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Jefferson County escapes Comptroller’s dark determination, for now

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Jefferson County is in good financial health, despite a dismal prognosis for local governments issued Friday by the state’s chief fiscal officer, according to Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Board of Legislators Finance and Rules Committee.

“Many local governments have nearly exhausted their resources in an effort to avoid severe fiscal stress…” began a Friday press release from state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

The New York State Association of Counties calls that stress the “looming county fiscal cliff,” evincing a fondness for topography-tinged metaphors shared by federal legislators. But it’s not a vertical edge Jefferson County has to worry about — at least not yet — according to Mr. Gray.

The county has enjoyed budgetary security thanks in part to nearly $11 million in reserve funds.

A cache of such funds is one of the hallmarks of fiscal fitness according to Mr. DiNapoli’s “fiscal stress monitoring system” unveiled in September.

It’s a reserve that legislators guard carefully.

“We try to restrain ourselves here,” said Mr. Gray. “When you have reserves, there’s a natural tendency of people to spend those reserves.”

Mr. Gray is particularly wary of institutionalizing costs by adding employees or programs to the county’s budget, which can creep, by short increments, into great burdens on tax revenue.

“We’re very stingy in that regard,” he said.

Keeping a strong reserve fund is viewed as a prudent strategy for a time of great economic uncertainty on both the local and national levels.

In his press release, Mr. DiNapoli cited “years of decreasing, stagnant or slow economic growth,” as the reason that local governments have depleted rainy day funds in an effort to avoid further cutting vital services.

According to a statement from the New York State Association of Counties, a major source of the financial strain on local governments is the ever-increasing number of state mandates supported by local tax revenue.

It’s a sentiment shared by Mr. Gray.

“It’s a constant tug-of-war; a struggle between the state and counties over who’s paying what,” he said.

According to Mr. Gray, local governments are expected to contribute more and more money to keep up with enhancements to programs, especially social services, where changing income eligibility standards have broadened the pool of applicants.

“If counties are on the edge financially, this exacerbates it,” Mr. Gray said.

According to the 2013 budget, 82.90 percent of Jefferson County’s property tax revenue goes toward state-mandated costs. The county pays more than $41 million to state programs.

A line in the budget asserts “Without the state-mandated costs, the tax levy could theoretically be as little as $1.12 per $1,000 of assessed value.”

The levy currently stands at $6.43 per $1,000 for 2013.

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