Tentative Franklin County budget exceeds tax cap

MALONE – The tentative 2014 Franklin County budget has no layoffs and an 8.76 percent tax levy increase, but that number is expected to shrink.

County Manager Thomas Leitz filed the budget plan last week and said county legislators will now have to discuss it and make a decision by December.

The increased property tax levy would result in a $35.28 tax increase for a home valued at $100,000, Leitz said. That amount would vary, depending on the town and how recently it’s assessed property.

The New York state tax cap for the county works out this year to 1.66 percent.

The 2012 and 2013 tentative budgets included levy increases of 12.95 and 5.57 percent, respectively, but the adopted budgets both came in with increases of less than 2 percent.

“I can’t promise that we’re going to do that again, but I can state with a high degree of certainty that we’re not going to wind up with 8.76 percent,” Leitz said. “No one’s comfortable with that number.”

The high property tax levy has a lot to do with a lack of sales tax growth, Leitz said.

“If sales taxes were growing with the rate of inflation, there wouldn’t be a tax increase this year because we would have that much more on the sales tax side, paid for mostly by non-residents,” Leitz said. “So it means your property taxes, in essence, suffer because of it.”

Leitz added that the sales tax forecast for 2014 is $21.1 million, a 1.8 percent increase over current budget revenues. The 2014 budget estimate would be about $22.5 million if sales tax had kept pace with inflation since 2007.

Franklin County and its sheriff’s office employees failed to reach a compromise on a proposed budget contract earlier last month. Figures from that contract were still used for the tentative Franklin County budget.

The contract included a 2 percent raise and additional hazard pay retroactive to Aug. 21, with increases in both in upcoming years. Three new positions were also allotted for contingent on the reduction of overtime for per-diem staff.

If a compromise is not reached, Leitz said sheriff’s employees could see an increase in total health insurance costs and no raises. Additional financial resources would also to be identified and might include staffing reductions or a larger increase in the tax levy.

In the tentative budget, Leitz noted, “As has been the trend in prior years, expenditures are driven by increases in the operations of the County Sheriff.” An accompanying chart shows a 13.1 percent increase in sheriff and jail costs from 2010 to 2014 while spending in other areas has decreased: County roads and bridges has gone down 18.1 percent, social services and career development dropped 14.1 percent, and public health has gone down 4.4 percent.

Spending on the Franklin County Nursing Home has also increased from 2010 to 2014. It has gone up by 8.1 percent.

The tentative budget assumes the nursing home’s merger with Alice Hyde Medical Center will be completed next year. An appropriation of $200,000 is included to insulate the county against unforeseen expenses on revenue shortfalls.

The budget also assumes $3.5 million in casino compact funds will be received in 2014, which will be used to fund the tourism program, road maintenance and purchases of equipment for the highway department.

Substantial increases in social services are expected based on public assistance caseloads, resulting in a net increase of $1.36 million in spending.

“These programs are largely beyond the control of the county, and they continue to place an undue burden on the taxpayer,” Leitz said. “Without these increases, the tentative budget would include a modest reduction in property taxes.”

The county has allocated $50,000 to upgrade the county’s delinquent tax collection software, $35,000 to demolish foreclosed properties and an extra $205,000 for blacktop.

Leitz said the biggest hurdle in balancing the budget continues to be state mandates.

“We’re trying to get through this juggling act where we manage our finances until times improve, but it’s tough to do with these additional mandated costs, and at some point the reserves go to zero, and we’re close to that,” Leitz said. “On the one hand, the state will say your reserves are too thin, and you’re living off them, and that’s bad financial practice, and that’s entirely correct. On the other hand, our residents have thin reserves and they’re living off them. We’re, in essence, stable with very little left in the bank at the end of the month.”

A recent report released by the Office of the New York State Comptroller says Franklin County is in fiscal stress, meaning the county “usually struggles to balance its budget, suffers through disruptive service level declines, has limited resources to finance future needs, and has minimal cash available to pay current liabilities as they become due.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.