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Essex County faces tough choices in new budget plan

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Budget season is heating up for town and county governments, and in Essex County that could mean some big changes.

A pair of popular county-run services - the Horace Nye Nursing Home and the fish hatchery - could be cut loose as lawmakers look to present a budget that meets the state's new 2 percent property tax cap.

Supervisors are also considering layoffs, after a key union that represents 450 workers declined to renegotiate the final year of its contract.

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Reported by

Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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“We are going to present a budget that meet the 2 percent tax cap.”

That’s Moriah town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, speaking last week during Essex County’s Ways and Means Committee.

Scozzafava says the county doesn’t want to send taxpayers a message that it’s not working to meet the new property tax cap.

Supervisors are, in fact, looking at everything in order to cut down a projected $13 million budget gap.

At last week’s committee meeting, lawmakers moved forward two major resolutions – one could set up the sale or lease of the Horace Nye Nursing Home.

Josh Jandris is an associate with Marcus & Millichap, a real estate investment firm in Chicago. He says county governments across the U.S. are trying get out of the nursing home business, and the market for such facilities is strong.

“If you look at our track record, we’ve done a lot of transactions here in the northeast and if New York. We’ve most recently worked with Salem county in New Jersey to help privatize their facility. It was a similarly sized facility of approximately 115 beds, losing about $3 million a year.”

That $3 million loss is comparable to Horace Nye. Supervisors like Roby Politi and Randy Douglas have long called for the county to privatize the facility.

But they’ve run up against strong opposition from the likes of Tom Scozzafava and Chesterfield Supervisor Jerry Morrow.

 “I’ve been here 18 years and I’ve never had a constituent come to my office or I’ve met down here that said they’re tired of paying for the nursing home,” Morrow says. “I will go on record right now and say, no matter what I do not support selling the nursing home.”

Josh Jandris says the Horace Nye Nursing Home could attract 40 to 50 potential buyers if Essex County put it out to bid.

County Chairman Randy Douglas says with that sort of potential interest, the county must at least explore the idea of privatizing the home. He says the same discussion needs to be had about the fish hatchery:

 “It’s just to put this to bed once and for all to see if it could be done privately cheaper or if we continue down the path. In my opinion we only have three options: To privatize the fish hatchery or to continue the way we’re going or close it. And I think closing it, nobody wants because it does have an economic impact on us and I think Mr. Preston did some research and it was roughly $12 million annually.”

That economic impact has local anglers and businesses scrambling to convince lawmakers not to sell the facility.

Tom Scozzafava, who opposes selling the nursing home, says everything is on the table:

“These are all issues that have to be put on the table, not only the fish hatchery. I’m surprised that it doesn’t look into the possibility of a lease or sale. I think the fairgrounds, uh, we have to take a look at that property for possibly a lease or sale, that’s a heck of a piece of real estate down there; maybe somebody from the private sector could utilize that property more than we do for three days a year. I mean, everything has to be looked at.”

And when supervisors say everything, that includes personnel.

Chairman Douglas says the Civil Services Employees Association recently declined to meet with lawmakers. Douglas had hoped they would concede automatic 4 percent raises in 2012, saving the county about $750,000:

 “Two things: In the letter it did say that they felt the $750,000 was minimal and I reminded them that $750,000 is not minimal when people can’t even buy their medicine or their food at this time to put on their table or take care of their loved ones. And every $170,000 was 1% on the tax levee; if we use last year’s numbers that’s 4.5% right off the bat for raises to the CSEA. So $750,000 in my mind is not minimal. Maybe it is to the leaders of the CSEA but not in my mind.”

County lawmakers last week also had a chance to vent to Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward. They told her the 2 percent cap essentially passes the state’s problems down to local government.

But Sayward was resolute in her support of the cap: 

“And together, if we roll up our sleeves I think we can get things done. We’ve always done that in the North Country and it’s gonna hurt, but it’s gonna hurt in a lot of homes of a lot of people out there who were asking for this property tax cap because they want some assurance of what obligation is going to be to government going forward.”

The county has drafted legislation that would allow a tax cap override if necessary. The full board convenes today to take up bills on the potential privatization of the nursing home and the fish hatchery.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m Chris Morris…

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