Big tax levy hike stalls Schenectady County budget deal
Legislators hearing public opposition
SCHENECTADY COUNTY County legislators held back on approving the proposed 2013 budget after they couldn’t agree on whether to advance a spending plan carrying a 7.49 percent increase to the tax levy.
Legislators abruptly cancelled Wednesday’s scheduled meeting to consider the budget after receiving criticism from a number of residents and business owners during the public hearing on the spending plan Monday. The meeting wasn’t rescheduled and instead, the Legislature’s Democratic super majority met in caucus to discuss what comes next.
“We are still examining and reviewing the budget and deliberating as to what actions should be taken,” said Philip Fields, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “We haven’t reached any sort of conclusion at this point, so we’re delaying the budget vote.”
Legislators have until the end of the month to approve the budget, but need to give the public at least two days’ notice to schedule a special meeting. That leaves them with about 12 days to mull any amendments that might reduce the size of the tax levy increase to one that is closer to the state-imposed 2.95 percent tax cap, which they voted to override late last month.
The Legislature hosted a number of public review sessions earlier this month, during which the budget was reviewed line by line. Though some legislators questioned the reasoning behind certain expenses, few identified substantive cuts.
Reducing the spending to meet the state tax cap won’t be easy without job or program cuts. Reducing the tax levy increase by 1 percent requires roughly $644,000 in cuts, meaning the Legislature would need to shed more than $2.92 million to come beneath the cap.
Some county officials claim state mandates make up about 78 percent of the $296 million spending plan, meaning they would need to cut popular human services and programs to substantially drop the tax levy.
At least one other legislator wasn’t buying it. James Buhrmaster, the Legislature’s lone Republican, said the county has plenty of areas that could be chopped.
For instance, he said the county keeps non-essential patronage positions occupied by ranking Democrats that could easily be trimmed. He said positions such a county auditor, spokesman, and special assistant to the commissioner of Social Services for Youth Development could all be trimmed with little impact.
But above all, Buhrmaster targeted the Glendale Home as an area the county could slash to help balance the budget. He said the county’s nursing home is like a budget hemorrhage and should be handed over to the private sector, where it could be operated more efficiently.
“[The Democrats] say it’s not costing anything, but every year...we’re subsidizing the nursing home,” he said.
Buhrmaster is now considering whether he should offer his own set of budget amendments in advance of the super majority scheduling the new date to consider the budget. But with 13 of 15 legislators enrolled Democrats, he doubted his opinion would get much consideration. Rotterdam’s Holly Vellano is a Conservative but caucuses with the Democrats.
Still, Buhrmaster sees discord among the majority. He noted that two Democrats and the Conservative joined him in opposing the tax cap override last month, meaning only four other legislators would need to have reservations about the proposed budget to potentially derail its passage.
“I think they are demanding cuts,” he said. “I think these other members of the caucus are saying this is unacceptable.”
No legislators are up for re-election this year. Next year, however, is a different story.
In the city, Fields and Legislator Karen Johnson are up for election next year. Also up in 2013 are Legislators Brian Gordon and Marty Finn in District 3; and Vellano and Chairwoman Judith Dagostino in District 4.
Fields said the Legislature’s majority is slowly deliberating the positions of its members. Eventually, he said the group will find common ground for the better interest of the county.
“To come to any quick conclusion is not easy,” he said. “The county has various pressures to deal with and reconciling that is creating the lengthy process.”