A tentative 2020 Cortland County budget was presented last night at a special meeting of the Legislature (October 7), in which Chairman and Acting Administrator Kevin Whitney recommended a 7% tax levy increase for the coming year that would require an override of the state’s property tax cap.
The measure was proposed in order to finally absolve a near-$2.4M rollover deficit the county’s accumulated from year-to-year. Under the state’s current cap, the highest allowed rate increase would be 3.74%, which would still leave a deficit of just under $2M.
Passage of the override now requires a 2/3’s majority vote from the full Legislature.
Whitney asserted the only way to avoid going over the state’s cap and still achieve a balanced budget would be through more substantial budget cuts, which he said so far have not been proposed:
“I released a working document last month so you could start to look at making cuts and nobody’s really done so. I’ve even seen many of you advocating for returning or increasing funds to nearly everyone that spoke,” Whitney said. “I’ve been in your position. I don’t blame any of you and I would be doing the exact same thing, but the only way to avoid going over the state cap is to come up with $2.4M”
As expected, the idea immediately brought shock to the room and initiated reaction from several legislators, including Ron Van Dee (LD-4).
“You’ve done a great job, Kevin and I’m not knocking you whatsoever, but this is unacceptable,” Van Dee said. “I don’t know how, but we have to find some more cuts. There’s another Budget & Finance Committee meeting Tuesday [Sep. 15] and we’re going to have to get serious.”
Another source of resistance was Legislator Paul Heider (LD-16), who said he met with a representative of the state comptroller’s office three weeks ago and asked for help with the county’s situation. Heider said he was told the comptroller’s office could not offer any.
He also said the current problems are the direct result of years of decision-making.
“What he [comptroller rep] did say to me is that we’re in this position because of the gutting of the fiscal office over the years and bad long-term planning,” Heider said. “We did not put ourselves in this position, so I will not vote to go over the tax cap.”
Chairman Whitney immediately responded.
“We most certainly put ourselves in this position, and while you [Heider] may have only been here two years, the Cortland County Legislature put us in this position,” said Whitney. “You may only own two years of it, but regardless of what you say, the 17 of us here own this and nobody else – regardless of when you took term.”
In fact, Whitney blamed much of the situation on the state, citing recent changes in the ways it calculates distribution of financial aid among municipalities. A strong example is the Department of Social Services.
It wasn’t long ago the county’s DSS would actually return $1-2M in unneeded funding every year, but due to a substantial decrease in state funding it now finds itself several million dollars behind.
As a result, County DSS Commissioner Kristen Monroe has been one of the frequent speakers at county meetings, advocating for additional county funding to cover the lapse.
“I want to make it clear, this problem is not on people like Ms. Monroe, this is on the state and the new revenue calculations it produced,” Whitney said.
Other legislators disagreed with this assumption.
By law, an official budget must be adopted by December 20, however if the Legislature decides to wait until this deadline to do so it would likely cause a delay in the distribution of the first residential tax bills on January 1.
If no changes are passed through before the deadline, the tentative budget would be enacted by default.
Under the tentative budget proposal, total spending for 2020 would increase by 5.68% over 2019 and result in a 6.25% increase in county property taxes.
This accumulates to a roughly $76 increase on an $80K house and roughly $191 increase on a $220K house over the same period.