What to do with $14.6 million?

There’s more to discuss

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/10/21

MONTICELLO, NY — The American Rescue Plan gave Sullivan $14.6 million that had to be used to offset expenses related to the pandemic. Last month, the legislature voted to split $7.6 million …

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What to do with $14.6 million?

There’s more to discuss

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — The American Rescue Plan gave Sullivan $14.6 million that had to be used to offset expenses related to the pandemic. Last month, the legislature voted to split $7.6 million between the county’s roads and SUNY Sullivan’s capital project (which is the county’s responsibility), and carved out $375,000 for premium pay for frontline workers.

The issue, however, is not done.

Matt Montalbo, from auditors Drescher & Malecki, pointed to revenue, or the lack of it, in 2020. The county did make money—room and sales tax from all the visitors, plus mortgage tax from new residents—but that money doesn’t show up right away in the county’s coffers. Montalbo reported that the process can take months—particularly true in 2020. “So you did have to significantly reduce your expenses,” he said.

Counties are supposed to keep two months’ worth of operating expenses in a fund balance. For Sullivan, that would look like $32 million or so, Montalbo said.

The county currently has $25.7 million in the fund balance.  (There are ways to cope with that, like borrowing short-term, but you then have to pay interest. That, one assumes, is not “best practice.”)

Why is the fund balance down? The jail project (approved by a past legislature) was a big part of it, Montalbo said. The question becomes: should the ARPA funds be used to whittle down expenses that would otherwise be paid for from the fund balance?

Chairman Rob Doherty and legislators George Conklin and Nick Salamone might agree. They voted against the premium pay carve-out last month.

But, as was said in public comment over the course of the August 5 meetings, the federal government wanted some (if not all) of the money to go toward health programs and premium pay—people and programs directly affected by the pandemic. A county survey showed that many residents agreed with those goals.

“I am not aware,” said commenter Lou Setren, “of a single individual who said, ‘Let’s use this money so we can reduce our bond load’... not dime one of this money is going to improve healthcare programs in this county,” especially notable after the repeated discussion of the county’s health rankings.

He asked, was the focus on health outcomes and health rankings in the county only lip service? “Do your job, apply the money appropriately.”

County treasurer Nancy Buck said that she was in favor of premium pay, but asked that it not come out of the ARPA funds, because of the audit that will be required and the effort needed by several offices to keep track of who gets the funds, the payroll taxes, and so on. (Which, she added, they should charge the county extra [for the staff time]). Instead “take it out of contingency.”

Legislators had concerns too.

In an email sent to them, county manager Josh Potosek had laid out options that included different definitions of a frontline worker. It’s not hard, said Joe Perrello. “[Hands-on workers] who were out there, doing their job because they had to go. This should not be negotiated, this should be a stipend saying, ‘Thank you for your services.’”

The county is currently negotiating with the union for 2022 salaries and benefits.

“This is for the frontline workers, the essential workers, this is hazard pay,” said Nadia Rajsz. “This is not rocket science.”

“Public health,” Doherty interjected.

The only thing Rajsz would amend was that in the resolution that passed, “there’s no start date or end date.”

Reimbursement for staff that gave up their salaries will be handled through human resources, and won’t come from ARPA funds.

Mike Brooks, who voted for premium pay last month, recommended using contingency funds.

“It’s not all about the almighty dollar,” said Perrello. “You gotta help people out...It [COVID-19] may happen all over again.”

Use local funds, said Potosek. Not ARPA.

“Can’t we just take care of our county employees?” asked legislator Luis Alvarez. The county functions because of them, not because of us.”

The issue will likely be readdressed at a future date.

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