ELIZABETHTOWN - The tentative 2011 Essex County budget now contains a 9.5 percent tax hike - down from 14 percent as of Nov. 15, and 30 percent the week prior.
But whether the hike is low enough for the majority of the county board remains to be seen.
County supervisors stripped about $560,000 in equipment costs from the budget Monday morning, just before Essex County Manager Dan Palmer had to file the tentative budget with the state.
During a meeting of the board's Finance Committee, St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency said the cash for four loaders at the Department of Public Works should be taken from the unexpended fund balance instead of the taxpayer-funded general fund.
Several supervisors agreed with Morency and began calling for removal of the loaders from the budget.
But Palmer has consistently combated increasingly voluminous calls for the use of more fund balance to buy-down the tax levy.
And he didn't back down in this case, either.
"Irrespective if you take it out of fund balance today or January, it still comes out of fund balance," he said. "It still reduces the fund balances and still creates that levy gap that you guys are looking at. I'm telling you, you're looking at 40 percent next year. Instead of starting at 30 percent, you're looking at 40 percent next year."
Palmer has already budgeted for the use of $6 million from the fund balance for the coming year. That number could increase another $1 million if it's discovered money generated from interest on bonds for the jail have to be repaid to the federal government.
Instead of applying the fund balance, Palmer convinced supervisors to bond for the cost. He noted the current interest rate is well below one percent and bonding would spread out the equipment cost over several years.
Instead of bonding for only the four loaders, officials plan on getting a loan for all of the equipment the county has put off buying for the past several years. Officials said the county is currently in need of more than $1.5 million in plow trucks, loaders and office supplies.
Supervisors are faced this year with higher costs and lower revenues - which makes balancing a county budget nearly impossible without drastic cuts.
But faced with increasing public scrutiny, supervisors have remained focused on slashing the pending tax hike.
Several supervisors have said they wouldn't support a budget with a tax hike that wasn't in the single digits.
Discussions continue about possible layoffs and the potential of the county getting out of the fair business all together.
While talk of selling the fairgrounds began as a joke, board chairman Randy Douglas said it's grown into a legitimate potential cost-cutting measure.
"It is something that will be seriously considered. We are meeting again next Monday and it will probably be a lengthy session," he said. "There have been a number of supervisors who have come to me since Mr. Politi brought it up wondering what our obligations to the fairgrounds actually are."
Last week, supervisors learned an annual $65,000 investment in the fairgrounds and the fair was returning just $5,000.
Newcomb Supervisor George Canon noted many of his peers remain uncomfortable with the tax hike and making further cuts might take a certain style of politics.
"It's time for some old-fashioned politics," he said. "Sitting here wrangling all day isn't going to get us anywhere."
Previous attempts at cutting the county fish hatchery and the Horace Nye nursing facility have failed.