A 40-member private-sector committee issued a report Tuesday calling for $17.4 million in possible savings for Niagara County.
The county's government reform task force is to work with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's "Who Does What?" Commission in implementing the 27 recommendations contained in the commission's 97-page report.
"I figure 16 of them we could implement in the first year if we wanted to," said Legislator Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda.
The county could use some savings, as Chief Accountant Mary Smith told the Legislature Tuesday it ran a $3 million deficit in 2002 and remains without any surplus funds for the third consecutive year. It is now $2 million in the hole.
That was an improvement from the $5.7 million accumulated deficit calculated as of the end of 2001. County Treasurer David S. Broderick said unspent money that had to be set aside for bills coming in after Jan. 1 was reduced by $3 million, improving the deficit picture.
The primary reasons for the operating deficit, Smith said, were three major programs that ran over budget.
Medicaid, the county's biggest expense, was $1.6 million over budget. Early intervention, a Health Department program for children under age 3 who show developmental difficulties exceeded budget figures by $955,766; and the speech and hearing program in the Health Department, $373,526 over projections.
For this year, the county has some good financial news. Sales tax revenues are running 6.5 percent ahead of last year, not counting the increase from 7 percent to 8 percent which took effect March 1.
"It's early and the numbers could be somewhat inflated," Smith said. She said people might have rushed to buy big-ticket items in February to beat the 8 percent tax. She also noted the state offered an amnesty program to businesses who hadn't submitted sales taxes, the results of which came in the first quarter.
Spending in the general fund is at the budgeted level so far this year, and the county is receiving an unexpected $700,000 because the amount of revenue received from tobacco companies exceeded the amount needed to pay interest on the tobacco-based bonds the county sold three years ago.
However, Medicaid costs are running 12.8 percent ahead of last year, Broderick said.
Many of the proposals by the "Who Does What?" Commission could not be carried out solely by the county.
For example, more than half of the suggested savings, $9.4 million, is attributed to a proposed reduction in health insurance costs. The report acknowledges that such changes would have to result from bargaining with the county's unions.
The report also suggests that the county either convert Mount View Health Facility into a public benefit corporation separate from the county government, or shut down the nursing home gradually by decertifying beds.
State permission would be needed in either case, but savings are estimated at up to $2 million.
The commission also asserted that $1.6 million could be saved if the cities of Lockport and North Tonawanda shut down their water pumping plants and buy water from the county Water District or from Niagara Falls, whose water plant is only six years old.
The report called for either unloading or cutting the Health Department's certified home health agency to save $750,000. The commission report does not advocate selling the county golf course; instead, it recommends raising greens fees to ensure it turns a profit.
The county could save $447,482 by returning to a five-day, 40-hour work week for sheriff's deputies, abandoning the format of four days on followed by two days off that was included in the deputies' contract ratified last fall.
"The county's getting approximately 17 fewer days per year per officer by the end of the contract," Vetter said.
"It's a mandatory bargaining issue. It's something I opposed," said Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein.