Press-Republican

November 17, 2012

Proposed Clinton County budget comes in under tax cap

By JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Clinton County’s proposed budget plan for 2013 shows a tax-levy increase of 1.9 percent, which is under the state tax cap.

“I think it is a reasonable and responsible budget at this point,” Legislature Chairman Jimmy Langley (R-Area 7, Peru) said.

The county has benefited this year from hefty sales-tax revenue and the outsourcing of a major department.

Sales-tax revenue is projected to be up by about $3.4 million over 2011, and the county saved about $1.7 million when it sold its home-health-care service to HCR of Rochester earlier this year.

In addition to saving money on the service, HCR is paying the county $320,000 per year for the license.

COMPOSITE TAX RATE

While the tax rate for each town in the county is different, based on assessed property value, the overall projected composite tax rate for the county is  $6.11 per $1,000 of assessed value. That projection is 6 cents or 1 percent higher than the 2012 composite rate.

The overall spending plan is about $155.9 million, which is about $1.8 million lower than the 2012 plan.

The state’s tax cap is based on a 2 percent levy increase, but exceptions are made for tax-base growth, employee retirement costs and payments in lieu of taxes.

Under that formula, the county could have increased its tax levy by 3.2 percent and still be within the cap.

The tax levy is the difference between the government’s total expenses and total revenues, the remainder having to be raised by property taxes. Tax bills fluctuate with assessments, so the levy is usually the better determinant of individual tax bills.

CANADIAN EFFECT

The significant increase in sales-tax revenue this year is largely attributed to the rising number of Canadians visiting the area. The strength of the Canadian dollar, which is at par with the U.S. dollar, spurs people from the north to visit this area for shopping and vacations.

While the increase in revenue is welcome, County Administrator Michael Zurlo, who serves as budget officer, said it should not be relied on year to year.

“This is not something we can automatically count on to save our bacon every year,” he said at Wednesday night’s Finance Committee meeting.

“And it should not prevent us from working on the budget every year to get it where it should be.”

FUND BALANCE

The budget proposal does not cut any services, but there is an overall reduction of half of a full-time employee position.

Zurlo said the original budget outlook, after department heads submitted their requests in August, carried a composite tax rate of about $6.85 per $1,000, but that was trimmed down.

“We said no to some legitimate requests because we simply did not feel it was prudent at this time,” he said.

About $2 million from the county’s fund balance was used to help keep taxes down, leaving about $11.5 million, which is 8.7 percent of the total budget.

The state recommends a fund balance of 10 percent, but Zurlo said that’s a gray area.

“I would hope most agree that this still leaves us with a healthy fund balance and does not leave us in a precarious situation.”

Medicaid continues to be the largest cost for the county, accounting for about $18 million or 62.4 percent of the tax levy.

Costs for the Sheriff’s Department, which includes operation of the County Jail, are up by about 11.5 percent due to salaries, health insurance and retirement costs for personnel.

RESPONSIBLE

Langley said the county has had a history of compiling responsible budgets since he joined the legislature in 1999, when the tax rate was $5.66 per $1,000 assessed property value.

“It really hasn’t gone up that much over that time, and that’s because we don’t go crazy, and we try to keep our house in order,” he said.

“We try to do what people want us to do and what is best for the county.”

Legislators can make changes in the plan up until they vote on it Dec. 12.

A public hearing on the budget will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, in the legislative chambers.

Email Joe LoTemplio: jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com