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Our hands are going to be forced to do more with less, and that could include personnel reductions

Tax cap could cut jobs in Essex County

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A collective cheer rang out last month when lawmakers passed legislation capping the growth of property taxes in New York at two percent. The bill was quickly signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had labeled a tax cap as one of his major legislative priorities.

Supporters say the tax cap represents a major shift toward fiscal solvency in New York. But as Chris Morris reports, the legislation is already setting up major economic road blocks for one county government.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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“The two percent tax cap will have a huge impact on Essex County," said Randy Douglas, who chairs the Essex County Board of Supervisors. Count him among the skeptics when it comes to New York’s cap on property tax growth.

Douglas said unfunded mandates and cuts to state aid payments will box county lawmakers into a corner during the upcoming budget season.

Last year county leaders struggled to keep increases to the tax levy under ten percent. So in order to deal with this new two percent cap, Douglas and his colleagues established a tax cap subcommittee.

“We’ve got to come up with a plan,” Douglas said. “It could mean anything. It could be a recommendation from this committee to freeze hiring, it could mean layoffs, it could mean freezing travel, it could mean doing away with some of the items that we currently budget for.”

Much like last year, Douglas said some popular county services are back on the chopping block – things like the Horace Nye Nursing Home and the fish hatchery, for example.

Douglas said lawmakers and taxpayers will have to answer some tough questions in the coming months.

“Every year we go into the hole around $2 million on the nursing home, and it’s not that we don’t want to provide a nursing home for our residents,” Douglas said. “But can I actually put on the backs of 39,000 residents a 100-bed nursing home for 99 to 100 people? Can I do that anymore? Can the Essex County residents afford this burden?”

Douglas said he wants to bring county workers back to the negotiation table in hopes of gaining some concessions ahead of what’s sure to be a tough budgeting season. “It’s going to be a change, but I think it’s something that we can work with," he said.

State Senator Betty Little was an ardent supporter of the tax cap bill. She said other states, like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, survived similar laws and eventually shed their reputations as tax-laden governments.

According to Little, there are measures in the law that offer some reprieve for counties like Essex. “Capital projects, any pension costs over two percent – there’s some consideration that it won’t be included,” she said. “For instance if their pension costs went up five percent, only two percent of those pension costs would be included in the tax levy limitation.”

Little adds that some mandate relief was included in the legislation, and she says more is on the way.

Douglas said he’s going to need specifics soon, as Essex County is already piecing together its 2012 budget, a fiscal plan he hopes won’t include layoffs. “We’re going to be forced – our hands are going to be forced to do more with less, and that could include personnel reductions,” he said.

County lawmakers learned at this week’s meeting that the new tax cap could limit tax growth next year to just $147,000.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m Chris Morris.

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