Whitehall fares well on fiscal stress test

Communities in Washington County are not stressed fiscally according to a report released by the state comptroller’s office earlier this summer.

Of the 14 towns that filed end-of-the-year reports with the state, none were classified as stressed on a new Fiscal Stress Monitoring System developed by the state Comptroller’s Office.

The Town of Hampton received the highest fiscal score in the county with a mark of 28.8 percent, but was well below the 45 percent threshold for being considered “susceptible to fiscal stress.”
Hampton’s score is likely inflated by the fact the town used money from its general fund to build a new town hall. 

Hartford, Hebron and Salem received the lowest fiscal scores, with identical marks of 3.3 percent.

Those communities, as well as Argyle (19.2), Cambridge (12.9), Easton (17.5), Granville (12.5), Greenwich (22.5), Jackson (15.8), Kingsbury (16.3), Putnam (15.8), and Whitehall (12.5) received no designation of financial stress from the Comptroller.

Dresden, Fort Edward and White Creek did not file end-of-the-year reports with the state and therefore received no score.

Washington County received a score of 12.9 percent, half that of Warren County (25.4).

Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien said the ratings paint a favorable picture of local communities’ financial conditions, but it doesn’t change the fact that municipalities in Washington County still face significant challenges, such as paying for health insurance and pensions.

“Our taxpayers are still struggling to makes ends meet and employment is not as robust as it should be,” O’Brien said. “I hope it makes people aware that our towns are in good fiscal condition, but it shouldn’t be taken as a panacea for the problems our taxpayers face.”

Whitehall Supervisor George Armstrong expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m very pleased with where we are,” he said, “but just because we aren’t at the threshold for stress, that doesn’t mean we don’t have stressful times.”

He said with a million dollar budget and a desire to provide programs to local residents, particularly the youth, it’s difficult to increase programming and keep taxes low.

The Fiscal Stress Monitoring System is a diagnostic tool developed by the Comptroller’s Office to identify local governments that are moving towards, or are already, in fiscal stress.

The system evaluates local governments based on both financial and environmental factors.

The system uses nine financial indicators within five categories (year-end fund balance, operating deficits, cash position, use of short-term debt and fixed costs) to evaluate a municipality’s ability to generate enough revenue to cover expenses.

It also measures environmental indicators or circumstances and trends beyond a municipality’s control, such as population, property values and employment base, which have a bearing on its ability to raise money.

Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff said it’s important to compare the fiscal score to the environmental score.

“The way I analyze it is if the fiscal score is higher than your environmental score, it shows that you are overspending above and beyond your means,” Haff said.

The fiscal score assigned to each municipality is used to classify whether a community is in “significant fiscal stress,” “moderate fiscal stress,” “susceptible to fiscal stress” or no designation.

Twenty-four municipalities across the state were classified as stressed and fell under one of the categories. Saratoga (63.8) and Rensselaer Counties (50.8) were the only municipalities in the area that were classified.

Being classified as having some degree of stress does not subject a municipality to any penalties but is meant to identify for local officials the need to take action before conditions become worse.

To the end, the Comptroller’s office is providing resources to help governments develop solutions to their financial woes.

Although the system will be used to evaluate county, town, village and city governments, as well as school districts, the initial list, released in June, includes municipalities with fiscal years that ended on Dec. 31, 2012.

Most villages’, including Granville and Whitehall, and school districts’ fiscal years end at other points during the year and therefore were not included on the initial list. An updated list that includes schools and municipalities with different fiscal year end dates will be released later this year.

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