Press-Republican

November 10, 2012

'Palmer plan' introduced to get budgets under control

Would stabilize taxes over 3 years; would increase levy 26 percent next year

By LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County Manager Daniel Palmer has come up with a three-year plan to fix the county budget crisis.

In an effort to get the County Board of Supervisors to buy into it, he presided over an almost two-hour budget session earlier this week.

The Palmer plan would increase the amount raised by taxes 26, 16 and 3 percent, respectively, for 2013, ‘14 and ‘15.

MORE CUTS SUGGESTED

One supervisor, Randy Preston (I-Wilmington), countered that the county should lay off workers and make more cuts to balance the budget instead of raising taxes substantially next year.

Despite that opposition, Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said the consensus seemed to be with the Palmer plan.

“We’re hearing we’re going with the three-year plan,” he said. “This is a very difficult budget year.”

The draft budget for 2013 started with a $12 million deficit, which was pared to $8.6 million, Palmer said.

To meet the state’s 2 percent tax-levy cap, they could either use $8.3 million from the remaining $10 million fund balance or lay off 75 county employees and use $4 million from fund balance, the manager said.

“If you lay off 75 people, I don’t think you could meet your federal and state mandates,” Palmer said.

YEAR BY YEAR

The board has approved a local law to override the tax cap for 2013, and Palmer said that would be the first year of the plan.

The specifics are:

2013 plan: $20.5 million levy, 26 percent increase, with $4.35 million from fund balance. Tax rate $3.10 per $1,000 of assessment (currently $2.41).

2014 plan: $23.7 million levy, 16 percent increase, with $1 million from fund balance. Tax rate $3.58.

2015 plan: $24.4 million levy, 3 percent increase, with no fund balance used. Tax rate $3.68.

DWINDLING SURPLUS

Part of Palmer’s plan is to no longer rely heavily on the county’s fund balance.

“If we don’t stick to this plan or something similar to this, the problem just compounds,” he said.

“The overuse of that fund balance ultimately has been to benefit the taxpayers. There was no increase for a number of years; we also have one of the lowest tax rates in the state of New York.”

The 2006 budget was the tipping point to the fix they’re in now, Palmer said, as the new County Jail and Public Safety Building in Lewis opened.

“The jail bonds started in 2006, (then) 911-center employees, jail costs were added, and the levy was exactly the same (as 2005).”

To get the same levy, the board increased use of the fund balance by $3.7 million, to $7.4 million, a 100 percent increase, Palmer said.

“That represented 54 percent of the net budget for that year. It had to be pushed to about $7 million every year since then.”

His proposal is contingent on the completion of the sale of Horace Nye Nursing Home. The Centers for Specialty Care of the Bronx has agreed to buy it for $4 million.

“If the sale fell through, this plan doesn’t work,” Palmer said.

‘AWFUL MESS’

Supervisor Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) said he supports the Palmer plan.

“If everything worked out, in three years, we could be at 3 percent,” he said. “I think we have to get this thing under control. I don’t think there’s any way we can get out of it.”

The problem with tax increases is that citizen salaries are not increasing, Preston said.

“A senior citizen came to me and said she is on the edge. She can’t pay any more.”

People can’t afford the increases proposed in the three-year plan, Preston said.

“We need to make some serious, serious cuts until such time as this economy turns around. We painted ourselves into this corner. It’s an awful mess. There is no easy way out.”

Even if they kept using the fund balance, it would run out, Supervisor William Ferebee (R-Keene) said.

“People don’t understand that.”

A tentative budget must be filed by Nov. 15, Palmer said, and there’s another session at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19, to decide if they want the three-year plan or the layoffs.

Email Lohr McKinstry: lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com