By LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Although 19 people turned out for the Essex County budget hearing Monday night, only one signed up to speak then changed his mind.
The hearing started with a lengthy presentation on the proposed 2014 budget by County Manager Daniel Palmer.
At its conclusion, Gale Wilkins of Willsboro, who had signed the speakers’ sheet, stood up in the audience instead of going to the podium.
“I will abstain from speaking,” he said. “Mr. Palmer answered my questions.”
LEVY UP 15%
The budget filed by Palmer has an $18.95 million tax levy, a 15 percent increase from this year.
The tax rate would go from $2.39 per 1,000 of assessment to $2.87.
It is part of a five-year plan Palmer devised to restore the county to financial stability, with declining tax increases planned for each year until they reach 2 percent in the last year.
Total appropriations in the tentative 2014 budget are $94.9 million, with non-property tax revenues of $72.9 million estimated.
Palmer told those at the public hearing that a recent state audit criticized the county for using too much of its surplus fund balance every year for the last three years to reduce the tax levy.
That took the fund balance from $24 million to about $5.6 million, he said.
“The county needs fund balance on a regular basis for emergencies that occur,” he said. “When taxpayers don’t pay their taxes, we make all those districts (towns and schools) whole and take it from fund balance. If we don’t have fund balance, we have to borrow.”
Borrowing to reimburse unpaid taxes was last done in the early 1990s, he said, but could happen again if the fund balance is depleted.
HORACE NYE SALE HELPED
“The taxes are a lot less than they would be because of the sale of the (Horace Nye) Nursing Home,” Palmer said. “If we didn’t have that, the tax increase would be 32.7 percent.”
The Nursing Home sale removes $2.9 million in annual costs from the budget, he said.
The sale to the Centers for Specialty Care of the Bronx takes effect Dec. 31.
Mandated items, like social services, dropped by about $178,000, he said.
“The presentation was very well done,” Supervisor Edward Hatch (D-Willsboro) said afterward. “I’d like to cut that 15 (percent tax increase) in half.”
The county has one budget session remaining, on Dec. 4.
The 15 percent increase exceeds the county’s adjusted tax cap of 2 percent and requires a local law to accomplish.
A public hearing on surpassing the tax cap is set 9:15 a.m. Monday, Dec. 2.
A special meeting to amend and pass the 2014 budget starts at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4.
Both are in the Old Courthouse at Elizabethtown and are open to everyone.
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