ELIZABETHTOWN - Essex County officials passed a law that would allow them to override the state-imposed tax cap if they decide it's necessary.
Supervisors plan on workshopping the county's 2014 budget in a meeting Wednesday, but the tentative budget contains a 15 percent hike in the tax levy. It's part of county Manager Dan Palmer's plan to increase taxes over time to balance out the budget so it doesn't rely as heavily on fund balance to offset taxes. The county was cited for using too much fund balance in a recent audit by the state comptroller's office.
On Monday, supervisors argued over whether the 15 percent tax increase is necessary this year.
Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston, among others, argued that it isn't. He said he believes the county could get below the tax cap, which is 2 percent for Essex County this year when allowances are figured in. He said it would have been difficult, but there were ways to reduce spending.
"In my opinion, we could have gotten there," Preston said.
Preston said he's sat through months of budget subcommittee meetings, and he learned that while there are many people in the county who work "their backsides off," there is also plenty of duplication of services, especially with the county's contract agencies.
"It was just totally shocking to me," Preston said.
He said he believes the state put the tax cap in place for a reason, and there's a reason it won't budge on it.
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said he also believes there are ways to get under the cap. He said towns have started charging more costs back to the county that they used to cover in their own budgets, and that has put extra stress on the county budget.
Others argued that overriding the cap is unavoidable.
"I don't see where we have a choice, the way our fund balance has been dwindling down," said Chesterfield Supervisor Gerald Morrow.
Morrow said he's had constituents talk to him about the budget, and they understand the situation the county is in.
Westport Supervisor Dan Connell said he was planning to vote against the override until he saw Palmer's budget presentation last week. Now, he said, he realizes there's no choice.
"Even though I'm uncomfortable with it, I don't see any way we can put together a budget that would come in under the cap," Connell said.
Board Chairman Randy Douglas noted that state mandates make up 83 percent of the budget.
Whether the county needs to raise taxes by 15 percent or not, nearly all the supervisors agreed that it makes sense to at least pass the law allowing an override. Preston was the only one to vote against it.
Several officials noted that even though the law has been passed, it doesn't necessarily mean the county will approve a budget with a tax levy over 2 percent.
The budget workshop Wednesday is set to begin at 9 a.m. in the board's chambers at the county government center in Elizabethtown.
Supervisors need to approve a final budget by Dec. 20.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or email@example.com.