In a mostly party-line vote, the Dutchess County Legislature passed the 2021 budget 16-8 with all Republicans voting in support and all but one Democrat voting against.
The $502 million budget is virtually identical to the executive budget proposed by County Executive Marc Molinaro, with only minor amendments during the budget process. The property tax levy will remain essentially flat from 2020 with no property tax increase.
“The 2021 budget provides important investments to combat homelessness, to support youth and families, important trainings and technology for law enforcement, and continued support for economic development, including tourism and the arts, as well as our county’s agriculture industry,” said Legislator Gregg Pulver (R-Pine Plains), who is chairman of the Legislature.
County property taxes make up 11% of the average homeowner’s tax bill, with local municipal, fire, school, and special districts accounting for the other 89%.
The 2021 budget cuts $18.6 million from the 2020 adopted budget and uses $12.5 million in “rainy day” and debt reserve funds. Nearly $11 million in savings is coming from the departure of 152 employees who accepted “separation packages” from the administration. The packages cost the county $850,000 in 2020. 42.5 full-time positions have been permanently eliminated, 106 will be held vacant in 2021 and 10 new spots were added.
The departments chosen for the vacancies were one source of Democratic opposition to the budget.
“We’re heading into 2021 with 31 fewer employees in the Health Department than we had this time last year,” said Legislator Brennan Kearney (D-Clinton) of the 15% reduction in health staff. “With COVID-19 cases spiking and overdose deaths unabated, resources should be reallocated to address those urgent needs.”
The budget assumes no economic shutdown next year due to the pandemic, that consumer spending in the fourth quarter of 2020 will rebound to 2019 levels and that local unemployment will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021.
If that happens, the administration projects next year’s sales tax receipts will return to 2019 levels, or $205 million, after this year’s $15 million COVID-19-related shortfall. Sales taxes make up 40% of the county’s revenues.
“2020 has been one of the most challenging years in history, but we could not have been more prepared financially for these unprecedented times,” Molinaro, a Republican, said after the vote. “Fortunately, here in Dutchess County, our long-established conservative fiscal approach has allowed us to produce a 2021 budget with no tax increase, no layoffs and reduced spending.”
Unemployment in Dutchess County was reported as 5.9% in October before the second COVID-19 wave began, up from 3.9% in February. It was over 10% in the late spring during the shutdowns.
“The county urgently needs to protect essential services for our residents, not only to combat Covid but also to address the opioid crisis and meet mental health needs,” said Rebecca Edwards (D-Poughkeepsie), the minority leader. “I voted no because I fear this budget does not do that.”
The budget also projects receiving $80.8 million in state aid. However, if no federal aid package is approved by Congress for the states, Molinaro expects New York will implement cuts of 20% or more.
“We’re asking too much from critical departments that are already stretched too thin,” said Nick Page (D-Beacon), who also voted no. “We’re in a hole, but we’re pretending it’s business as usual while waiting for a federal bailout with our fingers crossed.”
To make up the remaining shortfall, the county budget projects using $11 million in fund balance and $1.5 million in debt reserves in 2021. The 2020 budget projected using $18.3 million in fund balance and debt reserves before the COVID-19 crisis and was modified to allocate another $4.3M in fund balance during the year.
Dutchess County’s remaining fund balance stood at $56.9 million at the end of 2019.
“I thank my legislative colleagues for making this budget process swift and efficient,” said Budget Chair Will Truitt (R-Hyde Park). “Thanks to their dedication and support, we have passed a budget that controls spending and maintains essential services and programs while not passing the burden on to Dutchess County taxpayers.”