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Essex County’s own fiscal cliff

The latest estimate of the world’s demise has humanity’s fate sealed on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice. If we manage to survive, historians will no doubt write about how we avoided certain doom only to face another, equally apocalyptic threat—the dreaded fiscal cliff. Yes, we might finally see the culmination of our elected official’s inability to accomplish anything of benefit to the rest of us, and it all seems so surreal, so distant, so beyond our control.

But there is a way to get closer to the action, and all it takes is a trip to Essex County, home of the North Country’s own fiscal cliff debacle.

Essex County’s fiscal cliff is not quite of the same magnitude as its big brother, but its proceedings do reflect a similar indecisive bickering that has been playing out at the national level. There are a lot of numbers and figures and percentages involved, but the bottom line is, if the Essex County board fails to start thinking ahead, things could become much worse in the upcoming years, regardless of who’s in charge.

Essex County Manager Dan Palmer knows this, and he has officially removed himself from the equation as of Jan. 1. His announcement to retire came after he failed to convince county supervisors to accept a 3-year budget plan, and he isn’t going out without a few parting words. Palmer has warned the board that its current course, which will likely see the wounded budget haphazardly stitched together by the fund balance, is a dangerous one at best.

Here’s how it works: Essex County collects taxes from its citizens and uses that money to pay for all kinds of services. There are things that have a known budget, like money allotted to pay county employees salaries, and there are things that are budgeted for, like road work, that might come in under that budget. The unused tax money is the fund balance, and it is particularly good for dealing with emergencies, such as the spring storm of 2011 and damage incurred by Tropical Storm Irene, which depleted the fund balance by $2.8 million last year.

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