Keep county borrowing to a minimum in 2014

In 2014 the cost to run Dutchess County government, as adopted by the county budget, is $439.3 million. In addition to these annual operating costs the county borrows money for capital projects and large purchases by issuing government bonds. The value of the bonds is determined by the county’s financial health, which is determined by our spending plan and particularly how much money we keep in reserve. In recent years the county fund balance has been operating at stark levels — so low that the county bond rating or borrowing power was downgraded in November from Aa1 to Aa2. Until the superior bond rating is again achieved, the cost to the county will be higher to borrow money.

The higher borrowing costs notwithstanding, in recent months the county has begun anew its annual review of borrow-worthy projects. While the county evaluates its Capital Projects Plan each year, this year the bond downgrade — and its accompanying higher costs — does not appear to have caused anyone anywhere even the slightest pause.

In December, the Legislature voted to borrow as high as $1.47 million to purchase 4.61 acres of city of Poughkeepsie land adjacent to the county jail to facilitate an eventual jail expansion.

In January, we borrowed $145,000 for aerial photos to update the county’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping system. Under consideration now in March is $850,000 for electrical upgrades at Dutchess Community College, and $1.82 million for a new roof at the county records building as well as a hodgepodge of auto center improvements including a bathroom remodeling.

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In March and April the county will consider routine bond requests to phase-in $1.3 million in new automobiles, improve county highways and bridges ($3.03 million) and in May $1.38 million for new machinery.

Other projects under consideration in 2014 include asbestos abatement at the Poughkeepsie mental hygiene building ($850,000), demolition of buildings at the Millbrook Eastern Dutchess Government Center ($900,000), and Harlem Valley Rail Trail Rehab and electrical work at Bowdoin and Wilcox parks ($165,000). Also being considered is the purchase of emergency generators ($800,000), various energy efficient projects ($750,000) and $1 million for open space.

While responsible stewardship requires that county leaders take care of government buildings and assets, prepare for growth and embrace policies that promote efficiency and modernization, we must also do so as cost-efficiently as possible.

Last fall the county executive proposed and the county Legislature accepted (albeit without my vote) a tax on home energy use so as to build up county funds in part to demonstrate the fiscal discipline necessary to restore the superior bond rating. While I did not agree with this form of taxing the populace, it does seem certain to restore the county’s financial footing and upgrade the bond rating.

In anticipation of this bond rate restoration, county government should now embrace a policy that promotes borrowing as little as possible in 2014. Rather than just evaluating each project on its own merit the Legislature must consider the cost advantage to borrowing for worthy projects in 2015 as opposed to spending more to do so in 2014.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.