FORT EDWARD — If WCC continues to not pay its taxes on the former General Electric Co. dewatering facility, money is going to be really tight for Washington County at the end of the year.
Meeting payroll will be a delicate balancing act, said Treasurer Al Nolette.
“It’ll be damned close,” he said. “If the current climate continues, first quarter of ’19 will be a little sketchy.”
He wants to have $9 million in savings each year so that there is cash flow for payroll, pension payments and other big bills that hit before the county gets tax revenue in February each year.
For example, in December he must pay about $3.2 million to the state for the employee retirement system, while also continuing to pay all the employees.
County officials now project they will have just $6 million in savings next winter if WCC doesn’t pay its tax bills. The county must pay the town, village and school district whenever a taxpayer doesn’t pay. WCC’s tax bill to those entities this year is $3.8 million. WCC owns the land that GE leased for its dredging operation.
Despite the financial problem, county officials stressed that they do not plan to lay off or furlough employees.
First of all, there are not enough nonessential personnel to lay off. Their salaries wouldn’t be enough to make up $3 million, said Budget Officer and Easton Supervisor Dan Shaw.
And in any case, he doesn’t want to lay off or furlough anyone.
Instead, he wants the supervisors to cut back on spending throughout the year.
If worst came to worst, the county could borrow against its upcoming tax revenue to make payroll, said county Administrator Chris DeBolt.
Nolette said that would be the worst possible option, because the county would pay interest on the money. It often takes a municipality years to dig itself out of the hole of borrowing money every year to make it through to tax time.
But it’s an option, Shaw said.
“There’s not a good answer to your question that would make anyone feel good,” he said after a Finance Committee meeting in which he outlined the bad news.
“We have some serious issues,” he said.
After the meeting, he explained that the problem hasn’t hit yet, so there’s still time to improve the county’s finances.
“We have a situation that is looming in the future,” he said. “We have to look at needs. ... We have to be very mindful of how we approach our finances.”
The county can’t make WCC pay its taxes. The company is embroiled in a lawsuit with the town of Fort Edward over its assessment. Until that case is closed, either through a judicial decision or a settlement, the county cannot seize the property to sell at auction.
WCC officials have said they do not have the money for the taxes because they aren’t making any money at the site. But Shaw was not moved by this argument.
“We don’t care. They could sell it,” he said. “That’s what you do when you have a property and you can’t pay the taxes.”
The issue has been brewing for years, even before WCC stopped paying its taxes this year. The supervisors have been spending some of the county savings every year, prompting Nolette and Shaw to repeatedly warn that soon there would be a financial crisis if they didn’t change their ways.
Nolette warned last year that the county wouldn’t have enough savings for cash flow in about four years.
“WCC has turned up the heat,” Nolette said. “But before WCC even came on the radar, they had a spending problem. This has just sped up the problem significantly.”
Even if WCC began paying its taxes again tomorrow, Nolette said, the county supervisors must spend less.
At the same meeting at which the cash flow problem was discussed, supervisors decided to add two positions, for a total additional cost of $70,000. Only Nolette, Shaw and Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff spoke against the expenditures.
Shaw begged the supervisors to wait and put the new positions in the 2019 budget. The positions are for a cybersecurity officer and to replace the director of data processing with a higher paid chief information officer.
“The world’s not going to end if we don’t do it today,” Shaw said.
But Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien said the positions are important.
“Yes, I understand the tax levy. I understand the tax cap. But we have certain services we need to provide,” he said.