After months of workshops and tense meetings, the Essex County Board of Supervisors has adopted a 2013 budget that increases the tax levy by 1.1 percent.
The 2013 budget process was controversial, especially since it began with a proposed 26 percent tax hike next year, which was part of a three-year plan county Manager Dan Palmer introduced to balance the budget. Palmer's proposal would have increased the tax levy by 16 percent in 2014 and 3 percent in 2015, but supervisors ultimately rejected the plan. In response, Palmer retired, effective Dec. 31.
The 2013 budget includes about $102 million in spending, of which about $16.4 million would come from property taxes (aka the tax levy). The tax rate will increase from $2.42 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $2.47.
"I think it's what we had to do," Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas, the board's chairman, said. "I do think a three- to five-year plan is needed, but I don't think we had done enough homework to put that in place starting next year.
"Am I pleased with the budget? Yeah. We're moving in the right direction."
The 2013 budget uses $6.8 million in fund balance left over from this year, something Palmer was staunchly opposed to. He has compared the fund balance to a savings account, saying supervisors can't keep using it so heavily to keep the tax levy "artificially low."
The board initially sought to use $4 million in fund balance to keep taxes low and later voted to use another $2.8 million, which the county expects to replace next year with reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Douglas said he's not concerned about the risk of not receiving those funds.
"I'm not an expert, but I've had some experience with FEMA," he said. "When FEMA sends a blue project folder like the ones we've received, that's slated money. I don't anticipate a problem."
The board did have to anticipate additional property tax sale revenue to meet the state's calculated tax levy limit, which was originally 2.8 percent but ended up at 1.13 percent after the comptroller's office took payment-in-lieu-of-taxes programs into account, Douglas explained.
Douglas said he has vowed to began working on the 2014 budget immediately. He said he met with department heads on Monday and will continue to hold similar meetings in the future.
Union leadership will meet with supervisors next week to start working on a new deal, Douglas added.
"Looking forward, we may need to consolidate positions," he said. "I think the county needs to look at privatizing home health care, too. ... We're going to do things differently. That means getting creative - sharing technology, sharing county cars."
North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi voted in favor of the 2013 budget. He said it was one of the few times during his career as a town supervisor when he voted for something but "still didn't feel good afterward.
"I know the situation with the fund balance," he said Tuesday. "I felt that economic times are such that there's a real need right now, especially in this state - people are tired of paying high taxes."
Politi said he doesn't feel like the board has done a poor job of managing its finances. Instead, he placed blame on the state for passing the buck to local governments.
"It's easy for the state government to say, 'We have a balanced budget,' when in fact, if they are over in areas like Medicaid and Social Services, they say, 'OK, instead of giving the county $1 million to offset Social Service costs like we've always done, we're going to keep the $1 million and tell the county they have to do it,'" Politi said. "That makes the legislators look great, but it doesn't help local governments."
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or email@example.com.