OSWEGO — With state lawmakers beginning to craft a budget, county officials are concerned about the potential impact of several proposals and the uncertainty surrounding a handful of changes to public safety programs and policies.
County Administrator Phil Church shared his thoughts on the potential local impact of the proposed state budget Tuesday with the Finance and Personnel Committee, which were largely focused on the effect of public safety changes.
State legislation to increase the age of criminal responsibility must be dealt with, Church said, among other proposals, including the possibility of eliminating bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget is still interim, Church said, and the state could take several actions in an attempt to close a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Church pointed out that the state added about $600 million worth of spending that lacks a funding source in the proposed budget.
Church said the county would know more about the specifics of the proposal after Cuomo’s 30-day amendments are published.
“How the state addresses this difference is one of the things the counties are waiting on,” Church said. “This is going to be addressed through reductions in state spending, new fees or cost shifting down to us at the local level.”
Legislature Chairman Shane Broadwell, R-Oswego, said there are “a lot of things that are very concerning that are still up in the air.” Officials have grown accustomed to certain processes, Broadwell said, and it’s unclear how the various proposed changes could impact the county.
The governor talked at length about changes on the federal level impacting the state, Broadwell said, and the state is now looking to make changes that could have a serious impact on counties. With the county more than a month into it’s 2018 fiscal year, Broadwell said any significant changes could have a large impact on the county’s budget.
One of the biggest issues on a local level is the state’s decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility, according to Broadwell, who said county leaders are seeking to get in front of the issue and have invited the state Office of Children and Family Services to come to Oswego and determine the impacts of the legislation and identify possible solutions.
The county plans to collaborate with other counties on potentially sharing facilities, which Broadwell said seems to be “the big question mark,” as incarcerated youths will have to be housed separately from the general jail population.
However, “there’s no real details” regarding what the state would require, Broadwell said.
“While we’re waiting on the information we’re going to get ahead of the curve and meet with their teams,” Broadwell said. “We’re in the middle of this public safety study so it’s all good timing.”
The county Legislature previously hired a firm to identify efficiencies and best practices in the various public safety-related departments, including the sheriff’s office, district attorney, courts and probation.
“We’re going to do what we have to do in Oswego County,” Broadwell said. “When we talk about these mandated programs that we have to deal with, there’s still no relief in our budgeting system.”
The county anticipates having the results and recommendations from the public safety study no later than June, Broadwell said, noting the expectation is that the study would provide avenues to help alleviate overcrowding at the Oswego County Public Safety Center, which has been an issue for several years.
County Legislator Dan Farfaglia, D-Fulton said that the uncertainty surrounding the budget process concerns him as an official because “whatever we do might have to change.” Farfaglia specifically pointed to the public safety as well, and said the county needed to ensure there is no drop-off in current services while the new policies and procedures are adopted.
“I hope there aren’t any gaps while they are trying to figure all this stuff out,” said Farfaglia. “I hope there aren’t any less services out there that are vital to people’s safety.”
The report presented by Church stated that 74 percent of the county’s jail population is un-sentenced defendants, so the proposal to eliminate bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies could help reduce the jail population.
However, the report estimated that three additional probation officers could be needed for the county’s pre-trial release program. Another potential problem is defendants fleeing the county before trial.
Undersheriff Eugene Sullivan said that this type of program puts defendants on the honor system, and that in his experience many people don’t return to court. That causes the police to have to obtain and execute another warrant while locating the individual again, which can be a timely process.
“We have to arrest that person on that warrant and go through the process again,” said Sullivan. “We’re talking about one person arrested at least two times on the same charge. If you’re talking efficiency, I can’t think of anything less efficient.”
Sullivan also expressed concern about the uncertainty surrounding the raise the age legislation, noting there has been limited information about how it would be implemented.
“We just held a meeting with all the disciplines that might be affected on this, and unfortunately we walked away with more questions than answers,” said Sullivan.
Majority Leader James Weatherup, R-Central Square, said there are “so many unknowns” within the state budget and specifically public safety, and the county has already prepared its 2018 budget before the state comes to conclusions on a variety of issues that could substantially impact county spending and operations.
The public safety study will hopefully look at all the county departments and provide answers to some of the questions officials have, but Weatherup pointed out several things have already changed since the study was commissioned, and the state is considering several other changes at this point.
Weatherup said another alarming aspect of the state’s budget is the potential for increased county contributions and costs for state-mandated programs, which already make up the majority of the county’s budget.
Church told the committee state-mandated programs make up more than 100 percent of the county’s property tax levy and dip into sales tax revenue.
Church’s report also states that the allocation of $100 million is insufficient for the Raise the Age measure. Under the new rules, 16- and 17-year-olds will have to be transported to a state-approved juvenile detention facility.
“Such housing does not currently exist to adequately accommodate the dramatic increase anticipated from this legislation,” according to the report.
Broadwell said the parties involved in public safety have been asked “to get ahead of this and do the best we can to take advantage of the 100 percent reimbursement while it’s still on the table.”
There are a handful of other proposed changes that could have an affect on public safety, including new discovery rules, in which automatic disclosure of witness identities and statements to the defense could potentially create situations in which prosecution would become challenging because witnesses would choose not to cooperate out of fear for their safety, according to Church’s report.
Officials also expressed concern about a requirement to have defense counsel present at arraignment hearing, which could potentially slow down the arrest and arraignment process and become a drain on resources.
Other potential impacts from the state budget officials pointed to include a proposal to decrease funding for community services for the elderly and the possibility of early voting, both would be likely to negatively impact the county financially.
There were a few positive developments in the state budget, including a new $175 million Consolidated Funding Application for workforce investments through Regional Economic Development Councils, targeting certain emerging fields. The budget also has a $15 million grant for the Lake Ontario Flood Relief Programs, which could benefit this area, the report states.
The administrator’s report also notes a $26 million increase in the executive budget proposal to support the opioid and heroin abuse crisis, which Church noted could be an opportunity for local Offices of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services.
Another area of concern Broadwell pointed to is the various social issues facing Oswego County, most notably the high level of poverty, which the state does not appear to be providing funding to combat.
“They talk a lot about focusing on those issues,” Broadwell said. “Yet there’s really no money that they’re increasing to help municipalities, and in turn they continue to reduce (funding for) the ones that Oswego County struggles with the most.”
“We need to do more financially to work with social programs, but over time municipalities have tightened their budgets to where there’s not much wiggle room,” Broadwell added. “It’s tough when we see all these massive projects going on throughout the state. However, we’ve got these social issues as far as our level of poverty that are everyday so we’re doing what we can with what we have.”