Sullivan County chairman Scott Samuelson, near the top of his remarks, pointed squarely at the elephant in the room. He said, “It is impossible to start any dialogue about the state of Sullivan County without first addressing the continuing impacts of the global economic crises and the trickle-down effect it is having on all of us.” Still, he said, we must soldier on and work “toward economic recovery and sustainable growth.”
Samuelson did what previous chairpersons have done in the past. He listed some of the brightest spots in the county: Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the Discovery Center and Crystal Run Healthcare among them.
But there were also breaks from the past: the speech was delivered at Bethel Woods rather than the government center and hors d’oeuvres were available.
There was also a moment that seemed to signal that the dynamics of the new legislature, which took office in January with six newly elected lawmakers, may still be settling. Samuelson noted the increased focus on agriculture and paused for a reaction from legislator Cindy Geiger, who has been the most vocal advocate for the agriculture sector. She said, “Next year this event will take place on a farm.” He responded, “Next year, you’ll be giving this address.”
Many of the new lawmakers were voted into office with the backing of labor and the unions that represent county employees. Samuelson took note of that when he said, “Our ties to the county workforce and the unions who represent them have never been stronger, and I look forward to continuing to strengthen these ties in the months and years ahead.” Those ties may soon be tested as the legislature negotiates new contracts with the unions, as the county budget faces a $6 million deficit, which would translate into a 14% tax increase for 2013.
Samuelson also took a jab at lawmakers in Albany who passed the 2% property tax cap last year but failed to implement meaningful mandate relief for property owners. He said, “Early projections indicate that the increase in costs to run the state-mandated programs in 2013 will total over $1.4 million.
The increased cost of state programs is therefore anticipated to outpace the total additional revenue that the county may realize under the state’s own 2% tax cap.”
Finally, at the end of the speech, he broached a topic that always gets a round of applause from Sullivan County audiences. He called for “a total rewrite of the property tax exemption criteria in state statutes.” He said, “There is no reasonable justification that would continue to require 80% of real property owners to pay 100% of the tax bill.” The tax-exempt statutes are not likely to change, but the audience cheered the message.