There are no sacred cows in county spending any more said Mary Pat Hancock, chair of the Genesee County Legislature, during a budget session on Wednesday.
After first-term Legislator Shelly Stein questioned with trepidation why the county finances the Holland Land Office Museum, Hancock said the legislature should consider every discretionary line item as a possible cost savings.
Legislature Robert Bausch added county parks, GoArt! and the libraries into the mix.
Marianne Clattenberg and Ray Cianfrini had already suggested Genesee County Economic Development Center for the chopping block.
Of course, it's not going to go over well if the legislature cuts both the county's economic engine and its tourism engine, Hancock said.
Clattenberg said that, at least with her constituents, she won't be able to explain a cut to something like HOLM if there aren't also cuts to GCEDC.
Legislators believe the county is facing a fiscal crisis of massive proportions, driven by Albany's cap on tax increases and the inability of state officials to curb spending -- specifically the so-called "unfunded mandates" that counties must fund with no control over how much the expenditures will be or how the money is spent.
During the meeting, there were no votes taken, no decisions made, no real proposals put forward. The budget conference was just a chance for each member of the legislature to sound off about their budget thoughts and concerns.
Frank Ferrando, participating in his first round of budget talks as a legislator, suggested his colleagues stop calling the Albany-driven spending spree "mandates." He said what the mandates really are is a tax on counties levied by Albany politicians.
During the meeting a lot of anger and frustration was directed at Gov. Andrew Cuomo for earlier in the day proclaiming that the tax cap enacted nearly two years ago by the State Legislature is working.
"It frustrates me that the governor can take credit and the Assembly and the Senate can take credit for the tax cap," Ferrando said. "They're killing us and we're too soft on them. It's time to face off. The counties are going broke. They're taxing the heck out of us. The rank-and-file don't get it. You call it a mandate. They don't know what a mandate is. Tell them it's a tax. Everybody gets what a tax is. Our taxes are going up."
Earlier in the meeting, Hancock made a lengthy statement about Cuomo taking credit for the tax cut, but never addressing the need for mandate relief. And she pointed out that the county legislature will need to make big cuts -- if not this year, then next -- to what small part of the budget it does control.
"He says they curbed out-of-control spending by the counties," Hancock said. "That's the message he's put out there, making us all the bad boys and bad girls of local taxes, but he's not talking about mandate relief or a true takeover of Medicaid.
"He said the tax cap worked and to some extent, that is true," Hancock added. "It's not going to change until the people see their services are not the same. They can't be the same. You cannot do what you did for less money.
"They feel if we were just a little more clever, if we pinched here and we did this little bit more wisely, then we would have plenty to spend on local services, but we don't have any control over a lot of these expenses," Hancock continued.
"You heard about the impact on all of the constituents we serve," Hancock said. "You heard from our veterans. You heard from Genesee Justice. You heard from probation. You heard from DSS. These people serve your constituents and we're the ones cutting their budgets. We're the ones sitting here at this table and the pie is getting smaller."
Stein opened the discussion Wednesday evening by asking why the county has both a probation department and Genesee Justice.
"Why they can’t be one, or is that taboo and we can’t talk about?" Stein said.
Her initial remarks were met by a long silence.
County Manager Jay Gsell pointed to a bottle of hand sanitizer in the middle of the conference table and said, "Pretend that's the grenade. You notice nobody's pulled the pin yet."
Gsell then explained that there really are some key differences between the two departments. Probation deals primarily people who have been convicted of a crime and Genesee Justice supervises people going through the court system. One agency is more enforcement-oriented, the other more about monitoring activity and behavior. Probation gets state funding. But release under supervision gets almost no funding support although it helps keep the county's jail costs down, Gsell said.
The other sacred cow several legislators expressed a willingness to gore is the Genesee County Nursing Home.
It simply costs the county too much money, they said, and is a problem that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.
"We need to get some direction as a legislature or we're just going to keep shoveling money into that place," Annie Lawrence said. "I just see no end to it if we continue to be owner/operators of such a place. The state and federal government are just going to shift more and more of the cost onto local taxpayers."
A looming crisis for the county are roads and bridges. Lawrence and Ferrando wondered if the county shouldn't finance repairs and reconstruction through bonds. But Gsell said one of the problems the county faces is some existing debt (which will be paid off in two years) and the failure of the state and feds to reimburse the county for social service expenses, most of it tied to the nursing home.
"That $6 million in rolling debt from the state and feds affects our bond rates," Gsell said.
When it came Cianfrini's turn to share his budget thoughts he opened with, "I know I'm going to make some enemies with this, but ..." and then he raised the issue of cutting spending for GCEDC.
"I know, it's a job well done and they've done a great job, but I don't see how we can continue to fund them at the current level when they show profits into the millions of dollars," Cianfrini said. "We're at the point, and I made this comment earlier, where we should only provide essential county services. If it's not an essential county service, we should look at cuts there."
Cianfrini also expressed concern that not everybody in the county has tightened their belts as much as they should. He cited specifically a case of members of the Public Defender's Office all going to a conference at a cost of $4,000 or $5,000.
"Was that necessary?" Cianfrini said. "No. How much of that is going on in the county. I don't know. I think we have to really start looking at where all this money is being spent and (ask) is it really necessary.
Cianfrini also suggested the county look at the services it offers and decide which ones the county should start charging a fee to provide. If the county can't raise taxes sufficiently to cover increased expenses, maybe the county should take a page from Albany's way of operating and start tacking on fees.
"It's always tough to find new sources of revenue," Cianfrini said.