Essex County is facing a $14 million dollar deficit, and a 30 to 50 percent take increase in property taxes next year.
County Manager Dan Palmer said this week it’ll be virtually impossible to avoid the big tax hike unless people are willing to live without services they’ve come to rely on…like the county’s nursing home. “Horace Nye’s one, “ he said. “It’s $3 million on the levy,” he said. “If you don’t want a big tax increase, we’ll close it. But no one wants to do that.”
County leaders have also proposed closing the Crown Point fish hatchery. Public opposition has been intense there, too.
Mandated expenses claim more than 75 percent of Essex County’s $100 million budget. There’s not much discretionary spending to cut in order to fill a deficit projected at $14 million. That leaves the double digit estimates in property tax hikes. “Is it a big jump all at once? Sure it is,” Palmer said. “But still we would be lower than most any other tax rate you could find in the state of New York.”
Essex County property owners now pay $2 per thousand of the assessed value of their land. Palmer doesn’t have a target number in mind for the coming year. The final rate is up to the Board of Supervisors.
Palmer’s proposing what he calls a three or four year “budget normalization period” to spread the pain out over several years while bringing the Essex County tax rate into line with surrounding counties, “When you’ve got the lowest tax rate in the state of New York, if I went up 50 percent, I would still be in the bottom three,” he said. “Every county around us is two or three times higher than we are.”
Essex County Supervisors have regularly raided the county unexpended fund balance to keep taxes that low, using $49 million over the last seven years.
But that well is almost dry and expenses continue to rise. Health insurance costs for county employees are expected to increase 30 and 40 percent in 2011 alone. Contracted pay raises will cost the county $2 million.
Board Chairman Randy Douglas said it was a mistake to use the reserve balance to avoid raising taxes. “We got to move to stabilize the budget over this four-year period to get back in control,” he said. “Looking back – I was one that voted for it – a zero percent increase for six or seven years has caught up with us.”
Douglas hasn’t targeted a specific tax increase percentage for the coming year. But he notes that supervisors are running out of options. “Without getting the increase in sales tax from the state of New York, it’s either cut services or raise taxes,” Douglas said.
Essex County has sought authority from state lawmakers to increase its sales tax rate, but the bill has stalled in Albany.
The 2011 county budget is due in two months.