Press-Republican

November 21, 2012

Essex County lawmakers debate 2013 budget

BY LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Ways both easy and improbable were debated this week to reduce a possible 26.8 percent tax-levy hike in Essex County.

The proposed 2013 budget filed by County Manager Daniel Palmer has a tax levy of $20.5 million, up 26.8 percent from $16.2 million this year.

The state tax cap for Essex County would allow a 2.4 percent levy increase. The county is preparing to pass a local law to override the cap if enough cuts can’t be found.

“In order to get to the tax cap, you would have to get to $3.9 million in cuts,” County Manager Daniel Palmer said.

Equipment, buildings-and-grounds repairs, contract agency funding, “it all could be cut,” he said.

“The problem is if it (a deficit) reoccurs in the 2014 budget, you just have another gap.”

WHERE TO CUT?

In the tentative 2013 budget, the county tax rate would rise from $2.41 per $1,000 of assessment to $3.10 for 2013. That means county taxes would go from $241 to $309 on a $100,000 assessed home.

At a special meeting Monday afternoon, County Real Property Tax Services Director Charli Lewis gave a snapshot of taxes to the County Board of Supervisors, department heads and the public in attendance.

“Because your levy is going up 26 percent that does not mean your taxes will go up 26 percent,” Lewis said. “There are other factors that come into play.”

Reassessments, exempt properties and changes to the assessed tax base could all affect the rate, she said.

The county has $376 million in new or increased assessments, with a $7.8 billion total tax base for 2013, Lewis said.

The levy hike would drop down to 15.7 percent if $1.8 million in new equipment and vehicles were removed from the budget, Palmer said.

Deleting paving and associated expenses gets it down to an 11 percent levy increase, he said, with a $700,000 savings.

Other savings could come from cutting the Certified Home Health Agency visiting nurses program in Public Health, $394,000; senior meal sites, $46,000; and contract agencies, $676,000.

“If you do away with (Public Health nurses) home visits, you’ll have people linger in the hospital, so you’ll pay for it one way or another,” Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said.

“We need to go to our department heads and tell them to come back to us with some savings,” he continued. “We’ll make the decision whether we can or cannot live with that.”

He said the other solution is to use some of the $8.5 million fund balance, which is not recommended.

FURLOUGH DAYS PROPOSED

Scozzafava said they could also figure in $4 million in revenue in 2013 when the Horace Nye Nursing Home sale to a Bronx firm is finalized.

“We sold it; let’s give it (the money) back to the taxpayers,” he said.

Several supervisors had suggestions for budget cuts.

Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) proposed supervisors take county pay cuts of $1,000 each and challenged union and management-confidential workers to do the same.

“I think we should sell the Fish Hatchery, sell the (county) fairgrounds,” he said. “Contract agencies, I think there should be a 5 percent decrease.”

If all 700 county employees took a $1,000 voluntary pay cut, that would save $700,000, Douglas said.

“We could ask. Nobody’d come forward,” Scozzafava answered.

Supervisor Randy Preston (I-Wilmington) said he’s advise mandating furlough days for workers to save money.

“The last thing I would do is layoffs.”

“I think we need to go to a hiring freeze,” Supervisor Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) said.

“This problem isn’t going to go away. You either have programs and you pay for them, or you don’t.”

‘BITE THE BULLET’

Supervisor Gerald Morrow (D-Chesterfield) said he would advise them to accept Palmer’s three-year plan to balance the budget, which starts with the 2013 spending plan and would have 26, 16 and 3 percent levy increases each year to stabilize spending.

“It takes guts to accept the county manager’s plan and go forth. Balance the budget, and bite the bullet.”

The county plans two public hearings on the budget: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, and 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10, in the Old County Courthouse.

The next Board of Supervisors budget session, which is open to the public, will be at 10 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 29.

Email Lohr McKinstry: lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com