By LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County lawmakers moved the decimal point in the proposed county budget’s 26 percent tax hike Thursday and called it a day.
After 3 1/2 hours of wrangling, the County Board of Supervisors reduced the tax-levy increase from 26.8 percent to just 2.6 percent, which is under the state tax-cap formula for Essex County.
The 2013 budget will now add just 9 cents to the existing county property-tax rate.
The session Thursday was a workshop only, and the board won’t vote on the cuts until its regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 4. The amended budget won’t be official until the board votes at a special meeting after the last public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10.
The chief savings came after supervisors learned the county had an additional $2.8 million coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that hadn’t been included as revenue in the new budget.
The funds are reimbursement for infrastructure damage suffered in the 2011 floods in the county.
“It’s an anticipated revenue,” said Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah), chair of the County Finance Committee. “We did all our repairs from cash on hand.”
The cuts also reduce raises for management-confidential employees from 3 percent to 2 percent next year. The management-confidential group hasn’t had any raises for three years, while union members have had contractual pay increases during that time.
A new Civil Service Employees Association contract is being negotiated, but County Manager Daniel Palmer said there’s nothing set aside in the budget for any raises for those workers.
Department heads and members of the Board of Supervisors are also not getting pay raises in the new budget.
Supervisor William Ferebee (R-Keene) said he was sorry department-head raises were removed.
“They do a fantastic job. It’s a shame they’re not monetarily recognized.”
The remaining reductions remove $500,000 in equipment purchases for the County Department of Public Works, freeze contract agencies to current amounts to save $52,270, remove $150,000 from the County Department of Social Services budget and use $350,000 of anticipated revenue from a property-tax sale to be held in the next few months.
The proposed budget moves another $1.3 million in equipment purchases to a bond anticipation note to be paid from the Nursing Home sale proceeds.
“We would only do the (bond) if the sale of the Nursing Home has been completed,” Palmer said.
Although the home’s sale was approved earlier this year by supervisors, a contract hasn’t been signed, and the $4 million from the purchase won’t be forthcoming until that happens.
The cuts total $3.9 million, dropping the projected tax levy to $16.7 million, from $16.27 million this year, and creating a tentative tax rate of $2.51 per $1,000 of assessment. The current tax rate is $2.42.
The levy with the 26 percent tax hike was $20.6 million. The entire budget totals $108 million in appropriations.
County leaders previously thought they’d have to exceed the state tax cap for Essex County and were prepared to pass a local law to override the cap. With the cuts, the budget comes in just under the cap amount of about 2.6 percent.
The budget has $1.7 million in new state mandates, plus $2.3 million for continued operation of Horace Nye Nursing Home.
The county could raise an extra $1.6 million annually from the one-quarter percent increase in its 3.75 percent sale tax, but the request has been stuck in the State Legislature.
“Press very hard for the one-quarter percent sales tax (increase),” Palmer told supervisors. “It means a huge amount over any other revenue source I could find.”
Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature have agreed to no tax increases whatsoever, so that’s why nothing has happened on the request.
Douglas said that at the budget vote he plans to ask the board to consider no raises for anyone, a $100,000 savings.
Every $206,000 represents 1 percent of the tax levy, so that would be another one-half percent tax cut.
Scozzafava said he’ll initiate a dialogue next year on reducing the size of the county workforce, now at 623 employees.
“The only way we’re going to get to go where we’ve got to go is elimination of positions. When someone retires, don’t fill it. Until we start reducing personnel, we’re going to be having this discussion every year.
“Come January, a hiring freeze will be in effect if we have enough support.”
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