By CRAIG FREILICH
CANTON -- St. Lawrence County Treasurer Kevin Felt says the county’s cash reserves are “dangerously low.”
“Albany estimates reserves should be 15 to 17 percent of appropriations, but it’s not a 'golden rule,’” Felt said.
Fifteen percent of the county’s $235 million in approved appropriations for 2013 is about $35 million, “and that would be way more than we need,” Felt said, even if it were possible.
But when the county’s cash reserve stands at about $4.5 million and Felt has just sent off a state pension payment of $7.3 million, due Feb. 1, it makes him uncomfortable.
“The reserves are still dangerously low,” Felt said.
“We are having to borrow for cash flow because we don’t have the reserves of cash to make payments when money is coming in so slowly and sporadically,” he said.
About five years ago, when he started in the Treasurer’s Office as a deputy treasurer, “we had a $10 to $11 million reserve, and our retirement bill was $3 million. We had just enough to get through the winter. Now if we had a reserve of $10 to $11 million it would most likely not be enough” to get by without borrowing to fill the gap. County property tax payments are being received now, and local tax collectors need time to compile and send them along, too late for the big pension payment deadline.
The reserve keeps getting smaller, in part, because expenses, such as pension obligations and health insurance for employees, keep going up; because economic activity in the county is below what it was a few years ago, generating less in tax receipts; and because the state continues to require counties to run expensive programs like Medicaid while allotting less and less to the counties to help cover the cost – the “unfunded mandates” that local politicians point to. And cutting the number of employees and programs over the last couple of years has not closed the gap.
“They keep cutting back their share every year,” Felt said of state government’s shifting responsibility for covering costs away from the Assembly and Senate and the governor’s office and putting them on county representatives.
“Medicaid’s the big one,” Felt said, noting that New York is one of only three states that puts a substantial share of the costs for Medicaid on local governments.
“If they would take back Medicaid that would solve a lot of our problems.”