SARANAC LAKE — With two laws pending the governor's signature in Albany, Essex County may raise its occupancy tax and contract with towns and fire districts to provide emergency medical services.
Both passed the State Legislature Wednesday.
The occupancy tax bill authorizes the Essex County Board of Supervisors to increase the so-called “bed tax” from 3 to 5 percent. It passed both chambers Wednesday and awaited the governor’s signature that evening.
The EMS bill, giving the county the authority to collect a tax through service agreements with local towns and fire districts, also awaited the governor’s signature.
Both bills were introduced by Assemblyman Dan Stec and Sen. Betty Little, both Republicans from Queensbury, at the request of the Board of Supervisors.
“These bills are known as ‘home rule’ requests, local priorities that require state legislative approval,” Little said in a statement. “There are so many competing interests in Albany the final weeks of session.
"Given the flurry of activity, I’m pleased we could move these bills in the Senate and for the support of my colleagues assuring their passage.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature wouldn’t make the occupancy tax increase a done deal. The Board of Supervisors would need to pass a local law before the increase could be implemented.
“This is a home rule request. As a former town supervisor, I’m a big believer of giving them the authority to listen to their constituents and decide whether to increase the occupancy tax,” Stec said. “(This revenue would) allow them to further market the county and further economic development.”
If that tax increase moves forward, it could generate roughly $2 million in new revenue per year from hotel and motel stays within Essex County.
Last year, $3 million was generated through the 3 percent tax.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland has said in the past that he’d want to see the county retain some of that new revenue in addition to the 5 percent it keeps and also shuttle a percentage to individual towns, which would have the ability to use that money for marketing and tourism, recreation or local projects.
The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism currently keeps 95 percent of the revenue generated through the occupancy tax for marketing and tourism-related efforts.
Representatives of the agency have proposed using additional revenue generated by increasing the tax for a “community enhancement fund” to benefit town-level projects such as infrastructure upgrades.
The revenue would be split among four regions overseen by committees that would decide how the money would be allocated.
But supervisors haven’t agreed to that plan and continue to discuss different ways the additional revenue could be utilized.
AMENDED EMS BILL
Essex County’s Board of Supervisors has long discussed ways to make the county’s EMS system more financially sustainable while addressing critical service gaps.
Local officials believe this year’s bill could pave the way to doing that.
The original version would have authorized the county to create a special taxing district to fund EMS services. That bill was approved by the Senate last year but failed to pass the Assembly before the session ended.
It passed the Senate again earlier this month but was amended in the Assembly last week, after multiple meetings of the County Board of Supervisors to approve revised home rule requests.
“A lot of people locally worked hard and gave up time to get what they needed in Essex County,” Stec said.
Stec worked with the chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Local Government, Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) to draft an amended version he believed stood a chance of passing in the new Democratic-controlled Legislature, which he said wasn’t in favor of creating a new taxing district.
If the amended bill is signed by the governor and is ultimately moved forward by the Board of Supervisors, the revenue collected through the county’s EMS agreements with local towns would help fund the salaries of county emergency medical technicians and paramedics — as well as medic cars, defibrillators and other equipment — that would aid existing rescue squads.
Towns would have the ability to opt out of the service.
Stec’s bill is one piece of a larger plan to design a new EMS system that can alleviate the financial burden of providing full ambulance and EMS services in rural, sparsely populated areas of Essex County.
A pilot program to test the feasibility and effectiveness of such a system is currently being rolled out in Wilmington, Crown Point, Moriah and Ticonderoga, towns where a lot of rescue calls have been dropped due to a shortage of volunteers.
Under the pilot program, paramedics and EMTs under the purview of the county will supplement local squads.
This small-scale test is being paid for by a $2.27 million state grant. By improving service in this four-town test area, the county stands to unlock an additional $4 million in state funding to expand that program to other towns.
But the new paramedic and EMT jobs, along with the other infrastructure being built out using this state funding, will need to be funded post-grant. That’s where these service agreements with local towns could factor in.
“This is important,” Stec said. “EMS service is challenging. People are busier, things are getting more expensive, and there are more requirements to be a volunteer.
"(The Essex County Board of Supervisors) needed to think outside the box. They’ve got the grant funding, but Essex County, wisely, is looking long-term.
“I’m glad that we were able to finally get it done.”