MALONE - During a contentious meeting Tuesday morning, Franklin County legislators tried to iron out the final details of their budget so it can be passed soon.
Legislators have agreed to a 1.91 percent tax hike, but there isn't a consensus that the budget numbers bear out that percentage yet.
County officials are expecting about a $2 million deficit at the end of the 2012 budget, in part due to Native Americans on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation not paying the money the county budgeted for its share of casino revenue.
Officials said the county will have to pay for the deficit from its contingency fund, and county Treasurer Bryon Varin said he'll likely advise next year that some money is budgeted to add to the contingency fund in 2014 to make up for it.
Varin and county Manager Tom Leitz spent most of the meeting arguing back and forth about several areas of the budget they disagree on, as legislators played goalie.
Varin said he didn't like the way Leitz hid about a half-million dollars in the budget in case negotiations with the county's union require that it add that money to health insurance costs. Leitz said it was necessary to hide it so it wasn't clear to the union how high the county was able to go when negotiating the costs.
"I don't agree with that, Tom," Varin said. "That's why we have a contingency."
Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, agreed with Leitz, saying that it's not in the public's interest to show the county's hand in negotiations.
"We're not going to take your opinion every single time," Burpoe said. "It's our prerogative how we want to put monies into each of these accounts."
Varin disagreed with some of Leitz's estimates, including too much money planned in revenue from the auction of foreclosed-on properties. Leitz bumped that number up to $250,000 after seeing some high-value properties on the foreclosure list, but Varin noted that many of those properties have tax liens on them that have to be paid off first before the county takes any profit.
Varin also disagreed with the number Leitz budgeted for revenue from payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), which Leitz put at $150,000. Varin brought this up toward the end of the meeting, drawing criticism from legislators.
"I'm absolutely flabbergasted," Burpoe said. "We've been here an hour-and-a-half. ... It's November 27th, man."
Varin said the PILOT money is reflected in another line item in the budget, and he didn't know where Leitz got the number. Leitz said Varin gave him the number when they spoke in August.
Varin said he believes it's possible to get reimbursement from the state for some health insurance expenses for retirees of the county's Department of Social Services, and he believes that revenue may offset the areas of the budget he disagrees with.
Varin also dislikes that Leitz has changed the way the budget document is organized, putting all the county's rent, postage and phone expenses into one place rather than separating it out by department. Varin said he was part of the group that separated those expenses out years ago, to make it clearer how much money was being spent by each department.
"I can't support commingling the money in one large pot," Varin said.
Leitz said it's clearer to put all those expenses together. It wastes time for departments within the county to bill one another for things like rent, and it's easier to hide money in line items like postage, which have historically been over-budgeted, Leitz said. He believes the budget is clearer this way.
Put it to bed
The budget isn't due until Dec. 20, but legislators try to finalize it as early as possible - traditionally the first week of December - to make it easier for the people who put tax bills together, so those people don't have to do the bulk of their work through the holidays.
Varin said he will write down his analysis of the current budget and give it to legislators on Thursday. Legislators said they want to discuss it the following Thursday, Dec. 6, at their first regular meeting in December.
Burpoe said he'd like to put the issue to bed then.
"We're in bed now; we just have to get covered up," said Legislator Marc "Tim" Lashomb.