By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO May 2, 2003 The saga of the county sales tax apparently came to an end on Tuesday when the Legislature voted 7-2 (Democratic Legislators Chris Cunningham and Kathleen LaBuda were against) to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 7 1/2 percent.
Or did they? Since no increase goes into effect until June 1, it seems the sales tax issue will be a major continuing issue as the candidates begin to campaign towards Election Day this November.
That was made clearly evident at Tuesdays Special Meeting of the Legislature and afterwards.
As expected, the discussion heated up at the meeting.
While we have held spending in check, we need to look for other revenue, commented District 3 Legislator and Financial Management Committee Chair Greg Goldstein. Medicaid costs are going up. Our seniors are struggling to keep their homes. I am disappointed Assemblyman Gunther would not go for a 3/4 percent increase, but we will try to make this work.
The county manager asked all the department heads and commissioners to cut 5 percent of their budgets. That should save millions, LaBuda stated. We have not received our audit yet. We do not know where we are at. We should wait until we know. If we do this, it is a disservice to our taxpayers.
Even though a 5 percent cut was requested, there is no way it will end up as 5 percent, countered Majority Leader and District 5 Legislator Rodney Gaebel. We do not have solid numbers. We do not know what the cuts [when the budget is passed in Albany] will mean. It is not cast in stone. However, we are close with the projections. We need to move forward so this is in place for the summer season. If we wait a week or not, the tax will take effect until September.
We have to plan for the future, Goldstein remarked. We cant live for today. This is critical.
It would not be prudent to do nothing, District 7 Representative and Legislature Chair Leni Binder said. We cannot wipe out our fund balance. This is not a new topic. We have been debating this for months. We do this over the summer, and we take advantage of our summer visitors.
Before a vote was taken, Binder went around the table to give each representative a chance to voice their opinion.
The budget was balanced, Cunningham, the Minority Leader, pointed out. This proposal failed in committee. The timing for this is not good. We do not know where we are. We have yet to have a comprehensive discussion on this.
This has been portrayed as a sales tax vs. a property tax increase, Cunningham continued. That is disingenuous. We do not need to raise taxes to pass the budget. The link is not right, and it clouds the issue.
It [the 3/4 percent increase] was passed by a majority vote of the Board, Gaebel said. We were asked to make a renewed request. This is a reduction of the original request. A comprehensive discussion of the budget does have to take place.
We have to prepare for the future, noted District 6 Legislator Jodi Goodman. What has not been addressed is a sunset clause. This should not be forever. We do not know what we are facing.
Jake sat with Richard and went over the numbers, District 8 Legislator and Legislature Vice Chair Bob Kunis commented. He said that a 1/2 percent is the way to go. This was not done in the dark.
So the increase passed, but while the tax goes from 7 to 7 1/2 percent, the county portion goes from 3 to 3 1/2 percent. Also, there has been talk in Albany that the state sales tax likely will be raised by 1/4 of a percent. The Senate has already passed it, and discussions are ongoing in the Assembly, meaning the county sales tax rate could climb to 7 3/4 percent.
After the meeting, the Democratic Legislature candidates called a press conference to voice their opinions. Present were Cunningham, LaBuda, District 4 candidate Jonathan Rouis, District 6 candidate Kevin Hopkins, and District 7 candidate Nathan Steingart. District 9 candidate Sam Wohl was unable to attend. (The Democrats have yet to announce candidates for districts 3, 5, or 8. The Republicans have not announced a candidate for District 1.)
The budget was balanced, Rouis remarked. They need a comprehensive financial plan. We are five months into the year, and there have been no concrete numbers released. Until you get the numbers, how do you put this out to the taxpayers?
We had one discussion on this back in December when I chaired the Financial Committee, LaBuda said. There has been no discussion since. The discussions belong there.
We need to look ahead, Rouis commented. We have a major business opening in the fourth quarter, Home Depot. There is no plan. Why is there no plan?
This was never an either/or, Rouis continued, referring to the sales vs. property tax issue. There has never been a conversation on raising property taxes. They need to lay their case out.
At the time, [County Manager] Dan [Briggs] said the money was needed for the fire training facility, LaBuda recalled. We have $3.5 million earmarked for it. He said we needed it for the jail. That will be built up over five years. He needs to show me the need.
I got figures this morning, LaBuda continued. Our biggest revenue from sales tax comes during the holiday season. We can wait until September.
It is very difficult to be a local businessman, Steingart stated. A lot of us are very frustrated. This makes no sense. This is why our young, bright people move away.
I suggested hiring a group that would give us a fiscal projection. I got no answer, Rouis said. We have to look ahead. They have not done that. This will just suck money out of the economy. This failed in committee. Then it was voted on in a special meeting held in a snowstorm. They have not made their case.
What will happen come September? Hopkins asked. They are targeting the summer residents, but what about those that live here the other ten months of the year?
After the press conference, the Republican legislators and Briggs were contacted by the Democrat for comment.
Any legislator can take a failed resolution before the full board, Gaebel pointed out. Danny [Briggs] was our elected treasurer for 18 years. I trust his judgment. The 1/2 percent increase was already figured in the budget by the county manager. Without it, we will be in the hole by over $1 million.
In November, I voted no for the sale tax increase, District 9 Legislator Jim Carnell commented. I was supportive of the increase, but we did not know the numbers. Our assemblyman came down and sat with Richard and Danny. He says we need it and supports it.
Our 2003 budget is $1 million less than 2002, Carnell continued. We are continuing to reduce the budget. However, we want to make sure we do not reduce services.
I am very comfortable with what we did today, commented Goldstein. We have to go through 2003 and look at 2004.
This has been discussed in the media ad nauseum. It was not brought to any meeting, Binder stated. How can they say we never had a discussion on this? As chair, when any issue comes up, I knock on every door and talk to each legislator. This is not done by party. I am always accessible. No one came to me and asked for the issue to be brought up.
It is political rhetoric, and I understand that, Briggs said. I am willing to stand on my record. Their job and mine is to be financially responsible and prudent. I am raising a family here. I am fully aware of the consequences of an ill-thought-out program.
We are not just looking at now, Briggs continued. We are looking ahead.
Regardless, to be enacted, the increase must be approved by the State Legislature. To carry the ball for the county, they needed their representatives, New York State Senator John Bonacic and New York State Assemblyman Jake Gunther, to advocate for it. While Bonacic (a Republican) was in favor of home rule, Gunther (a Democrat) was opposed to a 3/4 percent raise. He stated he would back a 1/4 percent to match Orange County or could go to 1/2 percent.
After Gunther met with Briggs and Sullivan County Financial Management Administration Commissioner Richard LaCondre, there are strong indications Gunther will back the 1/2 percent increase.