Legislature Can’t Afford To Vote Based On Poor Assumptions

Twice last week, optimistic assumptions by lawmakers came back to bite Chautauqua County taxpayers in the rear end.

We touched on the county’s fly car system earlier this week. We noted that members of the Audit and Control committee said they believed the program was going to be self-sustaining when they approved the program’s creation. Now, the benefit of hindsight shows that isn’t likely.

Taxpayers also were hit with budget overages in the Sheriff’s Department totaling almost $1 million. Overtime was part of the problem, but some of the blame rests with legislators who were swayed by optimistic assumptions presented about two labor contracts approved in December 2016, after the legislature had already approved the county’s 2017 budget. County Executive Vince Horrigan presented the contracts with wage increases that would be offset by deputies paying more for health insurance; there was to be no significant impact to the recently passed budget.

That turned out not to be true.

To their credit, seven legislators voted against the agreements because they were concerned it would bite the county in the end. Legislators Pierre Chagnon, Charles Nazzaro, Terry Niebel, Robert Scudder, Lisa Vanstrom, PJ Wendel and David Wilfong ended up on the wrong side of the vote.

Chagnon and Nazzaro both pointed out last week how the legislature acted on poor assumptions when approving the contract.

“We were provided a cost justification for that,” Chagnon said. “It was prepared by Finance and Human Resources and it indicated an additional cost to the 2017 budget that was an order of magnitude less than what we experienced. It was 10 percent of what we experienced so the premise on which the legislature far from unanimously adopted the contract, was flawed. That certainly doesn’t give any of us who were opposed to the contract amendment any solace but it certainly gives us pause that the decisions that we’re making, at least in that instance, were based on flawed projections, extremely flawed projections.”

We hope legislators have learned a valuable lesson when it comes to contracts. Nothing is gained for free. It was a pipe dream to think, in the short term, that there would be no negative impact to the county. Not only did the county pay an up-front $2.6 million fee to institute changes to deputies’ retirement plan as it changed from a 25-year retirement to 20 years, the county was bound to pay higher wages. Deputies did move to the higher-deductible health insurance plans, but older officers were under no obligation to retire. Circumstances change when people near retirement age, so thinking the county would see all of the savings from retirements they were projecting was a poor decision. As Niebel suggested during the Audit and Control Committee meeting, the budget likely should have been based on a much lesser number of retirements.

There is no use crying over spilled milk, but we hope legislators will learn from this experience and make sure the cap on the milk is on tight to keep it from spilling again. It took the county several years to restore some sense of fiscal stability; it would be a shame to spend ourselves back into the poor house.