Albany County Executive Michael Breslin gave his annual State of the County Address Monday night. The message, unsurprisingly, was bleak. “We are in extremely challenging economic times,” said the executive. “States, local governments and people across the nation are facing the greatest economic challenges since the Great Depression. Albany County is not immune.”
After recognizing the county employees currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, Breslin immediately began detailing the current economic state of Albany County: The unemployment rate is the highest on record; the price of homes has fallen 6.5 percent; sales-tax receipts have fallen by $11 million; and 10,000 people have lost their jobs in the last year alone. Compounding these problems is the coinciding increase in demand for public services, a nearly 50-percent increase in food stamps issued, and a 20-percent increase in both temporary and emergency assistance.
“The precipitous drops in sales tax revenues, the delays and cuts in state reimbursements and the increase in demand for all public assistance services are placing an extraordinary strain on our operations. If we don’t take action, that burden will be passed on to county property taxpayers,” said Breslin, inviting the legislators to a meeting later in the month to “discuss our fiscal situation and the difficult options we face.” He also mentioned a resolution that was scheduled to go before the legislature for a vote at the monthly meeting following his address.
Resolution No. 121 provides for the creation of a special budget committee “to evaluate and make recommendations concerning all matters which the committee may deem appropriate relating to financial solvency and cost containment measures.” The resolution was adopted, but an amendment to replace one of the seven members with republican legislator Richard Mendick was voted down 19-17 amid arguments that Mendick, who is a certified management accountant with more than 25 years of experience, is considerably more qualified than the member he would have replaced.
“Cash flow is such a challenge that we could run out of money to pay our bills,” Breslin continued, citing accelerated receipt of revenues, delayed payments and the tax amnesty program implemented last fall as the only reasons that this has not yet occurred. He said that his office was in the process of reviewing the capital plan, and that “at a minimum we will delay some projects and are seriously considering canceling projects as well.” He stressed that the 2011 budget would be even more difficult, and estimated that next year’s budget gap will be as much as $35 million, which “would represent a 50-percent real property tax increase.”
“I am gravely concerned about increasing expenditures and exacerbating our situation even further,” Breslin said to the leglislature. “We must be realistic about the county’s dire financial position and develop a sustainable budget. We must be diligent about how we spend each and every dollar. You and I will need to make decisions about what we spend today and what to cut in the 2011 budget. That means hard choices about the definition of essential services and changes in the way services are delivered.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Breslin also discussed some of the successes that the county has had during the last year, including nearly $1 million in housing improvements, and the creation of jobs through the Empire Zone Program, loan programs and new businesses. He pointed to the county’s coordinated response to the H1N1 pandemic as proof of what can be accomplished when departments work together—10,000 people were vaccinated at 60 public clinics as a result of the efforts of the Health Department, Public Works, General Services, Informational Services and the Times Union Center. “During these dire fiscal times, we must look outside organizational boundaries. We must find opportunities to partner with other local governments in the region and continue our efforts to have our county departments work more collaboratively.”
To that end, the county will be working with the sheriff’s office to consolidate the region’s 911 call centers (currently there are 10) to operate “more efficiently and less expensively.” Albany County will also be working closely with Schenectady County to “create more liveable communities, particularly for the aging and disabled,” and already has received support from 20 local communities and funding from the state to develop a solid-waste-management authority for the Capital Region.
“Working together, we can increase recycling, reduce waste, improve efficiency and save money,” said Breslin before announcing plans to start work on a waste heat recovery project that he says will reduce energy use by 30 percent, save $15 million over the next 20 years and reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 1,400 tons a year. Ninety percent of the cost of this project is covered by stimulus funds and other grants.
“The challenges ahead of us are daunting,” Breslin concluded. “Unemployment remains high and businesses are struggling to survive. The $35 million gap we face in 2011 will force us to make real cuts in the budget. One-shot fixes and short-term changes won’t get us through this storm. We need long-term sustainable solutions. We must have the courage to make the difficult decisions that will protect county property taxpayers while maintaining the critical and essential services for those most in need.”
Whether the legislature took his warnings to heart was unclear. During the meeting that followed, they went ahead with an agreement to hire HF John Group, LLC to provide financial advice regarding the possibility of building a new county nursing home, even as one legislator pointed out that the Special Nursing Home Facilities Committee was created to do just that. They also voted in favor of funding for certain preventative service providers, rejecting a new process devised by the Department for Children, Youth and Families, which was intended to save the county around $1 million annually but has already cost the DCYF considerable time and money.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” admitted Dan McCoy, chairman of the Albany County Legislature, but he feels that Breslin’s address was too focused on negatives and the fiscal crisis. “It’s going to be a tough economy, but we need people spending their money. I think, as a leader, one of our jobs is to let the public know what’s going on, but you have to be a cheerleader. You have to talk about growth and jobs. We need to be cheerleaders about growth.”