Press-Republican

November 22, 2013

Franklin County residents respond to tax hike

By DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

---- — MALONE — The $103.6 million Franklin County budget drew some interest from residents as 15 people attended two days of public hearings this week.

Taxpayers turned out Thursday in Malone to hear an overview of the spending plan from County Manager and Budget Officer Thomas Leitz and legislators’ rationale for a likely override of the state-mandated 2 percent tax cap.

Five people attended similar hearings held at Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake Wednesday.

The tentative budget is $103,623,666, an increase of 3.09 percent from 2013.

The tax levy, or amount to be raised by taxes, is $16,178,524, an increase of 8.76 percent.

The average tax increase for a home valued at $100,000 would be $35.28.

ALTERNATIVES

Leitz tweaked numbers and borrowed more from reserve accounts in the past week and presented legislators with alternatives that would put the county at a 2.99 percent tax-levy increase to meet the tax cap.

Two Republican legislators, Marc “Tim” Lashomb of Malone and Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake, have suggested a tax increase of 4 to 5 percent instead to give the county a better cash-flow cushion in case revenues miss or expenses exceed Leitz’s projections.

The county manager said that, by comparison, Essex County is looking to increase taxes 15 percent because its fund balance is low and cash flow is poor.

“We’re not at the point to raise it double digits,” Leitz said.

‘LIVE WITHIN IT’

Legislators haven’t settled on an exact tax-increase yet, but Lawrence Cheney of St. Regis Falls wants them to stay within the tax cap.

“Most forms of government live within it,” he said. “I understand you came in under the tax cap. Live with it.”

Board Chairman Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay) said that if the override isn’t adopted and the county passes an agreement mid-year for payments in lieu of taxes for a proposed hotel development at the Hotel Saranac, there would be a penalty to pay in 2015.

Legislators say raising taxes will build more cash flow and reduce the amount the county may need to borrow next year to meet its obligations. 

CUSHION SUGGESTED

Bob Hest of Malone favors raising taxes the 8.76 percent called for in the proposed budget to stave off a worse economic situation in the future.

“Hurt early, and there’s more of a cushion,” he said, adding that after seeing the county numbers, “it’s easier to understand why 8 percent is probably necessary.”

Cheney said the county is one of the poorest in the state, and many people can’t afford to pay more.

“Most people didn’t get a 3-percent raise this year, so I don’t know how you can justify an increase of 7 to 8 percent,” he said.

MANDATES

Questions in Saranac Lake Wednesday centered on state mandates, with some wondering why the county isn’t banding with neighbors to hold back monthly Medicaid payments until Albany leaders make a real effort at relief.

But Leitz said Franklin County’s Medicaid expense is $220,000 a month or roughly $10 million a year, so the state would merely penalize counties by reducing payments to other state-funded programs or keep sales-tax revenue instead of doling it out each quarter.

Rich Shapiro of Saranac Lake wanted to know the breakdown of mandated spending and discretionary funding.

Leitz explained that legislators have control over Public Transportation; Office for the Aging programs, including the county’s eight adult centers; as well as the Highway Department road and bridge projects.

Much of the rest of county programs and services are mandated, but some get little or no financial support from Albany.

“You’re not going to cut your way out of this,” Jones said.

Email Denise A. Raymo:draymo@pressrepublican.com