During Wednesday night’s legislature meeting, lawmakers voted 15-4 on an amended spending plan that raised the county tax levy to $64.2 million – a $2.3 million increase over the current year.
Voting against the budget was County Legislators David Wilfong (R-Jamestown), Elisabeth Rankin (R-Jamestown), Terry Niebel (R-Sheridan), and Martin Proctor (R-Clymer).
The budget proposal was an amended version of the one presented by County Executive George Borrello at the end of September. In that initial spending plan, Borrello called for a 2.7% tax levy increase but also proposed no increase in the tax rate. Instead, he wanted to rely on using some of the county’s fund balance to close any spending gaps without increasing the tax rate.
But earlier this month the spending plan was reviewed by the county’s audit and control committee, which cautioned against using too much of the fund balance to close a spending gap. Instead, the majority of the committee members felt the more prudent thing to do was to slightly bump up the tax levy and – as a result – putting an increase on the tax rate.
Prior to the vote Wednesday night, Audit and Control chairman Pierre Chagnon (R-Bemus Point) reiterated the concerns the committee had with using the fund balance.
“The $1 million use of fund balance in the Tentative Budget would have caused the general unobligated fund balance to drop below 5% of revenues. Our Financial Chautauqua County Legislature Management Policy requires the unobligated fund balance to remain between 5% and 15% of general fund revenues. The County continues to face challenges in 2019 that will make it difficult to meet the 2019 budget. Consequently, an unplanned use of fund balance may be needed to balance the 2019 financial results,” Chagnon explained.
Despite the concerns regarding using too much of the county fund balance, some lawmakers said they simply could not support any budget that included a tax rate increase. Elisabeth Rankin of Jamestown said property owners in her district are already over-taxed.
“In my district I have people in Jamestown who are- many of them are at the high end of property taxes and paid more over twenty years in taxes than they paid for their house originally and then I’ve got at the other end of my district people who struggle to make ends meet and can’t afford anymore property taxes. So, in spite of all that they’re doing and it’s very compelling and I’ve really been on the fence, I’ve promised to fight against any tax increases and I’d like to wait another year and so I can’t support this right now,” Rankin said.
Jamestown Lawmaker Chuck Nazzaro – who also serves as the ranking Democrat on the Audit and Control Committee – explained that although no one wants to raise taxes, the legislature still needs to be mindful of challenges in the coming the years.
“We have to look at projections and eventually, it’s not if it’s when we will go again into a recession. It’s an 8-10 year cycle. It’s an economic fact of life. So, we have to prepare ourselves for when there is a down turn in the economy. We have to maintain our fund balance at a reasonable level, which is 5% minimum of revenue and we need a plan for the future. If next year, for those that are here, are working on the 2021 budget things change, we have an increase in revenue, we can adjust that tax rate again up or down,” Nazzaro said.
As a result of the tax rate increase, the new county property tax rate for 2020 will be $8.46 per $1,000 of assessed value.