Supervisors Randy Preston (Wilmington), Robert "Roby" Politi (North Elba), George Canon (Newcomb) and Debra Malaney (Ticonderoga) discuss the 2012 tentative budget during a break at the Nov. 17 budget committee meeting.
Members of the Essex County Board of Supervisors started to look into trimming a 2012 tentative budget that called for a $23,851,238 tax levy.
The number represents a 9.5 percent increase to the net cost of the 2012 budget over the $21,786,435 required in 2011.
However, without making use of fund balance or any other transfers, the number represents an initial 62 percent increase over the 2011 tax levy, which was $14,724,045.
Lowering that number was the job the Budget Committee at the county started to work on during their first meeting Nov. 17.
“We have to be concerned about our duties to the taxpayers,” Joyce Morency, St. Armand Supervisor and chair of the budget committee said.
County Manager Daniel Palmer said that he had already worked to trim the budget from what departments had requested, which totaled a $28,186,363 increase to the levy.
“There are some positions that were not filled that were the year previously,” Palmer said. “Went through every equipment line for cuts. At that point, I decided that the appropriate thing to do was present the tentative budget with everything that we currently provide at the minimum amount that it would take to keep them.”
In 2011, the tax rate for county residents was $2.13 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Under the first draft of the tentative budget, that would rise to $3.53. And $156,000 is average residential property value in Essex County
County Budget Officer Thomas “Tom” Scozzafava said that while the county portion of the tax rate is low, people have a perception that taxes are to high as a whole.
“It is the overall impact, not just the county portion,” Scozzafava said. “They don’t really care if you try and separate this out, it’s what they pay in total taxes. The public perception is that we are living way beyond our means and we pay these big fat salaries to the department heads.
“The reality is, most people pay less in property taxes to the county portion than they did in 2004,” he added. “I tried to use that point with one of my constituents and it didn’t fly.”
Palmer gave a list of programs to the supervisors that were “items that we are able to do something with one way or the other.”
In trying to find cuts, the committee voted to cut funding to contracted agencies by 22.5 percent across the board.
Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston said that he would rather look at eliminating funding to contract agencies.
“If we are going to lay off our own employees and then subsidize someone else’s employees, then I say we take them out,” Preston said. “Are they just relying on the Essex County taxpayers to provide that service? Would they be able to reach out and try to get their own funding instead of on the backs of the taxpayers? We gotta start making some choices, and in my opinion we need to take it out.”
North Elba Supervisor Robert “Roby” Politi said that whatever was done, it should not show favoritism toward one group or another.
“Why don’t we just go in the direction that all of the contract agencies are out,” Politi said. “That way you are not picking issues and it affects us all.”
“LifeFlight is a contract agency, and we all know that we are not going to pull the plug on them,” Elizabethtown Supervisor Noel Merrihew III responded.
Merrihew, while not on the Budget Committee, offered the idea of a 22.5 percent cut to contracted service providers that was approved.
“They pay some of their top people a lot of money — more than we are accustomed to and for some reason, it is difficult to get that information,” Scozzafava said. “We should come up with a number and cut them across the board 25, 30 percent. Cut them all across the board at a certain percentage and it is what it is.”
“It would be difficult for me to say blanket cut them all,” Keene Supervisor William Ferebee said.
The committee also voted to eliminate $500,000 in equipment spending under the highway department portion of the budget.
The committee also looked into having a tax sale, which could generate up to $1 million in the collection of unpaid taxes in the first months of 2012, according to Morency.
“We are trying to bring in revenue that we already have on the book,” Morency said. “We are looking hard at a three-year tax sale.
The committee also talked about having an amnesty period, but Palmer said he was concerned about setting a precedent.
“My concern is tax flow,” Palmer said. “If we do one amnesty, people are going to say that they are going to do another amnesty and we will just wait until then to pay our taxes.”
Palmer added that he would also look at putting $3.5 million in fund balance into the budget to help bring the levy down.
Following the budget committee meeting, the members of the Essex County workers’ union were to meet to discuss a proposal from the county that would have resulted in a contract extension with no pay increases in 2012 and 2 percent increases in 2013 and 2014.
According to Board Chairman Randall “Randy” Douglas, all indications were that the union voted against the option, which will lead to cuts in personnel.
“I am hearing feedback that they did not accept our offer of no increase next year and 2 percent increases in the next two in order to extend the contract,” Douglas said. “We will begin to start the process of eliminating positions, and we are looking at between 12 and 25.”