A budget passed—with caveats

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 12/21/21

MONTICELLO, NY — The Sullivan County Legislature passed the county’s 2022 budget on Tuesday, December 14.

The total cost of the budget comes to $259,088,488, according to a statement …

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A budget passed—with caveats

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — The Sullivan County Legislature passed the county’s 2022 budget on Tuesday, December 14.

The total cost of the budget comes to $259,088,488, according to a statement released following the vote. It includes $12 million for road- and bridge-work throughout the county, $9.2 million to pay off short-term bonds, and $4 million “to cover all county costs associated with the Care Center at Sunset Lake,” among other items.

While the finalized budget is not yet released on the Sullivan County website, the tentative budget provides a breakdown of the costs for the care center. A sum of $1.9 million will go toward covering 30 percent of health insurance and retirement benefits costs for care center employees in the county’s workforce—management company Infinite Care is under contract to make up the difference—and $1,958,400 as a 50 percent match for a required intergovernmental transfer payment.

The process of passing the budget inspired some dissent from the public and from legislators.

A public hearing for the budget, scheduled for 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, December 9, was delayed several hours as other committees ran over their scheduled time. The public hearing was opened and closed in short order following the close of a regularly scheduled committee, without any members of the public present having the opportunity to comment.

Ken Walter, who had gone to the restroom at the close of the earlier committee, admonished the legislature on his return for the open-and-shut nature of the hearing, and on the lack of time afforded for public comment. “This was a real rush job,” Walter said.

“Everyone had the right to be in the room at 10:45,” said legislative chair Rob Doherty when the issue was discussed on Tuesday, December 14. “If they chose not to be in the room, God bless.”

The Tuesday, December 14 meeting at which the budget was passed was held in the government center’s committee room, rather than in the legislative chambers; according to a press release announcing the special release, the relocation was necessary due to a blood drive occurring in the legislative chambers at that time.

The limited space available in the committee room left only nine observer seats available, with priority access provided to staff necessary for the meeting, and public seating only as available.

At that meeting, and at the legislature’s regular meeting on Thursday, December 16, members of the legislature expressed their own concerns about the process.

Legislator Ira Steingart cast a dissenting vote at Tuesday’s passing of the budget and at a Thursday passing of the tax levies; both passed 8-1.

Explaining his votes on Thursday, Steingart said that he understood the county needed to pass a budget to function, but that he didn’t approve of the process through which that budget had been created.

A lot of the increases in employee salaries included in the 2022 budget came from a salary study that hadn’t been fully explained to legislators, said Steingart. And there had been changes made to the budget at the last second, in such a fashion that legislators could easily miss things.

Legislator Joseph Perello said he agreed with Steingart’s concerns. Some people had been given a raise while others hadn’t, without clarity in how the allocation had been made. He said he didn’t want to give anyone a raise until legislators had a chance to go through the study in more detail.

Legislator Luis Alvarez added that with county pay in its current condition, the county was at risk of continuing to lose employees. “We cannot keep losing the people we have with experience,” he said, mentioning the time it took for new hires to become skilled in their positions.

Legislative process

The legislature also discussed its process and leadership in advance of its 2022 reorganization meeting.

Legislator Nadia Rajsz said that the body needed to review its telepresence rules going into the next year, to ensure that everyone was included in meetings.

Rajsz mentioned an incident on April 23 where she had been unable to access a meeting via Zoom; in that instance, she had joined by phone, but was told she could not vote.

“I was disenfranchised from voting as well as my constituents,” said Rajsz. She said she wanted an apology for her and for her constituents, and requested that the legislature enact rules to halt a meeting if a legislator was trying to connect.

Rajsz also recommended that the legislature enact a mechanism to remove a chair with cause.

“We have not done anything positive in the last two years,” she said, referring to legislator Rob Doherty’s tenure as chair. “We need to be back on track.”

Earlier in the meeting, public comments had made similar points about Doherty’s time as chairperson.

Catherine Scott read a petition calling for the removal of Doherty as chairperson, calling for the restoration of civility to legislative discourse and of faith in a functioning local government. As of December 20, the petition has 60 votes on ipetitions.com and 141 votes on sign.moveon.org.

In his closing remarks at the adjournment of the meeting, Doherty thanked county staff for the phenomenal job they did on a daily basis, and thanked those in the audience for showing up: “We agree more than you think we agree, and a lot of times there’s a political divide.”

“I believe that he thinks the earth is round and so do I,” said Scott, when asked by this reporter about Doherty’s statement. Actions spoke louder than words, she added; it was one thing to say you agree, and another to show it.

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