Broome's reserves 'dangerously low,' audit says

Hannah Schwarz

Press & Sun-Bulletin

Feb 8, 2018

Broome County's reserves are at such low levels that the county is "jeopardizing public services and long-term infrastructure investments," according to a New York State Comptroller's Office audit released Thursday.

The county's unassigned fund balance — essentially its rainy day reserve — was $255,000 as of December 2016, or about 0.1 percent of its gross expenditures, according to the audit, which did not include an estimate on how much the county had in reserves as of Dec. 2017.

"If the county's fund balance was in line with the average amount of fund balance retained by other counties (17.1 percent of gross expenditures), its fund balance would need to be approximately $56 million higher," the report reads.

According to October 2017 estimates released by the county, the county's reserves are somewhere between $50,000 and $1.2 million.

From 2012 through 2016, the county has spent more than it's received in revenue, often by taking money from the fund balance. It has also depleted potential revenue streams by sharing more sales tax revenue with municipalities than it had previously planned.

Finally, it has sustained itself by issuing short-term debt and by moving money from a fund that's intended for operating expenditures to places like the airport, the nursing home, the Arena and the Forum. All of those operations are supposed to be self-sustaining.

The county averaged 6.7 percent in expenditure growth but only 5.6 percent in revenue growth from 2012 to 2016. The public safety and Department of Social Services per capita expenditures exceeded other counties' averages in 2015, 2016 and 2017, while its administrative and county-owned building expenses were lower than other counties' per capita averages.

In 2009, struggling in the wake of the recession, Broome County eliminated its 50-50 sales tax revenue split with municipalities, and decided all sales tax revenue would go to the county. But when former County Executive Debbie Preston took office in 2012, she said she would move back to the 50-50 model over a seven-year timeline.

In Nov. 2016, though, the county legislature decided to return to the 50-50 split two years earlier than originally planned. Republicans all voted in favor of the plan; Democrats decried it, saying it was intended to hamstring then-incoming County Executive Jason Garnar, a Democrat.