WHAT A DIFFERENCE a Great Recession makes. Back in 2008-09, when the Board of Supervisors started getting serious about buying an old school building in Claverack, the county had plenty of money and not enough room for its employees. Five years later, with the building still practically empty, the county’s cash flow is in free fall and the plan now is to sell the place.
County leaders couldn’t have known the extent to which the national, state and local economies would go Ka-Boom! And with the cash-flow shortfalls the county now faces, we may have to sell everything but the kids’ shoes to get county finances in order again. Still, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that one big part of the county’s financial rescue plan depends on finding a buyer as goofy as the county was when it bought the school. Don’t blame Pat Grattan, the Kinderhook Republican who chairs the Board of Supervisors, for wanting to unload the school. He wasn’t a supervisor when the county purchased the building that was once the Ockawamick School. He inherited the $65,000-a-year cost for upkeep and heating a place that houses only one county department. He knows it doesn’t take a 70,000-square-foot structure with 24-acres around it to house the Facility Department.
Mr. Grattan also did not participate in the recent near disaster formerly known as the empty Walmart building in Greenport. When the box store moved up the street leaving behind a huge, empty space, Mr. Grattan’s predecessor pressed the board to buy that site despite technical problems disadvantages and a distinct lack of enthusiasm by supervisors and others in and out of government. But the effort alone made it look as if the county would put a binder on just about any space with a flat roof and nobody inside.
Columbia County no longer looks like such a high roller ever since officials acknowledged they overspent the cash on hand to the tune of about $30 million from 2010 to 2013. Really? $30 million?
You won’t see anyone in county government driving a Maserati snowplow. Graft hasn’t caused our financial plight. The problem here is magical political thinking. Local officials must have expected they’d be hailed as wizards of municipal finance–and get reelected–if only they kept the tax rate flat. And how did they do that without growing sources of revenue or making deep cuts in services? They simply siphoned off reserve funds and didn’t replace them. It’s called wishing away the lingering impacts of the recession–lower tax revenues from sales and mortgages, for example. It’s a fairytale not a strategy.
Columbia County isn’t going bankrupt, but we’re about to get the bill for the free ride of the last couple of years. It will hurt. The Board of Supervisors and the county treasurer have begun to take steps aimed at cutting costs, and some supervisors are openly talking about the need to raise taxes. But all the suggestions seem like what they are, reactions to a crisis rather than an effort that combines emergency response with plans that change the way the county operates and helps prevent similar management failures the next time leaders decide to substitute political pixie dust for common sense.
One of the people who makes the most compelling case for fiscal restraint and better financial management in the form of planning is the person who convinced the board to buy the Ockawamick building in the first place, Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer. He’s a former chairman of the Board of Supervisors and during his tenure with the gavel he rubbed quite a few people the wrong way, including fellow Republicans. He also forced the board to take the first small steps toward better financial management. Thanks in part to his efforts taxpayers now can see the train that’s about to hit us.
Crises can erupt anytime, derailing the best of plans. And the political process often sidetracks progress; it’s no friend of efficiency. But the current cash flow crunch squeezing Columbia County government is a self-inflicted wound. It follows from an absence of consensus on county priorities and a lack discipline to pursue them.
Mr. Baer’s proposals for revamping the way the county spends our taxes are neither the only way forward nor necessarily the best. But he’s right to ask what his colleagues have done but take a piecemeal approach to each individual problem as it arises rather than formulate policies in advance that address three fundamental financial questions: What’s the goal? What’s the plan? What’s the cost?