The 2019 Rensselaer County budget passed unanimously this week during a special meeting of the County Legislature.
The $346.7 million spending plan is the first under first-term Republican Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, who touts it as fiscally sound. "Unanimously passed, which is a nice thing to see, both sides of the aisle recognizing that it's a fiscally responsible budget. We maintained our services, which obviously are important to the folks here in Rensselaer County, maintains spending and I will be happy to say it's the eighth straight budget under the tax cap here in New York state, and I think, as far as I know, we're only one of five counties to have pulled that off, for eight straight years."
Democrat Peter Grimm, the Minority Leader of the Legislature, is on the same page. "I commend the department heads for all of the dilligent work for what they've done on the budget. In my tenure, I have never seen a budget that hasn't increased the tax levy, so, you know this is something a little unusual. Would we like to have seen it decrease? Well, there's work to be done. But I'm pleased with the budget."
McLaughlin enumerates the positives: "A 0 percent tax increase and our reserves are up. Sales tax revenue is up, so things seem to be headed in the right direction, and certainly, I will make no bones about it, we are the beneficiaries right now, as are most counties, of a healthy economy. We're certainly doing all we can to save some money where we can. We've saved about $3 million since my administration began in January, so things are looking good so far."
County reserves remain strong, at over $30 million. Grimm says the positives outweighed some flaws in the budget. "We weren't happy with several departments getting kind of unprecedented raises to some of their staff, but overall we're very happy with the budget. We think there is more to be done. It is a well-balanced budget and it's not going to increase the taxes for the residents of Rensselaer County, which is a good thing."
McLaughlin says most of the county's financial challenges are tied to unfunded state mandates. "As you know, I've been on both sides of that fence. As an Assemblyman I was railing against them in Albany, and now as a County Executive I certainly am paying even more attention to them. They impact our life on a daily basis in a huge way to the point where 86 cents of every dollar that we collect is already spoken for between federal and state mandated programs. I'm not saying that those are necessarily bad or good programs. They just are. So a lot of this we have no say over."
McLaughlin cites a specific case: "We're looking right now at what we spend in Medicabs, which people see all over the state right now. And we're spending close to $600,000 a month on Medicabs. So, what we're trying to do is figure out, can we number one start our own, and employ some folks and do it ourselves a lot cheaper, or can we quite frankly use Uber for some of the folks and save some money that way, so, that's just one example of the way unfunded mandates affect us."