ELIZABETHTOWN - Essex County lawmakers have passed a resolution that could let supervisors override the state's 2 percent property tax cap as budget negotiations continue.
The full Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a measure Monday morning that introduces Local Law No. 3 of 2011, which would let the county override the cap. Lawmakers stressed, however, that they will do everything in their power to cut next year's budget down and stay within the cap.
Supervisor Dan Connell, D-Westport, said the resolution simply gives the county an option.
"We're getting all kinds of comments, letters and what-have-yous from the public, and so far, almost everything I have is, 'Don't cut anything,'" he said. "But at the same time, we're seeing letters to the editor every day that we need to bring the budget in under the 2 percent tax cap. We can't do both. We can't offer all of the services that we're now doing, and bring the budget down."
County Manager Dan Palmer is expected to start holding work sessions with the Budget Committee soon. St. Armand town Supervisor Joyce Morency will chair that committee, which also includes Finance Committee Chairman Tom Scozzafava, R-Moriah.
Palmer said he will present a tentative budget that includes all of the services the county provides and their costs. Additionally, the spending plan will show how each item impacts the tax levy.
If you go ...
What: Public hearings on Essex County's property tax cap override law and tentative budget for 2012
When: 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5
Where: County courthouse, Elizabethtown
The tentative budget will also include how many employees the county would need to lay off to meet the tax cap.
Scozzafava noted that without a tax cap override mechanism, the county would be forced to stick to the 2 percent limit.
"The reality of this is, (in) Essex County, we can't provide the services that are mandated this county and come in at 2 percent, because of increases in pension costs and so on," he said. It's easier for towns to stick to the cap, he added, "because we don't have the number of mandated services that are being provided."
Supervisors say the county may have made the wrong call when it kept taxes down for seven years in a row. Scozzafava said the board used increased sales tax revenue to cancel out tax increases in those years.
At $2.14 per $1,000 of assessed property value, the tax rate in Essex County is the second-lowest in New York, according to Palmer. He said the state's formula for establishing tax levy increases doesn't account for variations in tax rates from county to county.
Palmer noted that the tax rate in neighboring Clinton County, which plans to meet the cap, is $5.99 per $1,000. He said if Essex County had a similar tax rate, the tax levy could be $41 million instead of about $14.8 million.
"I don't care what anybody says; somewhere within the calculation has to be a consideration given to what you actually pay on the (tax) bill, and what you actually pay on the bill is driven by the tax rate," Palmer said.
Supervisor Noel Merrihew, R-Elizabethtown, said the county should also be recognized for what it has done in the past to keep taxes down. He noted the county eliminated 26 positions last year.
"Due diligence has been done," Merrihew said.
Before the vote on the tax cap override mechanism, Scozzafava said the county should hold informational sessions with taxpayers to get a sense of what people would like to see cut.
"I just don't think that the night of the public hearing is going to give myself enough time to make a decision," he said.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.