The Putnam Examiner

County Budget Adopted: No Vetoes Planned by Odell

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By Janine Bowen and David Propper

The Putnam County Legislature adopted its 2015 budget Wednesday night, but not without some dissent and friction amongst legislators.

The budget passed through the legislature 7-2, with legislators Dini LoBue and Kevin Wright both voting against it. The budget is set to stay underneath the state mandated cap with a tax levy increase at 1.7 percent. After all the adjustments were made, the tax cap was exceeded by less than $100,000, but money was taken out of surplus to make sure it complied with the cap.

County Executive MaryEllen Odell said in an interview she doesn’t plan to veto anything as of now. If she changes her mind, Odell still has a week to do so.

“I respect the legislature’s input and the decisions that they made,” Odell said. “And I’m hoping that together we’re going to look at 2015 as the team that we are and find ways to reduce our dependency on sales tax and to stay under the cap and to get Albany off our back.”

The only Democrat on the board and county executive candidate Sam Oliverio called the overall budget “pretty good,” but noted he if he put the spending plan together, the concentration would be on health and safety. He also said he was “disturbed” by certain salary increases, noting several increases were by double-digit percentage points.

Mental Health Training Money Removed

Right off the bat, legislators disagreed about whether the $53,825 budget line that was approved by the administration to fund National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) training for officers should be removed.

Chairman Carl Albano stated a letter received from Sheriff Don Smith and Michael Piazza of the department of social services and mental health stated they have adequate funding for this program, thanks in part to a $23,000 grant obtained for 2015. District 1 Legislator, Barbara Scuccimarra agreed with Albano, noting that if the department needs additional funds in the future, they will ask.

Other legislators, including Oliverio of District 2 and LoBue of District 8 said the money was important and Olivario noted the money would provide a cushion to help the department pay the overtime costs that would be required for officers who go through the training.

“I feel very strongly that this is an important part of the health and safety concerns of the county and we need to step up to that,” said Oliverio.

Legal Aid Gets Money Back

With Olivario and LoBue as the only legislators who voted to keep funding for the NAMI training in the budget, the line was ultimately removed but the county’s contribution to the legal aid society, which also generated some controversy, was ultimately approved.

District 6 Legislator Roger Gross stated that he wanted to restore more than $21,000 to the budget to help pay rent for the Legal Aid society. Historically, rent for the Legal Aid Society was always funded by the county, but the budget line was removed by the administration this year.

Passing by a margin of 6-3, legislators noted that the right to legal representation is a constitutional right for everybody, including those who can’t afford to pay for an attorney on their own. The Legal Aid Society currently handles more than 2,000 cases per year, and legislators noted that keeping the funding in the budget is a matter of taking care of fellow citizens who are less fortunate.

“They are your neighbors. These are our folks and are we going to take care of these folks or not; are we going to give them the kind of opportunity for counseling and legal opportunity that you have,” questioned Gross.

Legislators also argued about the location of the Legal Aid Society, which recently expressed interested in moving from their current location near the courthouse. Gross noted that their current facilities are too small and don’t allow for adequate privacy and confidentially for clients.

In addition, he stated that the top floor of the building is a “fire trap” and the stairs leading up to it are steep, creating a dangerous situation. He noted that if the state is willing to spend money on the local golf course and Tilly Foster Farm, they should also allocate necessary funding to Legal Aid.

County Libraries Get Unexpected Boost in Funds

One of the more positive discussions of the night came when legislators agreed to give an additional two percent funding increase to county libraries. The administration had already approved a three percent increase for all nonprofits, but several legislators felt it was appropriate to give the library an additional two percent because of the valuable services they provide.

“This two percent increase goes to an organization that services every aspect, every part of our society from the youngest to the oldest. This is an institution that, without it, we would be able to feel the pain of our residents who need to do job searches, who need to use the computers, who love to read books,” said Oliverio, who noted that his own local library is currently shut down due to structural concerns and would benefit greatly from the additional funding.

Legislators noted that, in recent years, libraries have become sort of a safe haven, especially during weather disasters like Super Storm Sandy. During the massive power outages, residents flocked to libraries to use the computers and charge their own electronic devices. In addition, they have also become a resource for people who are unemployed and looking for work as well as students who need help with homework assignments.

The two percent increase was also approved by a margin of 6-3, which means that an additional $7,044 will be split between Putnam’s eight libraries. District 3 Legislator Lou Tartaro noted the libraries are incredibly frugal organizations and that this small increase will go a long way.

The president of the Putnam County Library Association Carol Donick said each library director was “very grateful” for unexpected additions and that it would be put to good to use.

“The services we provide are in high demand,” Donick, who runs the Kent Public Library, said. “We always try to be frugal in what we ask for and it was a really nice vote of confidence on the part of the legislature to say we understand and we recognize what libraries do.”

LoBue, Wright Disapprove Budget and Process

Following the approval of the pre-filed resolutions, LoBue made several requests to move certain funds, including money allocated to county positions that are not currently filled, into sub contingency. Her reasoning was that this would give the legislature more control and would prevent the funds from being spent without legislature knowledge.

Albano stated that doing this would be micromanaging, but LoBue countered by saying that keeping the money safe and knowing how it gets spent is part of a legislator’s fiscal responsibility. Albano and Scuccimarra expressed frustration with LoBue’s desire to make changes at the last minute, with Albano stating these concerns should have been brought up at previous committee meetings and Scuccimarra saying that there was no need to move things around at the last minute.

LoBue countered by saying “This is the process. Sorry if you want to go home and watch T.V.”

Ultimately, LoBue was one of two legislators who voted against adopting the county budget, stating it included too many expenditures and simply being under the tax cap is not an adequate reason to approve the budget.

“I advocated for certain increases, but the overall budget I couldn’t advocate for. People are being taxed out of their houses and I believe (the budget) needs thorough oversight and I don’t believe that’s what we did,” she said.

District 9 Legislator Kevin Wright also voted against the budget, believing the legislature did not take the necessary steps leading up to the adoption. He noted that Putnam County used to be the fastest growing county in the state, which is no longer the case and said he believed there should have been more focus placed on lowering sales taxes to make the county more competitive for shoppers and business owners.

He noted that, currently, Westchester and Dutchess both have lower sales tax. In addition, he believes that the legislature could have done more work in order to achieve a budget that came in further under the tax cap.

“I think we’re so happy that we stayed under the cap that we forget it’s there for a reason and we shouldn’t cross that line but there’s nothing wrong with going well under that line,” he said.


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