Counties around the North Country are busily preparing their 2012 budgets. And each is having to do its own political maneuvering, and decide whether it will cut services, or over-ride the tax cap.
Julie Grant reports.
When the St. Lawrence County administrator first started looking at the budget, she worried the county would need a 28-percent percent tax increase. To get that all the way down to a 2-percent hike, the proposed budget eliminates 48 positions, eliminates programs for pregnant women, handicapped children, and rural bus service. It cuts infrastructure maintenance, and much more.
County legislator Fred Morrill says such a tight budget isn’t realistic for the long term. Still, he says he was elated that it stays within the tax cap…
"Any taxpayer I spoke with wanted us to do
that, that was their wish to stay within the tax cap, somehow. And this budget does that."
Morrill also hopes state takes notice. St. Lawrence is one of a handful of counties that does not have the authority to raise its sales tax. Because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s no new taxes policy, state lawmakers refused to give them that authority this year. But Morrill says some state lawmakers have told him they might reconsider, if St. Lawrence County stays under the cap.
"Definitely not a quid pro quo, but definitely we have a good, strong message that we can send to the state saying look we did this, we do have our finances in order. But we have a non-sustainable budget. We have to be able to repair and maintain our assests"
The budget provides no flexibility. It defers purchase of trucks, and all but emergency computer needs and structural improvements, leaving the St. Lawrence County with a barely any safety netting for unforeseen expenses.
But not all counties are willing to risk their financial future to make nice with the state. Some say New York should to get its own financial house in order, because it’s partly responsible the financial problem counties are facing.
"We are in no way, shape, or form going to get near the property tax cap," said Tom Leitz, manager and chief budget officer of Franklin County.
The state mandates counties pay for certain programs. Leitz says cost of those programs keeps going up.
"The state retirement cost increase alone is a half million dollars and the Medicaid increase alone is about $300, 000. So just those two items are about three times the size of the cap. And those are bills we have to pay."
Leitz says Franklin County is considering borrowing this year to pay its bills, but the state owes it $3.8 million dollars. St. Lawrence County is already borrowing millions this year, even though the state owes it $12.5 million.
"We cannot charge the state interest. It’s a bit of a double standard that not only is there a property tax cap, and there are mandated cost increases in excess of the cap, but the state is not paying us timely for programs we’re mandated to run. And yet if we did not pay them timely for the Medicaid program, there would be penalities."
State Senator Pattie Ritchie has just drafted a bill that would require Albany to speed up its payments for mandated services, or pay interest on the overdue amounts:
"That’s what we should be able to do. That’s the ideal situation."
Dede Scozzafava is Governor Cuomo’s deputy secretary for local government. She says the administration is looking into these things. But it’s going to take time.
"But in doing that, there’s got to be an indepth study of how the system is currently working, how are we doing, what money is coming in, what money is going out. How can we do it in a more timely fashion? Where are we confined? Are we confined by money that comes in from federal government? What’s the time frame there? So there’s not an easy solution. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But the one thing I can say is that this administration is committed to trying to be responsive to a lot of the concerns and a lot of the criticisms that people have rendered"
Some state lawmakers are calling for mandate relief for counties, and for the state to take over payments of Medicaid. Scozzafava says the administration is looking into these proposals.
In the meantime, she says the state has given counties the ability to opt-out of the 2-percent property tax cap if they feel it’s necessary.
But that would be tough in places like rural Lewis County. County manager David Pendergast says they’re holding a series of public meetings for ideas on how to plug a $5 million dollar hole in the budget. But there are only 13-thousand people paying property taxes in the entire county, mostly farmers.
"The bottom line comes to, do our taxpayers
have a lot of money to see increases in taxes. And the answer is—NO."