November 30, 2021

Transpro analysis could impact county’s residents

Decisions by the dozen

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Matt Simpson, a town of Virgil worker, tosses trash into a bin Wednesday at the town’s transfer station. Cortland County proposes raising the tipping fee for solid waste to $90 a ton from $80, which would eventually increase the cost to residents — either through their town bills, private haulers or blue bags throughout the city.

The report given to Cortland County legislators is full of ideas: 12 areas it can look at to reduce spending, increase efficiency, generate income.

Every one of them affects someone: a senior citizen, a child, a county employee, and anybody who creates trash — which is everybody.

But are they workable ideas? Are they even good ideas? And if what Transpro Consulting — a Floridabased company that evaluates organizations — suggests comes to pass, what does that mean to you?

Some of the ideas have already been implemented — retirement incentives, for example. Transpro said the county could save $1 million a year, and $5.7 million over five years, by considering its recommendations.

Here are four areas where Transpro suggested Cortland County could change things to save money in its $142.8 million 2020 budget, of which it gets $37.9 million from your property taxes.

Retiree health benefits

Retired county Sheriff’s Lt. Todd Caufield said he’s thankful he hasn’t needed to use his retiree employee health benefits since retiring in June. But he’s happy they are there should he need them.

Transpro found in its assessment that “Cortland spends a greater proportion of total health insurance costs on retiree insurance compared to peers,” six counties it compared Cortland to. The county contributes between 50% to 90% of retiree health insurance costs. The county budgeted more than $5.4 million toward those benefits for 2020, said Andrea Herzog, the director of finance.

Transpro suggested the county compare its health plans and contributions to that of peer counties. Some of them contribute nothing to the cost; others 70%. Transpro suggested comparing the retiree benefits to potentially save $207,000 over five years.

However, Caufield said: “That’s bargained for through the unions.” And he’s not sure what legal obligation the county would need to abide by when looking at where it can save.

If the county were to look at renegotiating the contract for retiree health benefits, it could mean retirees may see more money leaving their pockets for health-care costs.

“It would be a huge impact to anyone,” Caufield said.

County Personnel Officer Annette Barber did not respond to questions on how a change might impact current retirees who have the benefits.

However the county issued this statement: “The county is constantly evaluating its insurance coverages with an eye toward either ways to lower costs to the county, cost to employees, or increase quality of service. The county has retained an outside firm, OneGroup which specializes in evaluating various insurance coverages. This firm is helping to guide the recommendations regarding our policies.”

It all comes down to negotiation, Caufield said, noting employees pay into the benefits, too.

“It’s not free,” he said. “There’s give and take in these contracts.”

Senior services

Mary Levine of Homer not only took part in activities at the David Harum Senior Center, but she got meals there, as well.

While the number of participants has decreased over the years, she said she still likes going to socialize and have a nice meal. However, she added the county has cut enough for senior activities. In particular, she remembers how monthly breakfast used to offer more, but now seniors get bacon or sausage, but perhaps not both.

“We used to get more of a variety,” she said.

Jim Doss of Harford frequented the senior center in Marathon to socialize and grab a meal, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“The meals are excellent,” he said.

Transpro said Cortland outspends peer counties in senior services. The Cortland County Area Agency on Aging’s 2021 budget summary documents show an amended 2020 budget of $2.7 million, of which the county contributes $1.16 million.

The company suggests the county look at alternative methods to serve the senior center, noting other peer counties contract with outside entities for senior services. It also suggested the county consider consolidating our outsourcing its meal preparation and repurpose the cafeteria in the County Office Building.

The county uses the kitchen in the County Office Building to prepare meals for home delivery and the senior centers.

Area Agency on Aging Director Elizabeth Haskins did not answer how it might consolidate meal preparation or say what other alternatives, if any, were being considered regarding ways to serve seniors.

However the county issued this statement: “The county continues to evaluate the service delivery model for the Meals on Wheels program The first priority is to provide nutritious balanced meals for our seniors. Any changes to the facilities or how those meals are provided would follow discussions at the Health and Human Services Committee and at the Direction of the full Legislature.”

But change, if made, likely won’t come easily.

Consolidation of centers wouldn’t work, Levine said, noting some people just wouldn’t travel. However, consolidation of meal preparation services is another question, altogether.

Either way, Levine said the county should look at more activities for seniors, not fewer and should think of creative ways to support seniors.

Doss urged the county to include seniors on any decisions being made for the future.

“I would strongly emphasize that someone who is not a senior making decisions for seniors is not ideal,” Doss said.

Recycling and landfill services

If trash haulers’ costs increase, then their customers’ costs increase, something haulers aren’t too excited about.

“The hauler accrues the cost of that and in turn has to turn around and pass that on to the customers,” said Ron Fuller, of Fuller Trash Services in Cortlandville. City Administration and Finance Director Mack Cook said when the tipping fees increase the blue bag fees increase.

“We run the trash operation to break even,” he said. “If tipping costs increase, there are very few options other than increase matching revenues from bag sales.”

Transpro’s assessment suggested the county look at a phased approach to raising its tipping fees. The company said that the county charges $3 per ton and receives around 30,000 tons of recyclables a year.

However, the county doesn’t charge a recycling tipping fee, and it doesn’t generate 30,000 tons of recyclables a year. It generates about 4,000 tons a year, at least before it greatly curtailed its recycling effort because the world market is glutted with material, and because a transfer station with which the county contracted with burned earlier this year.

County Deputy Highway Superintendent Trisha Jesset said the county receives around 30,000 tons of solid waste each year.

The county is already considering raising the tipping fee $10 a ton, to $90 a ton from $80, according to a resolution passed Tuesday by the county Legislature’s Highway Committee. With 30,000 tons of waste, it would generate another $300,000 a year.

The move is being made to ensure the solid waste management is self-sufficient and eliminate the need for the county to use $150,000 from the general fund to help offset the cost of operating the recycling center, Highway Superintendent Charlie Sudbrink said during the committee’s meeting.

Sudbrink said he knows the move will likely upset haulers, who in turn will have upset customers, but it’s something the county needs to do.

“I’m sure you’ll get pushback from some of the haulers,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ll get pushback from the taxpayers of the county if you’re taking it out of the general fund.”

Early Intervention services

Transpro said the county spends $700,000 more for early intervention services than peer counties and could save $50,000 the first year and $315,000 over five years if it contracted with an outside agency. The county contribution to the program was budgeted for $394,500 for 2020, said county Finance Director Andrea Herzog.

However, interim Public Health Director Lisa Perfetti said a recent survey showed that outside contractors couldn’t provide all the services the county offers to identify children up to age 3 who may face developmental problems.

Services like those that Ryan Sweeney and Kristie Chapman needed.

They didn’t know their son, Connor Chapman, was partially deaf until they entered him in the county’s Early Intervention services.

“They spotted from day one that he couldn’t hear us,” Sweeney said of his son who is now 3 and out of Early Intervention.

Sweeney said the staff at Early Intervention helped them every step of the way, finding other resources for Connor, like getting him hearing aids or developing techniques the parents could use to communicate with him.

“They bridged the gap into audiology services,” he said. “Honestly it’s amazing.”

Perfetti said a survey was completed this summer on outsourcing services.

“The survey determined that current approved providers would not be able to provide all the services needed,” she said. In fact, they lacked a multitude of things from service coordination to the ability to provide face-to-face services.

Perfetti said if the county no longer provided Early Intervention, the effects would be both short-term and long.

Short-term effects:

Children would lose out on time needed for brain development: “Eighty-five percent of brain development takes place before the age of 3,” Perfetti said.

The county would not meet the mandated 45-day timeline set by the state for evaluations.

Families may have to travel to get the evaluation done or have limited time slots.

Children would be put on waiting lists for services and may not receive them in the state-mandated timeline.

Long-term effects:

Children won’t receive the services they need at a young age, so the county would pay more as the child ages and needs even more services.

“What you save now will be four times the cost if provided at the school-age level,” Perfetti said.

The county won’t meet the federal mandate, either, if children are left on the waiting list, making it harder to maintain and manage the services.

The county may be left with a higher bill with outsourcing services because outside providers haven’t “established appropriate processes for billing insurance” and getting reimbursement, Perfetti said.

All of which has been avoided for 3-year-old Connor Chapman. Connor is now speaking four- to five-word sentences — a milestone Sweeney said they might have not met had it not been for Early Intervention.

“He’s showing leaps and bounds of improvement because of that,” he said.