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December 05, 2016
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Sullilvan legislature passes tax cap override; sustainable energy project in doubt

The Sullivan County Legislature voted on September 20 to approve an override of the 2% property tax increase imposed by Albany. The vote was six to three, a supermajority of the legislature, which is necessary for the override to go forward.

Legislators Cindy Geiger, Alan Sorensen and Kitty Vetter voted against the override because they wanted first to try to close the projected $13 million budget gap with cuts in spending.
The vote does not necessarily mean the legislature will exceed the 2% figure but given the state of the budget a relative large increase seems unavoidable.

The lawmakers received an update on the budget on September 13 from deputy county manager Josh Potosek, and the outlook is only marginally better than the gloomy forecasts that have been coming for the past four years.

The 2% cap would allow the legislature to raise only an additional $997,557 in property tax revenue next year. But the county’s expenses, much of them incurred because of state-mandated programs and spending, are well beyond that figure.

With increases in such things as pension contributions and
health insurance premiums, the projected increase in county costs next year is about $5.85 million, or more than five times as much as the cap would allow.

There was some good news in the figures: the sales tax for the county is a bit ahead of last year, and county officials are projecting an increase of about $660,000. But even with that factored in, it seems very unlikely the county will be able to balance the budget for 2013 without a significant tax increase.

Potesek explained what a 10% tax increase would mean to taxpayers. For a typical homeowner, about 50% of the total tax bill goes to the school district, about 25% goes to town and village taxes and about 20% goes to the county. If the school district, town and village don’t raise their taxes, a 10% increase in county taxes would be about $100 of additional tax on a house assessed at $100,000. Potosek said the figure could vary greatly from town to town.

Sustainable retrofit project in doubt

Against that backdrop, Stephen Stuart, technical adviser for Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development (SASD), asked the legislature to approve spending between $15,000 and $25,000 for a feasibility study of performing a “deep energy retrofit” for the Robert Travis Building in Liberty, which houses the Department of Family Services. He said the building was the worst county-owned building in terms of disrepair, and a retrofit could bring substantial energy savings.

He further explained that grant money might be available through the new Regional Economic Development Councils scheme that Governor Andrew Cuomo has implemented, and that the only way to be able to have a reasonable chance of getting any of the money is for the county to commit to spending at least the $15,000 for the study.

While everyone agreed that the building could not continue to be used in its current state indefinitely, lawmakers balked at spending that sum, especially in light of the tight economic picture, and without knowing how much grant money might be available. Stuart estimated the proposed cost of the retrofit at $1 million.

Dick Riseling, executive director of SASD, reminded the lawmakers that the newly-installed solar array behind the building had just recently gone online, and had already saved the county $1,000. “These projects are starting to pay off,” he said.

But along another line of thought, county manager David Fanlsau said, “There are more employees working in that building than it was originally designed for [in 1969]; there are heating and air conditioning problems; there has been a request since before my time of adding an enlarged lobby to that building; there are grading issues to the parking lot. Are we going to be looking at the complex as a long-term plan?” He said if $15,000 is spent to study the “envelope” of the building, a study should be commissioned to examine the other issues.

While some of the lawmakers were clearly sympathetic to the idea of obtaining grant money for a deep energy retrofit, they took no action on the matter at the meeting, and it’s not clear if they will do so in the future.