On Wednesday night the legislature met to discuss and vote on the budget, with two amendments being added to the original spending plan presented by county executive Vince Horrigan in September.
One amendment that was approved on was allocating $56,343 from the county fund balance to pay for one of the two new positions being created in the county probation department. The legislature’s audit and control committee had initially recommended removing one of the two new positions However, lawmakers had since received new data that supported the need for two probation department positions.
“The probation department has been in need of staffing for a number of years,” explained Jamestown area legislator Mark Tarbrake (R-Jamestown). “We average about 140 cases per probation officer. That is the highest in New York State. Cattaraugus County, which is second highest, averages 103 cases per probation officer. I think it is essential that we keep this position that was originally added in the county executive’s budget.
The amendment to use the fund balance to pay for the position in 2016 was approved by a vote of 18 to 1, with Bemus Point’s Pierre Chagnon voting against it.
DISAGREEMENT ON FUND BALANCE USAGE
A more contentious amendment involved adding more than $440,000 of the county’s undesignated fund balance to help lower property taxes even further.
Some lawmakers, including George Borello (R-Irving), were against that idea, saying the county should not use one-shot revenues to pay for recurring expenses because that’s how budget deficits are created in future years.
“We made a commitment when we raised the sales tax. The commitment was that we would have a structurally balanced budget and that we would no longer use one-shot revenues to cover recurring expenses,” Borrello said, referring to the legislature’s financial management policy that was approved earlier this year. “That was the goal of raising sales tax – to bring down the property tax and to balance our budget, and to get away from one-shot revenue deals in order to balance our budget. So ladies and gentleman, we’re just getting out of rehab and we’re heading right back to the bar. We’re going to take money out of the fund balance right now, and I have to disagree with that.”
Borrello and others’ also voiced their concerns over the latest projected sales tax revenues for 2016, which will be more than $400,000 lower than initially projected because of lower fuel costs. In addition, the county may have a major challenge in 2017 with the possibility of the NRG closure in Dunkirk, which has being providing about $1.5 million in property tax payments to the county on annual basis.
But most of the legislature – including Ron Lemon (R-Lemon) – felt that using the additional fund balance money would provide further tax relief for county residents.
“I think that’s something that the residents of the towns and villages and cities deserve from the county, just because I know how difficult the struggle is going to be for them to actually bring back flat property tax rates where they are. So I’m in favor of this amendment,” Lemon said.
In all the legislature voted 12 to 7 in favor of using the additional fund balance money – making the total fund balance usage $500,000 and reducing the overall tax levy by just over 5 percent. That results in the property tax rate going down by 6.6 percent – making the new rate for 2016 $8.545 per thousand assessed value.
A TAX IS A TAX IS A TAX
Following discussion and vote on the amendments, the legislature approved the 2016 budget by a vote of 18 to 1, with outgoing legislator Keith Ahlstrom (D-Dunkirk) the lone “no” vote. Ahlstrom was against the idea of raising sales tax, claiming that while the county may be cutting the property tax levy by $3.1 million, that’s outweighed by a .5 percent increase in the sales tax – which will likely bring in more than $8 million in new tax revenue.
“We’ve managed to return $3 million to the tax payers, but we’ve done that by taxing the taxpayers and additional $8 million,” Ahlstrom said. “As somebody said earlier today, ‘a tax is a tax is a tax’ and we haven’t actually accomplished anything in this budget other than shift monies around and actually taken more money.”
Horrigan said that despite disagreeing with using the extra fund balance, he will not veto the amendment and will sign off on the budget by the end of this week.