BY LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Only three people spoke at a public hearing on the tentative 2013 Essex County budget, but all urged lawmakers to make further spending cuts to avoid a significant tax-levy hike.
The budget’s tax levy is a 26.8 percent increase over this year, and the County Board of Supervisors and County Manager Daniel Palmer have been spending hours in public workshop sessions trying to reduce it.
“I feel this much (increase) is only going to force people out of their homes,” said Harold Akey of Jay. “I’m asking you guys to please reconsider. Maybe people (county employees) are willing to take salary cuts.”
He spoke at both the budget hearing and an earlier hearing Monday night on a local law to override the state tax-levy cap, which would be 2.6 percent for Essex County.
Akey said that cutting wages would be realistic, considering the county’s fiscal crisis.
“Come up with a different solution. The 26 percent levy increase is not an acceptable solution.”
The county is in negotiation on a new contract with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) that represents most county workers. The present agreement expires Dec. 31, and Palmer said no money has been set aside in the budget for salary increases.
“This budget does not include a raise for CSEA,” he said.
The main problem with the budget is a large increase in state-mandated costs, Supervisor Daniel Connell (D-Westport) said.
“I don’t think any of us are happy with this. You have a $1.7 million increase in mandates and only a $383,000 increase allowed under the cap.”
Palmer said that massive layoffs could bring them in under the cap but would cripple county services. The county laid off 10 workers last year.
“If you were to eliminate every local service that’s not mandated, maybe you could come under the cap, but it’s just not possible with our setup,” he said.
Along with the projected 2013 tax levy of $25.6 million levy, the budget totals $108 million in appropriations.
The county has a projected 2013 tax rate of $3.10 per $1,000 of assessment, up from $2.42 now.
STILL BEING MOLDED
Another public workshop will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Old County Courthouse at Elizabethtown.
“This board is still working, sharing new ideas, what we think could be cut, could be added, how to operate differently,” Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said as the hearing began. “This (proposed budget) is not the end-all.”
Palmer previously unveiled a three-year plan to balance the budget, which called for 26, 16 and 3 percent tax-levy increases each year.
Jeff Cook of Ticonderoga said at the hearing that he opposes the three-year plan.
“That plan would equate to a (large) tax increase after three years. There’s places to be cut and things that can be cut.”
He urged supervisors to think about taxpayers instead of union members.
Diane Kirby of Wilmington said Essex County is one of the poorest in the state and that people can’t afford their property taxes now.
“I have someone in my extended family that lost his home. He could not pay his taxes. I don’t know what the answer is. But it is not raising the taxes.”
The budget public hearing was continued to 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10. By law, the county must adopt a budget by Dec. 20.
One supervisor said he’s confident they can greatly reduce the tax hike.
“I understand it might be an unimaginable challenge to meet the tax cap,” Supervisor Randy Preston (I-Wilmington) said. “But there is no one here who would pass a budget like that in your town, with a 26 percent tax increase. I think we can get this down to something people can live with.”
Supervisor Edward Hatch (D-Willsboro) pointed out that some areas of the budget seem to be untouchable.
“We have not really done our research to cut the budget back,” he said. “If you’re not going to put on the table the Sheriff’s Department, Highway Department, (North Country Community) College, you’re not going to get anywhere. I think we’re doing things the old way, and we have to make changes.”
It’s going to take a lot of work and effort to make the necessary cuts, Supervisor George Canon (R-Newcomb) said.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We’ve got to get our arms around this.”
Douglas said he was getting calls from fellow supervisors on Thanksgiving night to discuss budget ideas.
“We have some tough decisions to make,” he said. “There have been emails, texts, calls at 11 o’clock, sharing our concerns. This is a very hard-working body.”
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