November 29, 2012

Editorial: More budget cuts needed


---- — Essex County supervisors are feeling the heat over their 2013 budget, and we encourage them to burn off some spending in response.

County officials have been struggling to reduce the $108 million budget, which currently carries a 26.8 percent tax-levy increase. That is unacceptable to county residents, and a few of them showed up at a budget hearing to tell supervisors that in person.

As they have for years, county officials are blaming state mandates for most of the budget growth. They have said from the start that it would be impossible to come in under the state-mandated tax cap, which is 2.6 percent, in their case.

What is hurting their argument, though, is the fact that two neighboring counties — Clinton and Franklin — have both put together budgets lower than their allowed tax cap, despite facing those same mandates.

Clinton County’s spending plan totals $155.9 million, which is about $1.8 million less than the 2012 version. The tax levy is up 1.9 percent.

Franklin County’s proposed budget stands at $99,740,402, down 11.4 percent from this year. The tax levy is up 1.91 percent.

It should be noted that Essex County currently has an enviable proposed 2013 tax rate of $3.10 per $1,000 of assessed value, well below Clinton’s composite rate of around $6.11 and Franklin’s $4.29. Essex’s current rate of $2.42 per thousand has to be among the lowest in the state, appropriate for a county pegged as one of the poorest. 

Still, it didn’t help that Essex County started off — when budget discussions had barely begun — sure that it would exceed the tax cap. County Manager Daniel Palmer saw no chance of meeting the state limit. That approach doesn’t sit well with taxpayers, who want to think county officials are dedicated to meeting the cap, not resigned to exceeding it.

Essex County certainly does have a challenge: $1.7 million in mandated increases and only $383,000 more in spending allowed under the tax cap, according to Westport Supervisor Daniel Connell.

The supervisors are already selling the bleeding Horace Nye Nursing Home operation, for which they came under intense criticism. They are shying away from layoffs; salary cuts are likely restricted by union contracts; and service cuts are never easy.

Palmer has a three-year plan to balance the budget, but that would require tax hikes of 26 percent the first year, then 16 and 3 percent. No citizens are jumping for joy over that.

Still, some supervisors want deeper cuts. Budget talks continue at 10 a.m. today, and the budget hearing resumes at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10.

Taxpayers should continue to share their feelings about what they want eliminated. And supervisors need to make more cuts to take a big bite out of that nearly 27 percent tax increase.