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Of bonds, bridges, and bravado

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It hasn't gotten as much play as the school nurses story, but the county's 2004 capital budget could be the next big thing.

            Twice the county legislature has rejected the capital budget, which is essentially a list of projects the county wants to tackle each year. They include road and bridge work, construction projects, and technology upgrades. The 2004 capital budget also includes money to purchase voting machines, and funding for reconstruction of the Civic Center Garage complex and the county office building. Estimated cost to the county is about $35.6 million.

            The capital budget needs 20 votes to pass the legislature, and Democrats have blocked it. They are pushing for a less-expensive alternative.

            "It almost doubles the county's debt service and we think the debt service should be held where it is," says Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley. "The debt service goes into the operating budget. So when you bond, you pay the price the next year."

            Debt service is the payments on money the county borrows for the projects. Bonds are certificatesofdebtissuedbyagovernmentorcorporationtoraisemoney.

            Democrats have their own proposal, which puts off most of the low-priority items in the capital budget until 2005.

            "It's not at all unusual for low-priority items to be done the next year. They get approved, but then they're not done," Aldersley says. "So really, I think we're just putting in law a process that frequently occurs."

            But Republicans say Democrats are playing it for political mileage; trying to make them look bad in a year when six seats --- and control of the legislature --- are up for grabs.

            "We're in the silly season and they're determined to make political points," says Republican Jack Driscoll. "Everything they've been doing is geared towards putting on political pressure."

The 2004 capital budget should have --- following tradition --- been approved alongside the 2004 operating budget. But that didn't happen. The 16-member GOP caucus approved the operating budget without Democrats in the room. They couldn't do that with the capital budget because they need three Democrats to get the required 20 votes.

            "I certainly don't think even they had the chutzpah to say, 'OK, we passed all those things we don't need you for, now we need you for this,'" says Democrat Kevin Murray.

            The capital budget failed to pass when it was introduced at the December 9 lej meeting and again at a subsequent meeting in February.

            The Democratic foot-dragging is unconscionable, Driscoll says, because important projects are languishing.

            "We're already now entering into construction season. If they approved it now we would begin to go through the process of bidding and all of that, which takes time, which means that every project will be delayed," he says. "It will push all of the projects out into the fall and winter months, which of course costs more money because they can't work as fast. The conditions slow them down."

            The delay also has a "devastating impact" on area workers, Driscoll says. Many of these projects, he says, could be creating jobs.

            Can the dramatics, counter Democrats.

            "Listen, the ground is still frozen," Aldersley says. "There's no way they could have started at this point."

Besides, Democrats aren't so sure the GOP wants the budget to go ahead, anyway.

            "There's been virtually no pressure from their side [to pass it]," Aldersley says. "My notion has been that every day it doesn't pass, they're saving money. And they know they don't have much money on hand, so I think they're pleased to not have to spend money, but be able to blame us. So I don't think a reduced capital budget is out of line with their goals."

            Republicans, Murray points out, were able to swing a few Democrats over to their side to support bonding for state retirement and pension payments. That bond failed by a single vote.

            "They tried to do deals with [Democratic legislator] Todd [Bullard] and others with that thing, so they're certainly not shy in trying to talk to people when they're interested," Murray says. "Somehow they thought that was important enough to keep bringing it up, but they don't seem to have the same desire when it comes to dealing with the capital budget. They have not come and asked us to move it forward, to the best of my knowledge."

            The pension and retirement bonding came up a total of four times. It was consistently defeated.

            Republican Mark Assini insists that the GOP does want the capital plan approved.

            "Of course," he says. "There's no reason not to have these projects pushed. Many of them are projects which are related to road safety and bridge safety. So they're very important projects."

Aldersley isn't sure what her caucus will do next, but it will likely propose some changes to the capital budget at the next CountyLegislature meeting on April 20. One of those proposals will probably be to put off low-priority projects to 2005. Those include master plan improvements at SenecaPark, the CivicCenter complex reconstruction, some bridge work, and other projects.

            All the high-priority items are still in the Democratic plan, Aldersley says, referring to the "Agenda for Fiscal Responsibility" reform plan released by her party this month.

            "There are a lot of important projects in this capital budget, so we're going to propose that they go forward, I'm certain," Aldersley says.

            The Democrats' plan cuts the annual debt service of the 2004 capital budget by about $500,000 Aldersley says.

            "We're serious about this," she says. "And I think the Republicans should give us a hearing."

            But that's not likely to happen. The GOP-controlled legislature hasn't shown much patience or tolerance for ideas coming from the left side of the room.

            "Well, it's springtime. And hope springs eternal," Murray says. "You never know what's going to happen, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to put forward those things that we believe in. If they pass, that would be great. [If not], we've gone on record at least indicating the direction that we would go if we were the majority."

Democrats have no business, Driscoll says, telling the county which projects are important enough to go forward and which are not.

            "Essentially what they're trying to do is run the county for [county executive] Maggie Brooks," he says.

            The Democrats' proposal to postpone certain projects may sound reasonable, Driscoll says, but it won't save the county any money.

            "You postpone to 2005, the price goes up to do it" due to inflation, he says. "It's a case of good business management. Why would you delay something... and escalate the cost? Tell me where that serves the people's purposes. It still has to be done."

            You have to look at the capital budget in the context of the county's overall financial picture, Murray says. The county has been in the habit, he says, of robbing itself of future revenues by selling off assets and taking tobacco settlement money up front.

            "By taking all that money and spending it today, it makes things a lot harder in the future," he says.

            Republicans, Murray says, don't believe in pay-as-you-go. Their philosophy, he says, is bond today, pay tomorrow.

            "They refuse to pay for them as they go along because, of course, taxes are unpopular. They got away with that for a while because of tobacco [settlement money] and [by] selling assets. But eventually the cupboard is going to be bare," Murray says. "The whole idea is, 'Everything we can bond, we will bond.' It's not whether we should or shouldn't. It's, 'Is it legal?' If it's legal, [then it's] 'Get every Goddamn penny you can.'"