ELIZABETHTOWN - Essex County officials are finding it hard to keep tax rates down as they review anticipated spending for the next two years.
County Manager Daniel Palmer, who has been compiling a tentative budget for next year, told the Essex County Finance Committee at its Nov. 16 meeting that there may be some tough decisions ahead.
According to Palmer, the tentative county budget for the 2009-2010 year will reduce appropriations by $2.9 million.
"The problem is that the revenue is $3.6 million down from the 2008-2009 budget," he said.
The difference amounts to a five percent increase in the tax levy, but it's the following year that is of even greater concern.
"The real problem comes in 2011," said Palmer, who said the levy could increase another 39 percent next year due to rising expenditures and further anticipated cuts in state aid.
Still, both Palmer and members of the finance committee agreed that more needs to be done with the budget at hand.
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, chair of the committee, suggested the board look for more ways to cut expenditures. He asked specifically about raises slated for management-level employees, which total more than $236,000 for the next year.
Palmer said keeping costs down can be difficult with mandated expenses like employee benefits and health care continuing to increase at staggering rates. Health insurance expenses increased 15 percents from 2008-2009 and Palmer expects they will increase another 18 percent next year.
"If national health insurance actually does something and drives down the cost of our health care, that's the best thing I can hope for," said Palmer, expressing skepticism that it would do more than cover those currently uninsured.
Palmer also noted the tentative budget will put $7.4 million of the county's $21 million fund balance toward next year's spending.
"All we're doing is using our fund balance to buy down the levy," he said, noting a similar yet troublesome trend over the past four years.
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi was among many who expressed concern with using so much of the fund balance.
"I do personally have a problem with continuing to pay down this amount of fund balance every year," he said, noting it's allowed the tax rate to stay unrealistically level. "We're at $2 a thousand, and it's been going down because we've been buying down the levy with our fund balance every year."
Palmer said Essex County has one of the lowest tax rates in the state, and realistically should have a rate of around $3.20 per thousand, which would be more comparable to neighboring counties.
Newcomb Supervisor George Canon brought up the need for a decision regarding the Horace Nye Nursing Home, one of the county's largest non-mandated expenses. Several supervisors have hinted at privatizing the facility.
"In these economic times when a lot of our constituents are feeling the pain, I think that's something we need to take a look at," said Scozzafava.
Palmer recommended reducing the use of fund balance as a first priority. He agreed to give committee members a detailed analysis of areas where additional cuts could potentially be made.
A public hearing on the tentative budget is scheduled for Dec. 1, 7 p.m., at the supervisors' chambers in Elizabethtown. Members of the public who wish to speak or submit written statements will be permitted to do so. Meanwhile, a detailed summary of the tentative budget is available for review at the office of the clerk of the board of supervisors.