December 11, 2012

Essex County budget approved at 1.1 percent tax hike


---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — The one person who spoke at Monday night’s public hearing on the new Essex County budget made a forecast of financial doom if anticipated federal money doesn’t come through.

Karen Brown of Lewis told the County Board of Supervisors the budget shouldn’t rely so heavily on a $2.8 million Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for last year’s floods.

“What if we don’t get the FEMA money?” she said. “They took it from Vermont.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said he didn’t know about that, but the money has been coming in gradually.

“The money is pretty much assured it’s going to be funneled in to you (the county),” Douglas said.

The new budget is now a 1.1 percent tax-levy increase over the current budget, County Manager Daniel Palmer said at the budget hearing.

The tax levy in the 2013 budget is $16.4 million, creating a tax rate of $2.47 per $1,000 of assessment, up from $2.42 this year. The budget totals about $102 million in appropriations.

“The increase in the tax rate will be 5 cents,” Palmer said.

The budget passed by a weighted vote of 2,077 to 718, with Supervisors Gerald Morrow (D-Chesterfield), William Ferebee (R-Keene), Margaret Bartley (D-Elizabethtown), David Blades (R-Lewis), Sue Montgomery Corey (D-Minerva), George Canon (R-Newcomb), Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) and Daniel Connell (D-Westport) opposed and the St. Armand seat vacant.

County Attorney Daniel Manning III said the State Comptroller’s Office advised them to pass an override of the state tax cap, in case there were made miscalculations in the cap formula.

“Potentially, you could be off,” Palmer said. “They said since you’re so close (to the cap), you should do it that way.”

Manning said the state will financially penalize the county if it goes over the cap and doesn’t approve an override.

The tax-cap override failed, 11 to 6, with Supervisors Roby Politi (R-North Elba), Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay), Sharon Boisen (I-Essex), Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah), Edward Hatch (D-Willsboro) and Randy Preston (I-Wilmington) voting against it. The St. Armand seat is vacant.

Supervisors who voted against it said they did so because they felt the county had met the cap.

Palmer said it turns out the cap formula for Essex County is 1.13 percent, the state told them earlier in the day, not the 2.6 percent they’d previously computed.

The supervisors had already reduced the levy hike to 2.6 percent in budget workshops, and they moved in more of $1.9 million in anticipated property-tax sale proceeds to balance the budget Monday night.

The board took $2.8 million in FEMA reimbursement, reduced department-head and management-confidential raises from 3 percent to 2 percent, removed $497,000 in equipment, held all contract agencies to current levels and used $565,000 in tax-sale proceeds.

Blades read a lengthy written statement on the budget process.

“Ladies and gentlemen, coal must be rationed if we are to see substantial cuts in county spending,” Blades said, in part. “We’ve got make those difficult decisions now and not in the future.”

Bartley said the tax cap is pushing the budget further from being balanced, not closer.

“I can’t support pushing our county deficit even deeper than it is already.”

Politi said he’s also worried about some of the anticipated revenue they’re using to reduce the budget.

“I think this is about making it through a difficult financial time in the state. I don’t like taking risks, either. Yet, I know how difficult times are.”

Some of the budget is dependent on revenue they might not, but expect to, receive next year: FEMA funds and tax-sale proceeds.

With the FEMA money, which would have gone into the fund balance, the county be using $6.8 million of the county’s surplus.

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