By LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County lawmakers are looking at a proposed budget with a 15 percent tax-levy increase next year.
The rise is part of a five-year plan to stabilize county finances, County Manager Daniel Palmer said.
The tax-levy hikes would be 15, 10, 8, 5 and 2 percent a year over the next five years.
The alternative is a 33.9 percent tax increase in 2014, Palmer said, to accomplish stabilization in one year.
“It was determined a compromise would be used,” he said. “The (state) auditors pointed out the tax levy is simply too low for this budget.
“This budget has capital improvements to fix roofs we haven’t touched in five years.”
FUND BALANCE ISSUES
A recent audit of county finances by the State Comptroller’s Office took the county to task for using too much of its accumulated fund balance to lower the tax levy in recent years.
The County Board of Supervisors budgeted a total of $12.3 million from the general fund’s fund balance for 2010, 2011 and 2012 to reduce the levies for those years.
“The audit criticized us for using fund balance,” Palmer said. “Most counties, like us, chose to use their fund balance. It’s a problem with the tax cap.”
Since the proposed budget exceeds the county’s 2 percent state tax cap for next year, the Board of Supervisors set a public hearing on a tax-cap override for 9:15 a.m. Monday, Dec. 2.
Only Supervisors Sharon Boisen (I-Essex) and Supervisor Randy Prest
on (I-Wilmington) voted against the cap-override resolution, with Sue Montgomery Corey (D-Minerva) out of the room on business.
A final vote on the cap will be taken after the public hearing.
LESS FUND BALANCE
The public hearing on the county budget itself is at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26, in the Old County Courthouse at Elizabethtown.
The tentative budget raises $18.9 million from property taxes, 15 percent more than this year’s $16.4 million.
To stay within the 2 percent cap formula for the county, the levy could have been raised no more than $392,220, Palmer said.
The budget would hike the county tax rate from $2.44 per $1,000 of assessment to $2.87, an increase of 43 cents.
Palmer said the 2014 budget uses $3 million from the fund balance compared to $6.85 million for the present year.
The budget totals $94.9 million, a .09 percent increase from 2013.
NURSING HOME SALE
The spending plan includes 1 percent pay increases for employees, including elected officials.
One moved that helped the budget is divesting the county of ownership of the 100-bed Horace Nye Nursing Home, expected to save more than $2 million a year.
The buyer, the Centers for Specialty Care of the Bronx, is paying $4 million for the home, which is represented as income in the proposed budget.
Palmer said the 133 jobs at Horace Nye will be off the county payroll by the first of the year.
NET BUDGET DOWN
The county has a $500,000 deficit in its solid waste budget, and Palmer said they’ll issue a request for proposals for trash disposal when the current contract with Serkil LLC expires soon.
The deficit represents the difference between what the towns pay the county to dispose of trash and the county’s actual cost.
Equipment costs are down $177,000 in the budget, he said, but some other expenses, such as health insurance, are up.
“The health insurance was up 15 percent, but over all it (expenses) was only up 2 percent or so, because we will have 133 less employees.
“Really, the net budget from 2013 to 2014 is down 5.71 percent.”
The net budget is the difference between appropriations and revenue other than property taxes.
Revenue is projected at $72.9 million next year, and appropriations are $94.9 million, so the difference is $21.9 million, a 5.71 percent decrease from this year’s $23.3 million.
Some increases in the new budget are for the county capital fund for improvements and repairs, and to build the fund balance back up from its current low of $5.5 million.
The fund balance is normally used for items like emergency expenses and to operate county government while taxes are being collected.
Supervisor David Blades (R-Lewis) has been chairing an ad hoc Budget Subcommittee that came up with several recommendations to reduce spending.
He said they didn’t come up with any major cuts, though.
“If we save $100,000 based on our recommendations, that’s a lot.”
The recommendations will be discussed at upcoming budget workshops, Finance Committee Chair Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said.
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Among the suggestions Supervisor David Blades presented at Monday's Finance Committee meeting are:
• Go to one snowplow operator per truck instead of two, to save $12,000 year.
• Turn the county fairgrounds over to the County Agriculture Society or sell it.
• No more full-time County Family Court attorney; contract out instead.
• Install a bio-metric time clock system to ensure workers are present when they're scheduled.
• Use more part-timers, to save $20,000 year.
• Privatize cleaning staff at the county complex.
• Hold contract agencies to 2013 levels. • Minimize the number of representatives sent to conferences.
• Hold all county committee meetings on a single Wednesday, instead of weekly, to save mileage.
• All supervisors donate $20 year for coffee and flowers fund.
• Buy iPads for supervisors to eliminate paper copies of documents.