Legislators approve several more savings measures

OSWEGO — COVID-19 response costs in Oswego County continue to pile up, with lawmakers approving another $200,000 — bringing the total allotment to $1 million — and passing a pair of corresponding cost-saving measures.

The Oswego County Legislature unanimously approved the $200,000 cash infusion, which legislators said should cover virus response costs through the end of 2020. Lawmakers also passed a pair of cost-saving measures related to debt payments and medical services for retirees aimed at alleviating the 2021 tax levy.

Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, said officials started setting aside funding for pandemic-related activities in March, and much of the funding was for mobilization and startup costs. The county is now prepared and positioned to conduct all the necessary virus response measures, according to Weatherup.

“The pandemic itself is relatively quiet so we’re pretty confident we’re going to make it to the end of the year,” he said.

County Administrator Phil Church said officials are working on an application for federal reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is expected to cover 75 percent of the $1 million spent by the county.

“We are applying for every cent we’ve spent,” Church told legislators on Thursday, noting if the county isn’t reimbursed it will be due to a denial from FEMA and not, in his estimation, for lack of effort on the county’s part.

Legislators noted the funds would have to be spent regardless of reimbursement, as much of the funding was spent on state-mandated response activities.

“At least we have a shot at recouping most of what we’ve spent,” said Legislator John Martino, R-Hastings, who chairs the county Finance and Personnel Committee, noting the county created a separate account to track COVID-related expenses.

Weatherup noted the county could certainly use the funding to cover other costs, but added even in a worst-case-scenario in which the county is not reimbursed the financial impact would not be ruinous.

“A million dollars is a lot of money and we really, really need it,” Weatherup said. “But as a matter of scale our budget is a couple hundred million, so we’re going to survive.”

In anticipation of what could be a challenging upcoming budget season, county officials also approved two cost-saving measures: paying off more than $2 million in debt and inking a one-year contract with Humana to provide Medicare Advantage with prescription drug services to Medicare eligible county retirees. County officials did not disclose details of the costs, but said “substantial savings” were expected from the Humana program.

Majority Leader Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal, noted the county will cut costs through the Medicare Advantage plan while Medicare eligible county retirees can also expect to see savings and improved coverage.

“Instead of falling under the county’s self-insured plan, they will fall under the Medicare Advantage plan, significantly better than what we were previously offering,” Wilbur said. “And we still save money, because that coverage won’t come through the county’s self-insured program.”

Pursuant to debt payment, Church in a memo to legislators noted the county is scheduled to make its final 11-year payment on the debt associated with an emergency communications radio and tower system.

The $2.28 million debt payment would typically be raised through the county’s tax levy, but using roughly $512,000 from a debt reserve fund and $1.78 million from unallocated fund balance the county will pay the debt without utilizing new tax revenues.

Church, who ultimately is tasked with crafting a draft budget for the county, said paying down the radio tower debt was part of a plan developed last year, but it “becomes even more important this year.”

“This payment will help mitigate the tax levy in the 2021 budget,” Church said, noting state and federal cutbacks could increase the final tax levy numbers.

With the county’s draft budget set to be released later this month, county lawmakers say their goal, as always, will be to keep taxpayer costs down.

“Every move since the beginning of the year has been made to alleviate the burden on the taxpayers,” Wilbur said. “Everybody in their home budget is having to do more with less, and we’re doing the same at the county.”

Weatherup said every department head was asked to take a close look at their budgets and find places to cut costs and they “all stepped up.”

“We’re looking better than I thought,” Weatherup said of the upcoming county budget. “I think we’re going to be in decent shape.”

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