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Franklin County’s ‘fiscal stress’ score improves

As Franklin County officials had predicted, the county remains on the state’s list of communities “susceptible to fiscal stress,” but it is close to having that designation removed.

While the county’s numbers are improving, the town of Moira found itself added to the list for the first time.

And for the second year in a row, the villages of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid come up blank on the fiscal stress list because both villages’ officials did not file the necessary paperwork with the state comptroller’s office.

Saranac Lake village Treasurer Elizabeth Benson says she and other staff are still working on that, but she assured residents that the village is not under fiscal stress. Two years ago, Saranac Lake showed a very low fiscal stress score of 1.7.

“The annual reporting needs to be done with consistency, and with some staff turnover it has taken longer,” Benson wrote in an email. “We are working with our auditor to complete the necessary paperwork to be up to date.”

Lake Placid Treasurer Mindy Goddeau could not immediately be reached Friday afternoon. Two years ago, that village showed a fiscal stress score of zero — as relaxed as municipal finances can be.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli implemented the stress rating system in 2013 as an “early warning” mechanism to alert municipalities to potential problems with their finances. Municipalities and school districts are classified as significantly stressed, moderately stressed or susceptible to stress based on a scoring system that looks at several factors that affect a municipality’s financial health, including year-end fund balances, operating deficits or surpluses, the municipality’s cash position and its use of short-term debt for normal cash flow and fixed costs, among other factors. Environmental indicators such as the area’s employment rate and the amount of sales tax revenue are also accounted for in the score.

Franklin County and Moira were the only two North Country municipalities named as being stressed. Franklin County’s score of 47.9 places it in the low end of the “susceptible to fiscal stress” category. Municipalities with scores below 45 are considered free of fiscal stress.

The town of Fort Covington is very close, with a score of 44.6, a big jump from 10 the year before. The village Tupper Lake is next highest in Franklin County at 34.6, up from 22.1 the year before and zero the year before that. The only other municipalities with scores over 20 in Franklin and Essex counties are the town of Brandon at 25.4 and the Crown Point school district at 23.3.

The AuSable Valley Central School District, listed under Clinton County, is shown as “susceptible” even though its stress score is 26.7. Northern Adirondack Central School District is under “significant” stress, at 66.7.

The village of Saranac Lake and town of Waverly were among 21 North County communities that failed to file the required paperwork for the state to determine a fiscal stress score, the comptroller’s office reported. Waverly Supervisor Chad Rivers said Thursday the paperwork is nearly complete and should be filed by the end of the month. He added that he is working to bring the town’s required financial reporting current.

County Treasurer Fran Perry said the county has taken a number of steps to improve its stress score over the past several years and that “it seems to have worked.” The county was listed as significantly stressed in the first several years of the state report, which began in 2012, but improved its stature to moderately stressed in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, the county’s stress score dropped it to susceptible.

The report released Thursday examined county finances as of the end of 2019.

The report left the county in the susceptible category, but its score fell 3.4 points, leaving it only three points away from being removed from the list entirely.

The county is “well on our way” to having the “stigma” of fiscal stress removed, Perry said.

One of the biggest reasons for the county’s improvement was the growth of its fund balance, Perry has previously said. The fund balance in 2019 grew by roughly $1.5 million to $8.6 million, bringing the county close to the 10% of the budget total the state recommends that municipalities maintain, Perry has said.

The fund balance had fallen below $1 million before turning around over the past half-dozen years.

While Perry said she was pleased with the results of the state report, she noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant financial concerns for every level of government in New York. Whatever their scores in the comptroller’s report, all municipalities are under significant financial stress, she said.

A too-low fund balance is also the reason Moira appeared on the state’s susceptible to fiscal stress list, town Supervisor Justice Martin said. The town received a score of 53.8 in the comptroller’s report.

The town had been drawing down its fund balance in an effort to keep taxes low and then was hit with a few unexpected expenses that dropped the balance below what the state found acceptable, Martin said. The state generally recommends municipalities maintain a fund balance equal to roughly 10% of their total budget in case of financial emergencies.

In response, Moira town officials will look for additional grants and other outside funds, such as an $80,000 grant it recently received to help pay for a new truck, Martin said. He also said he could not rule out a small tax increase to help build the balance back up.

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