Monroe County Legislature approves $1.3B budget with bipartisan support

Brian Sharp
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Update: The Monroe County Legislature on Tuesday amended and approved County Executive Adam Bello's proposed 2022 budget on a vote of 27-2.

The amendments received unanimous or near unanimous support: to update legislative offices, add staff and raise staffers' base wage to a minimum $15 an hour, and to add three staff positions to the District Attorney's Office and increase salaries for senior assistant district attorneys to address increased workload, including the spike in homicides.

Other matters approved included setting aside $20,000 for a mural at the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport of a letter Douglass wrote to Harriett Tubman in 1868.

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Original Story: Sales tax might seem an odd place to begin when discussing Monroe County Executive Adam Bello's 2022 budget proposal.

After all, the county's estimated $177 million share of those collections amounts to just 14 cents of every dollar in his $1.28 billion spending plan. Property taxes, by comparison, account for 34 cents of every dollar spent. 

But the amount taken in from sales taxes has provided a measure of both the local economy's decline and its rebound during the pandemic. And this is, as Bello described it last week, a build back budget.

His proposal relies, in part, on continued, double-digit growth in sales tax revenues. The projected 18% increase in collections next year is just ahead of the current year.

The hope is that this year's growth is not inflated by federal stimulus and instead continues even stronger as product availability improves, the administration said.

This is "a budget that continues to bring Monroe back and allows us to plan forward for our future," he said.

The Monroe County Legislature now will review and revise the proposal, with an eye toward approving a plan by mid-December. The budget will take effect Jan. 1. 

Monroe County proposed budget overview

Rochester Red Wings President & CEO Naomi Silver and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello speaking at Frontier Field on January 29, 2021

Bello's budget is nearly $42 million more than last year, reflecting a 3.4% increase in spending over the current year's approved budget.

There is money for capital projects, most notably at Frontier Field (nearly all of the $12 million in MLB-mandated upgrades are in this budget), continued improvements at Seneca Park Zoo and the bulk of funding in a multi-year effort to renovate and update county park facilities.

Funding increases for early intervention, pre-school special education and safety net programs. There is money anticipated to expand its addiction outreach efforts to help combat the opioid epidemic. And additional dollars are allocated for youth programs.

Bello would balance the budget by pulling $5.6 million from reserves, which is less than half that of the current year. He also eliminates what he has called a $2.5 million "slush fund" set aside by the Legislature this year.

How is the tax rate impacted under Bello's budget? 

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello on August 28,, 2020 talks about what has been accomplished and ongoing goals in his first year in office.

Bello's proposal would lower the county tax rate by 7 cents, to $8.46 per $1,000 assessed value. That is the lowest rate since 2003. But that doesn't necessarily mean people will pay less in taxes. Many will pay more.

Property values increased with town assessments. So, even with the rate cut, the county expects to collect an additional $10 million in property taxes. This is the kind of numbers game Bello criticized as a candidate. Back in June 2019, he said then-County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo had, the year before, done "the largest property tax increase in 10 years but still called it a tax cut." His would be fifth largest. His current year budget is expected to deliver the second largest.

Had he proposed to hold the levy steady, his budget would have reduced the rate by an additional 20 cents, records show.

Budget calls for spending increases on public safety

Bello highlighted spending increases on public safety, including nearly $5 million more for the Sheriff's Office.

Calls for service are expected to increase next year, but remain below levels seen last year. Budgeted staffing numbers remain flat.

The proposed allocation, even after accounting for chargebacks and the like, is several million dollars more than what the department requested, records show — and appears largely driven by settlement of labor contracts. Separately, Sheriff Todd Baxter is in line for a 3% pay increase, raising his salary from $140,801 to $145,025, officials said. Salaries for other elected officials are unchanged.

Priorities in proposed budget

The Sheriff's Office has seen the second-largest dollar increase in county spending in the first two budgets of the Bello administration (just behind transportation, and ahead of Monroe Community Hospital).

But when it comes to percentage increases, the sheriff and public safety are near the bottom.

The largest percentage shift has been to the hospital, veterans services, transportation (again) and the county law department. On the hospital front, county support more than doubles in 2022, plugging a hole created by drops in federal aid and patient revenue attributable to an expected drop in residents. The administration explained: "Skilled nursing facilities across the region and across the state have all experienced a reduced resident census since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic."

Minimum wage increase 

Mayor-elect Malik Evans held a joint press conference with County Executive Adam Bello to talk about the importance of collaboration between the city and the county.

The county will implement a $15 minimum wage for all county employees, including part-time and seasonal workers, beginning Jan. 1, under the Bello budget. 

Coupled with other collective bargaining agreements settled or expected to be soon, the county's budget for all personnel services increases $21 million of 8.3%.

The city of Rochester approved a $15 minimum wage for full-time and permanent staffers in January 2021, and is considering expanding that to part-time and seasonal workers, while building in a cost-of-living increase going forward.

Contact reporter Brian Sharp at bdsharp@gannett.com or at 585-258-2275. Follow him on Twitter @sharproc. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.