a shortfall in any town or school district, the county makes the municipality whole, so that towns and schools can continue to cover their operating costs. But this service drains the county’s coffers.

 

Over the past four years, the county has seen its cash balance reduced by $10 million and has formed a committee to investigate taking aggressive steps to stem the tide. The committee includes Ancram Supervisor Arthur Bassin (D), Kinderhook Supervisor Patrick Grattan (R), Canaan Supervisor Richard Keaveney (R) and Mr. Keeler, a Republican.

Mr. Bassin, in a report to Ancram residents at the town’s May 16 meeting confirmed much of what the committee discussed, using an even more startling figure, saying that between 2010 and 2013 the county appears to have run a negative cash flow deficit of about $30 million, which effectively eliminated the county’s cash position by the end of last year. In 2013, he said, the county could be facing a $10- to $15-million cash flow deficit, and run out of cash by November.

Mr. Bassin, the only Democrat on the committee, said at the Ancram meeting that it is unlikely county property taxes will be held flat again this year.
One action taken thus far is a renewed focus on increased tax collection through regular and consistent delinquency notices and offering interest-bearing payment arrangements to homeowners when possible. The interest promises additional revenue to the county.

Also, Mr. Keeler has successfully finalized foreclosures: in 2008, 100 properties were in foreclosure, and that figure was reduced by nearly two-thirds to just 38 properties as of March 2013.

The committee also is investigating the possibility of borrowing to meet the temporary shortfall, at current rates of 2%, rather than continuing to hemorrhage cash.

In addition all department heads are being asked to cut 5% from their equipment and operating budgets, which is projected to yield a savings of $3 million for 2013. A review of health benefits and subsequent renegotiation already resulted in a $200,000 savings.

Paying attention to more strategic workflow management is another step the committee is taking. For example, when an employee leaves, oftentimes existing employees can absorb part of the workload (and be given commensurate salary increases) thereby saving on salaries and employee benefits–one of the highest budget items–that come with hiring a replacement.

“Department heads are receptive to the suggestions and recognize that the county must change its business model by embracing technology’s cost-cutting benefits, reducing the workforce through attrition and centralizing functions to improve efficiencies,” said Mr. Keeler.
Mr. Bassin told his Ancram constituents last week that supervisors are looking at putting a cap on the amount of sales tax distributed to towns until the county’s money problems go away. He also said the county’s solid waste disposal system, home health aides and the proposal for a new Pine Haven Skilled Nursing Facility are all on the table.

Mr. Keeler remains optimistic about the county’s creditworthiness, saying, “We are pleased that our county received an AA3 rating from Moody’s, considered to be investment grade. It enables us to obtain favorable borrowing rates should we choose to take advantage of that option.”

Diane Valden reported on Ancram for this story.

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