Budget reduces spending, tax levy
But Hein warns of steep hike in health insurance costs
Ulster County Executive Michael Hein unveiled a $325 million budget for 2017 on Friday that would reduce the property tax levy for the fifth consecutive year and continue the county on a path of reform that he said had been a hallmark of his administration.
Spending under the plan is down $5 million from the $330 million 2016 budget, and the amount to be generated by property by taxes will drop 0.25 percent, to $76.9 million. The budget also calls for additional funding for infrastructure improvements, soaring health care costs and environmental initiatives, including the installation of
six new car-charging stations countywide.
An unspecified number of county employees would be offered early retirement incentives under the spending plan, and the amount of money allocated to contract agencies funded through legislative initiatives would be reduced by $50,000 — a recommendation, Hein said, that came from legislative leadership.
Hein unveiled his 2017 budget before more than 150 people at the Business Resource Center on Ulster Avenue in the town of Ulster, the proposed future location of the county’s Family Court.
He said the plan address the challenges the county faces while still providing the “critical services” county residents rely on.
Ulster County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk said that, at first blush, Hein’s plan “looks like something I can support.”
“We’re cutting taxes and still investing in infrastructure, and that’s fantastic,” said Ronk, RWallkill. He said that while the Legislature will spend the next several weeks going through the details of Hein’s plan, “I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t pass.”
Hein’s proposal calls for using $16.5 million from the county fund balance to offset spending as well as a “targeted early retirement incentive program” that will result in the elimination of an unspecified number of “general government employees.”
Following the budget presentation, Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell said public safety employees will not be eligible for the early retirement incentive program.
The Hein plan also calls for roughly $111 million in sales tax revenues in 2017, a 1.55 percent increase over what was budgeted in 2016. But, he warned, that estimate is contingent upon the state Legislature allowing the county to continue charging an additional 1 percent sales tax on top of the 3 percent the county levies by right.
And he said, to protect the county against any loss in revenue should the 1 percent tax not be reauthorized, he will pay the county’s “contract agencies” quarterly in 2017, with the fourth-quarter payment contingent on state approval of the added tax.
“We fully recognize exactly how important all these valuable agencies are, and I pray that this scenario is never forced upon us, but, simply put, we cannot spend money that we do not have or irresponsibility undermine the very foundation of public health and safety by ignoring this possibility,” Hein said.
The state must reauthorize the additional county sales tax every two years. In 2013, state Assemblyman Kevin Cahill blocked a bill that would have allowed the county to extend its sales tax amid a fight with the county over welfare costs. Hein’s budget allocates $15 million for infrastructure, continuing an improvement plan he launched in 2015, and adds 11 new hybrid vehicles to the county fleet. It also calls for a $250,000 “transparency initiative” that will detail the county’s energy conservation savings, and the installation of six electric vehicle charging stations, which he said will be funded through a grant.
Hein said health care costs are expected to soar by 20 percent, or $4.5 million — the result, he said, of a “perfect storm” of rising health care costs nationally and a dispute between HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley, the county’s major local healthcare provider, and insurer Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which has left county employees on that plan “out of network.” He said any agreement to end the dispute probably will result in the county experiencing sharp hikes in its health insurance costs.
The Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee is to begin its review of the proposed spending plan in the next several weeks and adopt a final 2017 budget in December.