Allegany County tentative budget is cloudy for public and legislators with hearing Thursday

BREAKING: Allegany County residents are being invited to comment Thursday night on a $145.5 million budget for next year, with little to go on, while county lawmakers themselves appear to be grasping for information on how to use nearly $42.5 million in surplus and avoid giving any of it back to property taxpayers.

County Attorney Allison Carrow today, responding to an Allegany Hope Community News Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, confirmed that no budget message has been provided for the public, which would give guidance in regard to analyzing county expenses and revenues for the coming year, and one also hasn’t been presented to any county legislator.

The response came a day late from that allowed by state law, although indications had been provided that no such message had been filed with the Clerk of the Board of Legislators.

There were no replies today, however, to four additional FOIL requests filed the same day for information on county fund balances, also known as surpluses, and expenditures by months for various periods; the rising number of new employee positions; and county legislator benefits.

More information requests ignored
Appeals in all four cases were filed today by Allegany Hope Community News, despite the unlikelihood that timely information will be received before the budget hearing.

Another Appeal, which was made last Friday after the county ignored a request from November 14 for information as to who determined or how it was decided to add salary increases for county legislators to tomorrow night’s notice of public hearing, has not been answered.

As we reported yesterday, county lawmakers appear to be using a back door approach to increasing their salaries next year by $3,500 annually, or more than 40 percent, and $7,000 for the chairperson.

The public was told it could comment at the budget hearing when the potential action received minimal exposure at the November 8 Board of Legislators meeting as part of a resolution to establish a date for the hearing.

The session will be held at 7PM tomorrow in Legislators chambers at the County Office Building in Belmont.

County board appears directionless
The Board has appeared directionless in recent months as members go around on how and where to spend nearly $49 million in general fund surplus, over 50 percent more than the entire property tax levy in one year; additional monies located in other funds, including nearly $7 million remaining from a $7.5 million economic development restricted fund the board established two years ago in diverting another larger-than-anticipated surplus; and the remainder of $9 million in federal pandemic American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) monies.

In addition, as we also have been reporting, a proposal in next year’s tentative budget diverts $16 million of the general fund surplus, using it for yet undetermined expenditures, rather than, for a second time, significant tax relief.

Allegany County continues as the second highest property and third highest sales taxes county in the state.

Less and less transparency
County legislators have become less and less transparent about what is in the budget over the last three years, with more than 100 pages of numbers having to be analyzed by the public without readily accessible background information.

In 2021, they held a budget meeting prior to the public hearing after Allegany Hope Community News pointed out that a State Comptroller’s schedule, based on county law, demonstrated a requirement for such action.

Last year, they ignored such meeting, saying it didn’t apply to them.

The Board also has held full day sessions in prior years, having county department heads provide limited explanations of their budgets.

This year, members of the Budget Committee only have been requesting updates monthly on next year’s tentative budget process.

A notice to establish a public hearing was pulled abruptly from action last month when the budget hadn’t yet been filed.

Where’s the money?
On November 1, the committee received copies of next year’s proposal from County Administrator Carissa Knapp, who also serves as budget officer, and County Treasurer Terri Ross, deputy budget officer, and appeared indecisive as to where money was coming from, going to and for what over the next two months and next year.

Significant discussion was held in regard to a proposed drop in the true value, equalized tax rate of some 91-cents per $1,000 of assessment, although residents of few towns actually would see that level of savings and property taxes in 11 towns actually would increase.

Legislators blamed the hikes on towns and their assessment equalization rates, with no discussion for a second year in a row of using additional surplus and providing a significant tax decrease to all property taxpayers in the county, removing it from its second highest tax position in the state.

There were calls at the meeting for the need of a legislative meeting quickly to discuss sources of funds and purposes but there appears to be no record of any being held to date.

Budget due in three weeks
Indications were given that the budget will be adopted in two weeks at the Wednesday, December 13, meeting of the Board of Legislators. Board Committee of the Whole and Budget Committee meetings are scheduled for the preceding week.

The final day for budget adoption, by law, is Wednesday, December 20, to which the second regular Board meeting of the month, normally held on the fourth Wednesday, has been re-scheduled due to Christmas.

A video recording of the November 1 Budget Committee meeting is available at https://bit.ly/3T4juWC, with a minutes summary of the session available at https://bit.ly/3uG9bh9.