Written by George Maragos Thursday, 19 September 2013 00:00
The financial condition of the County continues to improve by all fundamental measures, primarily due to the improving economy and cost controls instituted by the Mangano administration. From residents’ point of view, the County’s improved financial state is reflected in the county portion of their property tax bill, which has not increased in the last four years.
The mid-year financial projections for 2013 indicate that the County will end the year with a $5.6 million budgetary surplus. This follows on the heels of 2012’s surplus of $41.5 million, now confirmed by independent auditors. These budget surpluses are due to increased sales tax revenues from the improving economy (up 10.4 percent year to date) and reduced Social Service costs due to lower unemployment (down to 6 percent, one of the lowest rates in New York State and lower than that of Suffolk County and New York City.)
All other financial fundamentals also continue to improve, including the structural gap, property tax refunds due to assessment corrections and the County’s long term debt. I’ll address these three points in turn.
The County’s structural gap (the difference between current expenses and recurring revenues) continues its year-over-year improvement since 2009. The structural gap is projected at a seven year low of $54.4 million, down from $116.9 million in 2012 — a 53.5 percent improvement over one year ago - and down from $251.6 million in 2009 — a 78.4 percent improvement over four years.
The County’s growing liability for property tax refunds appears to have been addressed and is expected to decline. The County’s average payouts have been reduced to about $60.3 million annually for the last four years, down from an annual average of $93 million under the previous administration. This decrease does not come at the expense of homeowners: it is due to a more aggressive policy on the part of the Mangano Administration of challenging commercial grievances.
It is worth noting, given the public debate about the county debt, that the long term debt increased only modestly due to 47 percent lower new borrowing over the last four years compared with the period of 2006-2009. The total projected year end 2013 debt of $3.595 billion is quite manageable and only about 30 percent higher than the annual budgetary revenues of the County. Most families manage mortgages that are 300 percent to 400 percent of their family’s annual income.
Although the County’s financial fundamentals have improved by all measures, the County continues to face fiscal challenges. The wage freeze currently challenged in the courts is the greatest potential liability, estimated at $230 million by year’s end. To protect the County’s improving financial state, the County needs to address this risk in the 2014 Multi-Year Plan or resolve it through collective bargaining.