Franklin County tax hike debated

MALONE – Franklin County Manager Tom Leitz has significantly lowered the tax hike in the tentative Franklin County budget, but some legislators say it’s dangerously low.

The tentative budget by Leitz released last month carried an 8.76 percent tax levy. Leitz has since whittled that number down to 2.99 percent, a figure some legislators took issue with at a special budget meeting Friday because it only puts the county $7,000 below the tax cap.

The 8.76 percent tax levy increase would raise about $16.17 million for the county. The average tax increase for a home valued at $100,000 would be $35.28.

“The thing is, we’re kicking the can down the road again,” said Legislator Marc Lashomb, R-Malone. “We should be looking at a couple percentage points above it (tax cap) to offset some of this. I’m not saying go up to 8 or 9 percent, but I’m not a believer in staying at the cap.”

Lashomb added that he felt safer raising the levy by one percentage point, which would add $150,000 to the budget and cushion the county against unforeseen expenses. Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, agreed.

“I think we should be around 4 percent,” Maroun said. “It gives us a little flexibility. If we go just at 2.99 (percent) we’re going to be right on the fence, and it doesn’t take much to be off $50,000, through no fault of our own.”

Lashomb also took issue with Leitz’s proposal that the county could borrow $1 million from the fund balance of its State Retirement System account.

The proposed budget includes that $1 million, but Leitz said Friday legislators could safely add $250,000 to that and repay it by borrowing $1.25 million at 3.75 percent interest next year, which could be paid back across 12 years.

The county borrowed $4 million earlier this year to make towns and school districts whole from unpaid property-tax bills.

“We’re borrowing money to balance the budget again,” Lashomb said. “We have a responsibility not to keep kicking this down the road because sooner or later it’s going to hurt us.”

Chairman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, agreed. He said state mandates consume about 90 percent of the county budget, leaving legislators with little to work with.

“That’s the argument of this entire board,” Jones said. “We’ve chosen for the last couple of years to stay under the cap, and we’ve run down our reserves. We got kicked in the butt on it with the comptroller’s report.”

Jones was referring to a recent state comptroller’s audit that strongly criticized the board for, among other things, using too much fund balance to keep the tax levy low.

“That’s the predicament we’re in again this year,” Jones said. “Do we borrow to get under the cap, or do we knock it up a few points?”

The legislators are anticipating some relief next year. They hope to receive $1.8 million in January in state compact money from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort, and another $1.7 million is expected from future county land auctions.

The legislators agreed, however, that they shouldn’t budget around money that is not in hand.