Most of the 14 Yates County legislators support the creation of a citizens advisory committee that could look over their shoulders in the coming months as they and county department workers face choices about the future of county services.
At Monday's lengthy legislature meeting, two deep discussions centered on examining county operations to look for efficiencies and local tax savings.
At the end of the second discussion, legislators were asked to comment on a draft document prepared by District III Legislator Rob Schwarting of Milo that outlines the establishment of a citizens advisory committee.
Schwarting explains he created the proposal in response to requests from the public that there be more transparency and accountability to the taxpayers in the budget process.
"We didn't get the public input we wanted in August, September and October," he said Monday night, explaining that there was no structured way for people to be involved, and he hopes his draft is the beginning of a way to organize a citizen group.
For the past two years, legislators have been pressured by some taxpayers to make deeper cuts in spending to bring the local property tax rate down.
"I think it's legitimate that there is a second set of eyes not as close to it as we are. They might see something that we have not undertaken," he said, adding that he understands why some legislators and county leaders might be concerned about the motives of someone who wants to participate. "There will always be people with an agenda. They will have an axe and they are going to grind it," he said.
The document he shared Monday includes a list of skills and perspectives that he thinks the county should seek when trying to put together an advisory group. He acknowledges that it's likely that certain viewpoints might be over represented, but he's also optimistic that an advisory group would draw people from many perspectives to provide a balanced view of what the county's services should be.
"It takes a great leap of faith by the legislature to empower a panel like this," he said. But he also said, "I have a concern that the public misses the point when we talk about state mandates," and noted that when the economy is in a slide, the demands on the county increase. "People who talk about forthcoming budgets have to understand that the cost for the county must go up when there is a reverse in the economy."
While most of the legislators agreed a group should be formed, District I Legislator Donna Alexander said she is not in favor of a group. "Businesses, governments and schools operate differently. It's our responsibility, not some outside group," she said. Alexander is the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, which oversees departments that have drawn multiple questions from the public and some lawmakers about spending.
Page 2 of 3 - Tim Dennis, from District II, chair of the Finance Committee, said he supports empowering an outside group. But he agrees with fellow District II Legislator Don House's sentiment, saying, "They need to understand the final responsibility lies with the legislature."
"The more we talk, the more this situation becomes clear," said Schwarting during the meeting, pointing out, "(The public) needs to understand that mandates are nothing new. They are a formula that has worked well in the past, but the demand for services have gone up."
At that, Chairman Taylor Fitch noted, "If this were a business, we'd be hiring because of increased demand (for services)."
Fitch asked legislators to review the proposal and submit comments to him before the next round of committee meetings in February.
By the end of the first discussion, the legislators had established a list of areas that they will find ways to study for effectiveness, efficiency and savings. The areas account for nearly half of the 2013 budget — over $20.3 million in the county's $40.8 million spending plan and include:
• District Attorney's office, where four full-time staff are charged with the prosecution of crimes, which is mandated. While the elected District Attorney position is required, the staffing level of the office is not. The office's net cost for 2013 is $348,978.
• The county's share of Community College tuition, 1/3 of the total cost for county residents. The net cost to Yates County in 2013 is $1.1 million.
• E-911 dispatch, where 13 full-time and one part -time workers provide services as partially mandated by New York State county law at a projected net cost of $885,302 in 2013.
• Sheriff's Department, where 29 full-time and nine part time employees, partially mandated, provide law enforcement services at a projected net cost of $2.548 million in 2013
• Jail, where 41 full-time workers, mandated by New York State Corrections law will cost the county $3.14 million in 2013.
• Social Services, where 46 full-time and one part -time employees work. All but one of the services are required and will cost local taxpayers $5.8 million in 2013.
• Pension System, which is mandated and expected to cost county property taxpayers $2.2 million.
• Highway, where 27 full -time employees work to maintain county roads at a net cost to the county for 2013 of nearly $4.3 million. These services are not mandated.
County officials talk about "net costs" when discussing budget issues, while some members of the public who are questioning the spending caution that approach, saying the overall cost of a service or program needs to be examined for savings. The "net cost" is the amount that local property taxes pay after state and federal aid, grants, fees and other offsetting revenue is factored.
Page 3 of 3 - In some cases, studies are either underway or will be underway soon. A study of the jail's staffing was completed in late 2012, for example, and a similar study of the 911 dispatch center has been approved by the legislators.
Areas that have not been identified for further review, either because they are a required service or because the legislators agreed they are necessary, and the net 2013 cost are: legislature ($132,135); clerk of Legislature ($52,888); County Administrator ($135,352); Budget Officer ($10,320); Personnel ($154,398); Board of Elections ($1,115); Alternatives to Incarceration ($43,960); Court Security ($15,782); Stop DWI ($0); Animal Control ($68,094); Weights & Measures ($26,183); Youth Program ($28,414). These areas account for a total net cost of $564,495.
That leaves several other areas that were not discussed, including (2013 net cost): Public Defender ($345,340), Coroners ($31,206), Treasurer (generates $93,664 in revenue for the county), Real Property ($186,801), County Clerk/DMV (generates $500,445 in revenue for the county), County Attorney ($216,674), Records Management ($33,783), Buildings & Grounds ($711,998), Information Technology ($407,240), Handicapped Children's Education ($623,802), Communications ($317,332), Probation ($345,058), Emergency Management ($134,563), Public Health ($524,921), Community Services ($48,406), Veterans Services ($102,003), Historian ($45,090), Planning ($123,511), Solid Waste ($74,380). Some of these areas are mandated by state or federal law.
Standing committees will make recommendations for studying each of the areas.
Other business at Monday's legislature meeting included:
• Public transportation: Four representatives from RGRTA (Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority) made a presentation about public transportation services that could be provided in Yates County. The legislature took no action. If the county joins the authority, the annual cost to the county for public transportation could be between $35,000 and $40,000.
• Court Case: Dick Reagan presented documents to the legislators outlining his concerns about the public defender's office, and expressed his concern that District Attorney Jason Cook plans to re-try his son, Richard Reagan III whose DWI conviction in Benton Court was overturned by County Judge Dennis Bender in December. The younger Reagan has served his six month sentence.
• Employee recognition: The legislators recognized county employees for their length of service. See the Jan. 23 Chronicle-Express for a complete article.
• Distinguished Youth: Heather Andersen was recognized as the Yates County Distinguished Youth for the fourth quarter of 2012. See the Jan. 23 Chronicle-Express for a complete article.
• Jail Food: The legislature authorized Sheriff Ron Spike to sign a food purchasing agreement with New York State nutritional services at Mohawk Correctional Facility for food product. Spike says the agreement will lead to annual savings of about $20,000.
• Public Hearing: The legislature scheduled a public hearing for 1 p.m. Feb. 11 in the legislative chambers regarding the residency of corrections officers, who will be required to live in Yates County or an adjoining county.