Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
On April 29, 2013, Nassau County Clerk of Courts John Crawford paid a house call on the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), offering a new diagnosis of the county’s financial state and offering both short-term remedies and advice on long-term cures. Crawford, who also serves as the holder of the county’s purse strings, appeared at the invitation of the BOCC and spent about 45 minutes going over a slide presentation designed, as he described it, “at a 6th grade level,” to encourage the BOCC to take different short-term and long-term approaches to formulating the budget so that it is more easily understood by the public and does not lead to erosion of public confidence.
Crawford took great exception to recent local newspaper headlines that cited a $9M county budget shortfall. He claimed that there is no budget mess or crisis because the county currently has $44M banked. He complimented both the BOCC and county staff for keeping the county’s costs down. However, he suggested that the county could employ some accounting stratagems that would both present a more realistic picture of the county budget and also allay public fears about the need for tax increases in the coming fiscal year.
Property appraisals dropped significantly over the past few years due to the national recession. However, Crawford explained, indicators show that the county is now entering a recovery phase: unemployment has dropped to 5.6%; collection of taxes, including bed taxes, is up; building permits are being issued again. There is no talk about new tax assessments or raising taxes.
However, Crawford suggested, if the BOCC would amend some financial policies, the public picture of the budget would not look as dismal. He recommended that the BOCC use all revenues, whether recurring or nonrecurring, to meet budget challenges during the recovery phase, including incorporating the one-cent sales tax in the county’s operational budget. He suggested combining the various contingency fund reserves into one reserve fund, and to increase the fund size to 10% of the budget, the maximum allowable under law. The contingencies would not then be considered part of the current year revenue. By doing this and by putting the one-cent sales tax into the operational budget, what looked like a $9M shortfall drops to a $927K shortfall.
Crawford went on to add that currently the county has $38M banked for projects identified in its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) plus an uncommitted $6M in that same fund. The shortfall of less than a million dollars could easily be covered by “slowing the spigot” on the county’s discretionary spending from that fund, Crawford claimed.
As far as long-term remedies, Crawford suggested that the BOCC consider following his lead in readdressing county personnel policies covering both union and non-union employees that he characterized as unfair to taxpayers. He cited current policies that allow for sick leave, annual leave and bonus leave “buy backs” that last year cost the county taxpayers a combined $664K. He also cited a cost of $180K paid out over the same period in longevity and seniority pay. He also mentioned that in light of changes in the law, severance packages, even if included in contracts, would need to be changed.
He concluded his presentation by recommending that the county create and implement a fully transparent stabilization fund to dispel erroneous public perceptions that the county will continue to tax and spend, hoard and hide money. He suggested that by emphasizing the need to sustain and stabilize county government spending, the BOCC would be able to build public confidence and counteract the attention-grabbing local newspaper headline that seem to undercut their good stewardship.
Members of the public applauded Crawford as he concluded his presentation. Commissioners thanked Crawford for his suggestions, but reminded both Crawford and the public that they have been regularly making budget savings over the past 5 years. District 5 Commissioner Walter J. “Junior” Boatright said that the BOCC was paying back earlier debt and that no new taxes had been created. In response to comments about the need to be more transparent to avoid headlines, Boatright said, “We [the BOCC] haven’t tried to hide anything.” District 3 Commissioner Pat Edwards thanked Crawford and said, “I’m all ears” in listening to ways to look at the budget differently. District 4 Commissioner Barry Holloway said that he would reserve comment at this time. Chair Danny Leeper (District 1 Commissioner) thanked Crawford. “We are moving forward,” he said. “We’ve tried to do the right thing over the past five years. We have a lot of work to do.” District 2 Commissioner Steve Kelley was absent for health reasons.
April 30, 2013 5:00 p.m.