Making technically edible sausage
Otsego County’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. We have to have our 2024 budget finalized by December 31, 2023.3 This is the time of the year when all of the numbers get written in ink.
Thanks for reading Martini with a Twist! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The state’s budget year is April 1-March 31. You can already see where this would be an issue. A good chunk of our funding comes from the state and we never know exactly what those numbers are until their budget is final. Their budget is never final or on-time or an accurate reflection of what will happen, btw. This was true before Covid. It is doubly true now. Counties can only ballpark and hope, knowing that the winds in Albany are capricious.4
The penalties for the county not filing by the deadline are severe. The penalties for the state not filing and changing its mind a million times are non-existent.5
Hold that thought. We’ll come back
In 2023, Otsego County gave its employees — you know, the people doing the actual work of paving roads, tracking diseases, and protecting the most vulnerable — long deserved raises. Partly, this was done because it was the right thing to do. Mostly this was done because we could not retain or hire anyone because no one in their right mind would work for so little money.
Because it had been so long since we’d done this and because inflation shot up at the same time, which means the dollar amount needed to be larger than it would have been just two years previous, this put is in a $3.5-4 million hole. We were able to fill a bit of the deficit with the payroll savings we had from all of the open positions we could not fill because no one wanted them. Still, there is a hole, if a slightly less deep one.6
Because of the properties of multiplication, this pain is not evenly distributed. Some county offices have two or three people in them. The extra money needed to pay employees is relatively small. It’s not invisible, mind, and needs to be accounted for -- but it isn’t crippling at that scale.
When you get to the Department of Social Services,7 which is where the bulk of our employees work, a very small percentage becomes a very large number very quickly. Which. Okay, fine. We knew we’d have to scrape back to the bone and continue to provide services and find a way to hire the good people we’re now attracting because we are paying a reasonable wage.
And then the state decided to stand on our necks when we were already knocked down.
Hold that thought, too.
Medicare/Medicaid is a federal program and funds a significant amount of DSS’s work. Most (if not all of the other 49)8 states pass the federal dollars directly to the local agencies who administer it. New York does not do this.
Instead, the federal money goes to Albany. That office takes a cut, then tells counties how much of it they will get. It will never, ever be all of it. Know that going in.
Just to keep the math easy, it works like this everywhere but here: Feds send $1,000 to the state. That $1,000 is divided among the towns, cities, and municipalities in that state who provide social services. It’s pretty easy to budget what you will get if you are one of those providers.
Here it works like this: Feds send $1,000 to the state. The state tells local governments how much they will get, based on how much the state decides to keep to balance its own budget first. If it’s a good budget year, we’ll get $900. If the state has no money,9 we might see $850. We won’t know this number with any certainty until the state finishes its budget, which will be three months after ours MUST be finalized.
It gets worse.
That number is continually revised. So the state could say in March that it’ll send $850. It can come back in July and say j/k. It’s going to be $600. The burden is on the locality to figure out how to make that work.10
It gets even better. The state can also clawback money you’ve already received and spent. You have your $600 in hand from this year, for example, and are told that the $850 you spent last year should have been $700. You now have to send $150 to Albany ASAP.11
None of this is hypothetical, nor is it limited to the wacky years when we have a pandemic.12 This is standard procedure. For the 2023 budget year, the county was informed it would be receiving $1 million+ less than we’d budgeted for from Medicaid/Medicare.13 Our DSS Commissioner made it work somehow because she had no other choice.
In a private company, you could make up this shortfall two ways: cut expenses and raise revenue.
We could easily cut expenses if we weren’t mandated by the state to provide most of this department’s services. With most of them, we’re already doing them as efficiently as possible, given the regulations we have to comply with. And not for nothing, a lot of these services have very real impacts on human life. It is not an overstatement to say that kids and adults could die if we screw up.
So cutting expenses is hard at this point. We’ve run out of fat to cut.14
Our main way to raise revenue is through property tax. Without getting too in the weeds, our window for doing that for 2024 is not only closed but nailed shut because of the state tax cap. We are right at the legal limit15 and it only just offsets inflation.
No more revenue is coming. Or, if it is,16 it won’t show up in enough time to be useful.
To sum up:
In order to retain and recruit employees, the county raised salaries. This created a hole in the budget. It was always going to be a challenge but a manageable one. In DSS, that challenge has been compounded by how the state allocates federal funding. There’s little the county can do about a) how much we receive, b) when we know that number, and c) if we’ll be required to send a chunk of it back. We are out of ways to streamline and cannot meaningfully increase our revenue.17
Last night, after a long afternoon spent in a budget meeting where we had to make some excruciating choices, I lost any desire to work the problem and find a way through. My ability to be a cheerleader for local government has left the building. All of the choices are terrible and I’m tired of being part of making them.
I wish I had some pithy, mildly encouraging sentiment to end with. I’ve written an deleted a dozen attempts. Somebody’s Gotta Do It, sure, but there has to be a better way.
but, one hopes, mildly entertaining and incredibly infuriating
TL,DR: there are never good answers and you will always be the bad guy.
This has been simplified for argument’s sake.
THIS IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT
show me the lie
Paying our employees a living wage was the correct choice and one that I’ll make every single time.
I’m going to focus on DSS here. Know that it isn’t the only department in pain but that it is the one I understand the most. I’ve been the chair of the county committee that oversees it for four years. I also sit on two NYSAC committees that intersect with their work.
[citation needed - but I’m 90% certain]
the state never has money
If you have the utter gall to ask the state agency how to close a $250 gap, they will nearly always say, “we trust the county to find a solution that works best for them.” When you come up with a solution, you will invariably be told, “We don’t like that one. Try again.” There will be almost no actionable advice about what the state is looking for. You just have to keep trying knowing that you will never, ever guess correctly.
This doesn’t even get into situations like one we’re currently wrestling with. When kids are placed in very specialized custody, the county has zero say where they go an how much it costs. Care for one child right now is roughly $1400/day. Said child has been there for at least 18 months. The state’s billing process for this is so backed up that we are just now receiving the charges for 2019 — and given the way they’ve decided to clear the billing backlog, we’ll likely get 18 months worth of charges at the end of this year and at the beginning of 2024. The onus is on us to pay on time.
It was understandably wackier during 2020/2021.
It’s slightly more complicated, mind, and involves two pools of money. Know that I know this and am sparing you the details of MAP v. fMAP.
Before you say it, cutting the salaries of the county reps wouldn’t help at all. The money we get paid adds up to a rounding error.
In theory, we could exceed the cap. In reality, the penalties for that are so severe that it would not be worth it.
one hope is that the audit of our 2022 fiscal year, which our auditors should have returned to us in July, shows that we have more money than we think we do. It’s as likely as anything else, which is to say, not likely at all. But one must have hope.
You might be thinking: why hasn’t either of your state reps gone to bat for you? Oh my sweet summer child. Our state leg is very, very blue. Our local reps are very, very red.
Pete Oberacker, our State Senator, will do absolutely nothing to get himself crosswise with the local republican party. Finding ways to work with the democratic majority to get more money into the county would definitely get him painted as a RINO. It’s a non-starter.
As far as the Assembly - Otsego county is split among at least three different Assembly Members, which means that we are functionally no one’s problem. Brian Miller represents my district in the Assembly. I’ve seen him in person twice and spoken to him never, mostly because he only sticks around long enough to have his picture taken for the paper.