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Niagara County officials await post-pandemic challenge, its next budget

Screen capture, Lockport Community Television

Like New York State and other counties across the state, Niagara County is looking ahead with concern for the budgetary challenge that awaits, after the pandemic eases.

Niagara County Manager Rick Updegrove, during an appearance late last week on Lockport Community Television, discussed how county departments are operating during the pandemic. He also discussed the upcoming challenge of piecing together the county budget, and the revenues lost to pandemic-related shutdowns.

"We obviously have some significant challenges. We're trying to do everything we can to mitigate the effect on the property taxpayers," he said. "Every dollar to us counts, and we have to watch those revenues. Anything that impacts them poses another challenge."

Sales tax revenues, according to Updegrove, is a source the county relies upon about as much as property tax levies. He estimated the former at about $70 million. County officials were anticipating a sales surge during the month of March, when people were either stocking up on supplies or taking advantage of one last opportunity to make a purchase from "non-essential" shops that would soon be ordered to close.

From there, though, there would certainly be a drop though Updegrove said it might take a couple months before county officials might have a better idea just how much those losses will be. Even a 10-percent drop, he suggested would be significant.

"The largest businesses that provide the most, or largest portion of sales tax are automobile sales, fuel sales and retail - the big box retailers - and obviously they're going to be impacted," he said. "And in addition to that, with the Canadian border being closed, that's going to have an impact on retail sales."

There are also concerns for the amount of aid that would come from the state budget. Albany was already facing a multi-billion dollar deficit before the pandemic arrived within the Empire State. Updegrove explained that under the budget rules, the budget director may adjust appropriations based on whether the overall spending plan is out of balance by more than one percent. If that threshold were to be breached, he continued, the governor would have the power to order spending cuts to restore balance.

"When, as a layperson before I became involved in the government, when I heard 'spending cut' that wouldn't mean a lot to me other than 'oh, the state's cutting spending, that's a good thing.' But what those of us government have learned is that when the state cuts spending, that is aid that goes to the counties to provide the mandated programs that are in place, as a result of the mandates from state government," he said. "And so typically what 'state spending' means is that more of those costs will be pushed on to the property taxpayer at the county level."

But Updegrove says there are elements of the budget which bring some relief. The state, he explained, does not remove the cap on Medicaid nor does it intercept Federal Medical Assistance Percentage dollars.

He also says the county has taken its own steps to ease the burden on its taxpayers.

"We've maintained the type of fund balance that has led to increases in our bond rating year over year. And we have right now we have a superior bond rating," he said. "So the good news is, superior bond rating, robust fund balance and a history of reducing the property tax rate and coming under the cap."

Last fall, Moody's gave Niagara County a bond rating of Aa3, considering the county at low risk for defaulting.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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