ELIZABETHTOWN - Only three people spoke at a public hearing Monday night on Essex County's tentative 2013 budget, which would increase the tax levy by 26.8 percent.
About 15 people attended the hearing. Several of them were county employees who had come for the Ways and Means Committee meeting prior to the public hearing. It was a sharp contrast to the public hearing held last year at this time, when nearly 150 people packed the courthouse and asked supervisors not to pass a budget with a 4.3 percent tax hike that would have laid off 30 workers and cut funding to all contract agencies by 10 percent. Supervisors later restored some contract agency funding, laid off just 10 employees and increased the 2012 tax levy by about 10 percent.
Those who did speak Monday pleaded with supervisors not to adopt the budget in its current form.
Taxpayers and Essex County officials listen to a presentation on the tentative 2013 Essex County budget at a public hearing in Elizabethtown Monday night.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"My family has been in Wilmington for over 120 years," said Diane Kirby. "My grandfather's farm was lost to taxes. ... That's something my children, my grandchildren - we can't ever get back. In my extended family, this year, I have someone who lost his home. He could not pay his taxes and the mortgage, and he lost it. I don't know what the answer is. ... These are families that are losing their homes if you put 24, 26 percent on top of these people."
Jeff Cook, a member of the Ticonderoga town board, said supervisors need to look hard at non-mandated expenses, such as the county's work force, to reduce the tax levy.
Harold Akey of Jay also said the board should try to reduce its payroll.
"I know that's a tough decision to be made at any level," Akey said. "At a private sector or a public sector (level), payroll is the last thing you want to cut. People don't want to lose their jobs, people don't want to take salary cuts, but the fiscal crisis that Essex County is in - the nation is - those are realistic."
County Manager Dan Palmer began the hearing by explaining the tentative budget. He said the board plans to look for ways to reduce the tax levy before it adopts a final budget. Palmer said the tentative budget uses about $4 million in fund balance, and it's not a good idea to use more.
"The question we always get is why do we need to have any fund balance," he said. "What the public generally does not understand is that the county is responsible for making every other tax entity whole when it comes to taxes collected. If any taxpayer does not pay their taxes for any given tax year, then the county makes up the difference. ... In 2012, the county paid out approximately $4.3 million from our fund balance to cover these warrants. If we do not have the fund balance to cover these warrants, then we will have to borrow funding to fill the warrants."
Palmer also explained the three-year plan he developed to balance the budget, which would increase the tax levy by 26 percent in 2013, 16 percent in 2014 and 3 percent in 2015. He said the plan would preserve a $5 million fund balance.
Eight county services mandated by the state will increase in cost by about $1.7 million more in 2013 than this year. Palmer said those costs include a $124,258 increase in Medicaid, a $390,153 increase in pensions and an $806,916 increase in child welfare and preventive services, which add up to a 10.69 percent increase over the 2012 tax levy. The continued operation of the Horace Nye Nursing Home, which the county will sell as soon as a contract of sale is final and the state Department of Health has transferred the certificate of need, will cost the county $2.3 million in 2013, which represents an increase of 14.13 percent over the 2012 levy.
Palmer said the nursing home and the mandated increases account for 24.82 percent of the 26.8 percent tax levy increase in the tentative budget.
"Contrary to what some people may believe, the county has significantly reduced its workforce and also its cost of operations despite the increases that we have had in our overall cost," he said. "The net budget (the amount left over after all appropriations and revenues are taken into account - essentially the property tax levy before it's reduced with fund balance) is something that, as a public, should always be looked at, because a net budget sorts out your total appropriations and your total revenues, and that's really what you need to raise from taxpayers, is your net budget.
The net budget in 2006 was about $20.9 million, Palmer said. In 2012, it was $20.2 million, a decline of about $700,000 over a six-year period.
"This occurred despite all of the increases, including the cost of retirement and including the mandated costs," Palmer said. "This county has gone through this budget and pared out every single item that we possibly could pare out and still marginally produced the same services that we were producing before."
Based on the tentative budget, the tax rate in 2013 would be $3.10 per $1,000 of assessed value, one of the lowest among the state's 62 counties, according to Palmer.
Following the public hearing, Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston said meeting the state's 2 percent tax cap might be impossible, but he thinks the board needs to roll up its sleeves and do everything it can to reduce the proposed tax levy increase.
"There is nobody here that would pass a budget of this size in their own town, and we need to think about that when we get down to the nitty gritty and work through this in the next few weeks," he said. "There's not any easy choices, but 26 percent is not the way to go."
Moriah town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava agreed.
"The easy thing to do here is to raise the taxes," he said. "The difficult thing to do is to cut some services and find some ways that we can save, and that's pretty much what we're going to end up doing here."
Prior to the public hearing, the board voted to adopt a local law to override the tax cap. The board will vote on the actual override mechanism after the budget process is complete and before the final budget is adopted.
Douglas said the county must adopt its final budget by Dec. 20. He said budget workshops will continue this week and into December. Monday night's public hearing was recessed - not adjourned - and is expected to continue on Dec. 10 so the public has another chance to weigh in.
Palmer said he anticipates the board will vote on the budget after the public hearing on Dec. 10.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.