ELIZABETHTOWN — What was supposed to be a final Essex County budget workshop Wednesday didn’t even establish acceptance of the five-year plan to stabilize county finances.
Another special meeting of Essex County lawmakers will be needed to amend and pass the proposed 2014 county budget.
The plan devised by County Manager Daniel Palmer sets the tax levy increase for next year at 15 percent, pending any amendments, but it was defeated by weighted vote, 1,393 yes to 1,528 no.
The actual number of no votes was only 963, but absent members’ votes are counted toward the no column.
Voting against it because they favored a smaller increase or use of an alternate plan that would deliver 9 percent annual tax-levy hikes for five years, were Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay), Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah), Michael Marnell (R-Schroon), Edward Hatch (D-Willsboro) and Randy Preston (I-Wilmington).
“Unfortunately, this is not going to be a popular move,” Supervisor Charles Whitson Jr. (R-St. Armand) said. “We have to bite the bullet.”
DEC. 20 DEADLINE
Sixteen members of the Essex County Board of Supervisors arrived at the Old County Courthouse prepared for a long final budget session Wednesday morning.
Supervisors Sharon Boisen (I-Essex) and Roby Politi (R-North Elba) could not make the special meeting.
“We’ll be here all day if need be,” Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said.
“If we don’t pass the budget today (Wednesday), we’ll schedule a special meeting to award the radio contract and pass the budget.”
The budget wasn’t OK’d, however, so Douglas set the next budget session for 9 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17.
He said Dec. 20 is the deadline for passing a county budget.
The radio contract Douglas spoke of awaits a response from Motorola Solutions on whether that company will honor the service warranty on 400 radios purchased for emergency vehicles if a non-Motorola dealer installs the equipment.
“It’s open game to speak out about anything you (supervisors) want to discuss about the budget,” Douglas told the supervisors at the session. “If you have different ideas, we can plug them in and see what comes out.”
Palmer said changes to contract agencies or equipment purchases could be discussion items.
“The plan is to get back to a structurally balanced budget without getting the levy too high,” he said.
“The biggest reduction is the (Horace Nye) Nursing Home. We were losing about $3 million (a year in expenses).”
The county sold the Nursing Home to a private firm from New York City, which takes over Jan. 1.
The surplus fund balance is down to about $5.5 million, and Palmer said it should be closer to $20 million. The county used large amounts of fund balance to reduce the levy in the previous three budgets, for which it was criticized in a recent state audit.
Preston moved to revert to the alternate five-year plan, which would include 9 percent levy hikes for five successive years then drop to 2 percent the next year.
“I think 9 percent is more palatable to taxpayers than 15 percent.”
A 9 percent increase would create a tax rate of $2.71 per $1,000 assessed property value, but that resolution failed, 1,465 no to 881 yes.
The 15 percent tax increase takes the tax rate to $2.87 per $1,000 of assessment, from $2.39 this year.
Supervisor Margaret Bartley (D-Elizabethtown) said she’d advocate passing a budget with the 15 percent levy increase.
“It’s (county tax) still the cheapest game in town. We’re chipping away at this and digging the hole deeper.”
Surrounding counties have tax rates three or four times what Essex County’s is, she said.
Palmer said Essex is one of the lowest three counties in the state for tax rate.
Scozzafava pointed to $455,000 in highway equipment purchases that could be bonded for instead of paid for in one year; $460,000in bridge bond payments in the budget that wouldn’t be needed until 2015; and a heavy-equipment grader priced at $230,000 that he said could be borrowed from another municipality when needed.
His motion to delete the grader from the budget failed, however.
“It’s a tough situation,” Douglas said. “We went hours and hours with every department and cut and cut.”
When so many decreases are made, departments run bare-bones and further cuts are difficult, he said.
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