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Every single person that talked to us said we need to put money back into the budget.

Essex County may hike taxes following public outcry

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It was standing room only in the Essex County Courthouse in Elizabethtown Monday night as nearly 150 people turned out for a hearing on the tentative 2012 county budget.

Twenty-three people spoke during the hearing, which lasted more than two hours. Not one person asked for additional cuts to a spending plan that proposed to increase the tax levy by 4.3 percent and lay off 30 county employees.

And as Chris Morris reports, every speaker called for the board to restore funding for contract agencies and do what they could to avoid job cuts, a move that would increase next year's tax levy.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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Speaking before the public hearing, county Manager Dan Palmer said a projected tax levy increase of 62 percent had been whittled down to about 4.3 percent.

To reach that figure, the county would need to lay off 30 workers, drastically reduce the public works budget, and use about $4 million in fund balance.

Lawmakers also proposed to reduce funding for contract agencies, like the Adirondack Regional Airport and Cornell Cooperative Extension. In some cases, as with the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System, funding would have been totally gutted.

 Gordon Davis, who used to practice law in Elizabethtown, told supervisors the library system helps communities provide an invaluable service.

 “And I understand, and would personally acquiesce, in tax increases made necessary by resisting the urge to eliminate such indispensable services – and there are others,” he said. “We know libraries cost money. Keep library support in the budget and I promise there are those of us who’ve got your back.”

Several speakers said they would support small increases in their tax bills to maintain programs like the library system, or Adirondack Harvest, which helps connect local farms to restaurants and stores across the North Country.

The group’s coordinator, Laurie Davis, said the county’s $20,000 appropriation goes a long way.

“Essex County’s input into this program of only twenty thousand dollars provides a salary of about nineteen thousand to support one half-time employee,” she said. “That half-time employee, alone in 2011, leveraged over sixty-five thousand dollars in additional funds that supported farmers and local markets in Essex County and in all of the communities.” 

The message from speakers resonated with county lawmakers, who now say they’ll consider restoring many of the proposed cuts.

Dan Connell is town supervisor in Westport.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed tonight,” said Supervisor Dan Connell, D-Westport. “I’ve been on the board 10 years now, and for six years we came to this public hearing with no tax increase and we probably had 30 people come up and tell us we had to cut the budget. Tonight, we’re looking at this major increase when you look at percentage - probably not so major when you look at actual dollars - and every single person that talked to us said we need to put money back into the budget.” 

Connell said the reaction from the public was a pleasant surprise. He said people at the local level seem to understand that a few more dollars in taxes can preserve a wide range of key services.

“Now, there’s 36,582 people that aren’t here tonight that live in the county that maybe don’t agree with those of you that are here, so we still have some work to do,” Connell said. “But I’m encouraged that at least we have a room full of people here tonight that are willing to support us. When we increase it, we may all be out of office next year, but that’s OK sometimes, too. 

Restoring the proposed cuts, and cancelling plans to lay off 30 workers, would increase the tax levy in 2012 by 12 percent. Supervisors voted overwhelmingly to override the state’s 2 percent tax cap.

The board has called a special meeting Dec. 12 to discuss and vote on the proposed budget.

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