SARANAC LAKE - The one unifying comment at Thursday night's public hearings held by the Franklin County Board of Legislators was thanks for coming and invitations to come back soon.
The board held a full meeting in Saranac Lake Thursday at the Harrietstown Town Hall before staging three public hearings: two on the county's proposed 2013 budget and one on the county's redistricting plan.
Members of the public, including Saranac Lake resident Jon Vinograd, give Franklin County representatives feedback on their proposed 2013 budget at a hearing Thursday afternoon at the Harrietstown Town Hall.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
The board's hearing on its proposed $99.7 million spending plan for 2013 and one on a local law that would override the state-imposed tax cap were intermingled since they dealt with the same issues.
County Manager Tom Leitz started the hearing by giving a half-hour presentation on the proposed budget, which includes an 11.4 percent decrease in spending but also a 14.6 percent decrease in revenue. The tax levy increase stands at 5.57 percent - above the tax cap, which should come in close to 2 percent this year.
Leitz noted he has seen a slight shift in the state's attitude toward counties in the last year.
"Relief is too strong a word," Leitz said, but he believes the state has come to the realization that it is pushing counties to their breaking point.
He went on to say that there's no way the county will be able to stay within the tax cap in the coming years as long as state laws and practices remain the way they are.
"It doesn't matter how hard this board works; it doesn't matter how hard I work," Leitz said.
So he asked the crowd whether the county should continue to do everything it can to stay within the cap, potentially getting rid of services like county transportation - which is used almost exclusively for people getting to work - help for seniors, home care and road maintenance.
"Do you all think these are reasonable, desirable things for the county?" Leitz asked.
Sue over mandates?
For the second year in a row, Saranac Lake resident Jon Vinograd pushed the county to sue the state for forcing it to spend money without providing funding streams for that spending.
"I don't understand what the hesitation is for," Vinograd said. "As long as you sit on it, nothing, absolutely nothing, will change."
Legislators said they've looked into the option and are pushing the idea with the New York State Association of Counties, an organization that advocates with the state for county issues, but they said it's unlikely they'd be able to afford the lengthy legal battle on their own.
"To me, that's not my job right now," Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, told Vinograd. He called it "a battle that most attorneys tell you you don't have a chance of winning."
Vinograd said many of the country's historic legal changes were started by one person or one group, and that if Franklin County starts a lawsuit, maybe others will follow.
"Someone has to be the spark, and I'm suggesting we be the spark," he said.
Burpoe said that the state can't just hear the message from the counties. They also need to hear it from businesses, taxpayers and other corners of the state. He suggested that any time a member of the public meets someone from the governor's office, their second sentence should be about the issue.
"After you say, 'Hello, how are you?' it's, 'We need mandate relief,'" Burpoe said.
Saranac Lake resident Suzanne Milliron suggested that the county explore the option of using more volunteer work for things like care for the aging and social services.
She noted that people in her community, at least, have a great spirit of volunteerism, raising initiatives like the Adirondack Carousel and the Community Store, and there are retirees like herself with extra time and skills that could be useful.
"That's a wonderful idea," said board Chairman Gordon Crossman.
She offered to serve on an exploratory committee to look at options.
Leitz noted that the county already does some of that through the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program, through which it pays mileage reimbursements to volunteers.
The board approved an agreement with its largest union Thursday night. That agreement will mean $1.25 million in budget reductions to the county annually. It also will cost union members less through lower contributions to their health care plans.
"It's a win-win for everybody," Lashomb said.
The savings largely come through favoring cheaper generic drugs, Leitz said.
Leitz noted that the union membership voted 150-95 to approve the new agreement, which runs Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2014. Leitz called that vote a good sign. When too many people vote in favor of it, it often means the employer left something on the table, he said.
Without the union agreement, county officials had warned they would have to make deep cuts, probably including layoffs, furloughs and other non-employee-friendly measures.
Tupper Lake's representative, Paul Maroun, missed the meeting because of the Thursday morning funeral of the aunt he took care of for years, Rose Rosky. Legislators attended the funeral before coming to Saranac Lake.
"It was very moving," Crossman said at the meeting. He offered the board's condolence to Maroun.
Vinograd said he'd like to see the board hold its hearings later in the evenings in the future. He said Thursday's hearings, scheduled for 4:30, 5 and 5:30 p.m., were too early for most people to attend, other than the press, county employees and retirees like himself.
He also asked the county to do more of a public relations push to spread the word about hearings in the future. He complained that he only read about them a day before in the Enterprise.
"I think it's a good suggestion," said Legislator Guy "Tim" Smith. "Next year, let's see what we can do."
Board members noted that the county will also take written comments on the budget and redistricting plan until Nov. 1. They can be addressed to Gloria J. Valone, clerk of the Board of Legislators, 355 West Main St., Suite 409, Malone, NY 12953 or by email at email@example.com.