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Schenectady County considers exceeding tax cap

Legislators say they simply want to keep budget options open

Thursday, September 20, 2012
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— Schenectady County legislators tonight will consider the first step toward lifting the state’s 2 percent tax cap for the 2013 budget proposal.

The majority Democrats say the move is cautionary; the Legislature’s sole Republican says a jolt is coming.

County Manager Kathleen Rooney requested the Legislature give her the flexibility to establish a tax levy increase greater than the cap would allow, with less than two weeks before her initial budget is due. During a special meeting today, legislators are expected to set the public hearing necessary to override the tax cap.

County Attorney Chris Gardner said last year’s level tax rate means the 2013 budget can’t include a tax levy increase of more than 2.95 percent. Though he wouldn’t speculate on any tax increase in Rooney’s proposal, he said increased pension and Medicaid costs are expected to rise by about $13 million in the upcoming budget year.

“We’ve been running a lean and efficient government, but you still have to fund essential parts of the government,” he said, listing line items such as the county prosecutor’s office, jail and library system. “All these things ultimately have to be paid for.”

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Legislature’s chambers at the County Office Building. Legislators are expected to set a public hearing on the tax cap override at 6 p.m. on Sept. 28, just two days before Rooney’s budget is required to be submitted.

Gardner said lifting the cap would ultimately need to be approved by 60 percent of the Legislature’s weighted vote, which went into effect this year. Under the new system, the vote of each city representative is worth slightly more than one, while the vote of each town representative is worth slightly less than one.

County Legislator Philip Fields, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said authorizing Rooney to override the tax cap doesn’t necessarily mean the proposal ultimately adopted will go beyond a 2 percent increase. He said it’s too early to tell what kind of increase will be included in next year’s budget and legislators merely want to keep all options on the table.

“We’re giving [Rooney] the latitude to do that,” he said Wednesday.

But James Buhrmaster, the Legislature’s lone Republican, doesn’t believe there’s any mystery about the increase likely in the 2013 budget proposal. He speculated that Rooney’s budget could contain an increase in excess of 9 percent, but acknowledges he has no solid information to support this prediction.

“To me, the budget is done,” he said, “They know what it is. They know how bad it is.”

Buhrmaster also wondered what impact the ongoing $44 million project to build a new Glendale Home would have on next year’s county finances. And he questioned why the Democratic supermajority on the Legislature approved a number of mid-year raises for various department heads when they knew they’d eventually be facing a tough budget situation.

“I can’t believe they continue to go this direction of spending above and beyond their means,” he said.

Gardner stridently disagreed. He maintains the Glendale Home project won’t cost a dime to taxpayers, since 85 percent of it will be funded through Medicaid reimbursements and the other 15 percent will be covered through private pay rate increases. He also disputes the accusation that the county is operating beyond its means, pointing to the Legislature’s budget history over the past three years.

County legislators approved a $295.3 million budget for 2012 that carried no increase in the property tax levy. The flat budget came after two consecutive years of reductions in the levy, Gardner said.

“You have to realize we have reduced taxes lower than they were in 2009,” he said. “We have been running a lean and efficient government.”

 
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