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August 31, 2016
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Will Sullivan lawmakers override tax cap?

Sullivan County lawmaker Jodi Goodman, who is chair of the budget committee, released a letter on October 21, requesting that county manager David Fanslau create a tentative budget that stays within the new property tax cap increase imposed by Albany of 2%. That came two days after she said it was too early to tell what would happen with the tax cap.

Counties have the authority to override the cap with a supermajority vote of the legislature; in Sullivan’s case, that would mean six out of nine legislators. Goodman said, however, that lawmakers should trust governor Andrew Cuomo’s word that Albany will reduce mandated county spending.

So far that hasn’t happened to any significant degree. Counties are looking to a fourth year of increased spending due, in part, to the increased costs of state mandated programs, such as Medicaid and payments for the pension system, while still looking at weak revenues from sales and property taxes as well as reduced state aid.

County manager David Fanslau had earlier said that without specific direction from the legislature, he would develop the tentative budget within the cap. Still, except for Goodman, with all of the seats up for election on November 8, most incumbent county lawmakers have not indicated if they would support the overriding of the cap.

The only politician at the county level who is out front in calling for overriding the cap is lawmaker David Sager, who is not running for office this year.

At a meeting at the government center on October 13, Sager told his colleagues that they neededthe flexibility of being to able to lift the tax higher than that. He said, “Overriding the cap does not mean that we get to spend money in a reckless way. All it says is that the state’s demands are really unreasonable, based on what they’re providing us and what we have to provide to the public, and we need that wiggle room, and people need to understand that.”

Lawmaker Alan Sorensen, who does not face an opponent this year, indicated that something would have to change regarding the 2012 budget. He said, “We have a shortfall of about $10 million and an unreserved, undedicated fund balance of approximately $10 million, and so we know other things are going to have to change. We can’t just spend the entire fund balance.”

Last year, the legislature voted for no tax increase, and sought to avoid layoffs by withholding raises and longevity payments to unionized county workers. The unions fought the move and eventually the county backed down. But ultimately 17 county workers lost their jobs and some 37 unfilled positions were eliminated.

Lawmaker Ron Hiatt, who is not seeking another term this year, said other counties were considering reducing services that are not mandated, such as county-owned nursing homes and departments of community service, which deal with mental health and drug addiction issues.

He once again called on labor to help ease the budget crunch presumably through concessions. He said, “Next year is going to be worse than this year… and labor could provide us with some help, if only temporarily on a year-to-year basis. If they become part of a solution, then people don’t have to be laid off, and we don’t have to reduce services as much.”

Sullivan County is not alone in its difficult budget process. In fact, there is so much dissatisfaction with mandates from Albany that some county officials around the state have been discussing holding back Medicaid payments to the state.

Fanslau, however, said that could result in some negative impacts. The county’s budget is about $191 million; about $80 million of that comes from federal and state reimbursements. So, if the county withheld Medicaid payments, Fanslau said, “I would suspect that the reimbursement train would stop immediately, and don’t forget they collect our sales tax, so they probably wouldn’t send our sales tax payments.”

He said the only way such a move could possibly work was if all 57 counties outside of New York City were on board with it, and judging by the information he’s getting from his colleagues, that is not likely to happen.