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December 08, 2016
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Lawmakers feel the squeeze; move to override tax cap

There are a couple of figures that sum up the reality facing Sullivan County lawmakers. One figure is $900,000; that’s the amount of tax revenue increase that will be generated by the Albany-mandated 2% property tax increase.

Another figure is $1.4 million; that’s the amount of revenue the county will need to raise to pay for the increased cost of state-mandated programs such as Medicaid. Those two numbers suggest that it will not alone be possible for county lawmakers to stock within the 2% property tax cap.

Add to those figures that fact that the outgoing legislature decided last year, in an election year, not to increase taxes at all and not to lay off any county employees, instead balancing the budget using more than $6 million in reserve funds – money that is no longer available this year – and it becomes even more clear that the legislature will override the tax cap for the 2013 budget.

That process started in a meeting at the government center on June 15. Lawmakers deliberated over setting the date for a public hearing, which would be required as part of the process of over-riding the tax cap. It has been suggested that for the county to provide the same level of services next year as it did this year, a 14% tax increase would be needed. Lawmaker Kitty Vetter said that she could not accept a double-digit increase, and suggested that a limit to the increase be adopted.

Lawmaker Jonathan Rouis said that at this point the legislator was looking for flexibility, and specific figures would come later when the financial picture for next year becomes clearer.

The lawmakers ultimately agreed to hold a public hearing on overriding the tax cap on July 19, at 4:10 p.m. in the legislative hearing room at the government center.

Surveying the public

At one point, county manager David Fanslau said that Dutchess County had a survey on its website asking residents to weigh in on which services were important to them and which might not be. The legislators had a discussion about whether this would be helpful in Sullivan County. There was concern that the online audience who took the survey could not be scientifically controlled.

Samuelson said, “It’s not a policy setting survey, it’s just information, we can take it or leave it.”

Lawmaker Gene Benson responded, “If you put out a survey people are going to expect you to act on that survey, whether you think you’re going to or not.” He indicated a survey is not necessary because, “If you’re doing your job as a legislator, you should be in touch with your constituents.”

Lawmaker Alan Sorensen said, “It was a good suggestion, but if you can’t control the sample, the information you’re getting may be very biased in one direction or another."

Lawmaker Cindy Gieger said, “I’m all for the public having anther avenue to communicate their concerns, but I think we need more information on how it would work.”

No decision was made regarding the survey.

A driver for veterans

The legislature also approved the hiring of several employees, mostly into positions that had been vacated and were deemed essential. At one point the position of a driver who transports veterans to medical appointments was discussed.

Vetter and lawmaker Cora Edwards asked if the various county transportation programs could be consolidated to save money.
Fanslau said no, because some of the programs involve Medicaid, some involve providing services to children, and some involve veterans and seniors, and each has distinct requirements.

At one point LaBuda became frustrated and said, “Let’s just have a vote, who wants to not transport our veterans?"

Edwards responded, saying, “I’m not saying that, and then asked, “would you calm down just a bit?”

LaBuda responded, “No, because it’s very upsetting; today’s Flag Day, there are people that are counting on this bus.”
The lawmakers ultimately approved the hire.