County touts surplus

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Oneida County has kept high credit ratings from three major rating agencies and ended the past fiscal year with a surplus, the county announced today.

Fitch rated the county AA, Standard and Poor AA-, and Moody’s A1.

Meanwhile, County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. said the county ended 2018 with a $413,000 operating surplus and a budget surplus of $9.7 million.

He credited strong management to the Social Services and Health Departments, which account for more than 50 percent of the general fund, for being $3.3 million under budget. In addition, revenue from sales tax and the county’s share of gaming revenue from the Oneida Indian Nation were more than expected.

The county gets a portion of the state of New York’s share of gambling revenue under a 1993 agreement between the nation and state and subsequent agreements. About $19 million in gaming revenue was budgeted for the county’s $419 million spending plan for this year.

“Strong, conservative policies have created a foundation that allows us to invest in our community and grow our tax base,” Picente said

Picente and Comptroller Joseph Timpano held a press conference in Utica to announce the financial situation. Both are seeking re-election this fall, with Picente facing a June Republican primary from David Gordon, a former county legislator who now lives in Utica.

The credit ratings can help the county avoid high borrowing costs.

Moody’s said its rating “reflects the county’s large and growing tax base, stable financial position, large reserves on an absolute basis, and affordable fixed costs. The rating also incorporates the county’s narrow reserves relative to the operating budget, reliance on economically-sensitive sales tax revenues, and weak resident wealth and incomes.”

The county’s debt as of Dec. 31 was $150 million, with service on it about 6 percent of spending, unchanged since 2005, Timpano said.

“It’s conservative,” Picente said. “We borrow when it’s necessary to move the county forward.”

Meanwhile, the fund balance is around $37 million, close to the county policy target of 5 percent to 10 percent and serves as a cash flow reserve and emergency account and enables things like helping local governments build flood mitigation, Picente said.

Picente’s opponent in the June Republican primary, former county legislator David Gordon, sent out a response accusing Picente of expanding the county’s spending and debt. Using more more debt might improve the county’s rating but adds to money taxpayers will ultimately have to pay back, Gordon said.

“You don’t really have a surplus when you bond for tens of millions of dollars on the backs of the taxpayers year in and year out,” Gordon said. “This is more of a political Ponzi scheme. When you money runs out and you can’t pay back your debt, the whole bottom falls out.”

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