By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO October 7, 2005 Acting Sullivan County Manager Richard LaCondre has submitted a $188,350,318 tentative budget which calls for a 7 percent property tax increase, 3 percent room tax increase (to 5 percent), .5 percent sales tax increase, and a $5 surcharge on automobiles and a $10 increase on trucks to cover a 4.7 percent increase in spending over 2005, pay off a number of bonds (much of which are owed on the landfill), and last years accounting error of more than $7 million within the Department of Family and Community Services.
Sullivan County legislators were optimistic this week that the tax hike could be lowered.
In June, the county passed three resolutions approving contracts totaling $125,000 with the firm of Bennett, Kielson, Storch, DeSantis a division of OConnor, Davies, Munns & Dobbins, LLP to examine alternative budgetary options, offer advice on improvements and for long-term budget consulting.
According to Sullivan County Legislature Majority Leader Kathleen LaBuda, the company was hired last year and helped the county lower a projected 9 percent tax increase to 4 percent.
LaBuda said she is hopeful the final budget will raise property taxes by less than 5 percent.
This is going to be a bare bones budget.
She blamed some of the fiscal difficulties on this past years flooding and skyrocketing gas costs.
Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham said, We are going to do everything we can to look at all the proposed expenditures and programs to mitigate an increase.
The chairman is expecting a comprehensive report from the budget consultants on how to offset the proposed tax increases. He also said that there are a number of county programs and services which people have come to expect, and that will have to be balanced with the need to keep taxes down.
Both LaBuda and Legislator Ron Hiatt said they opposed the increase in the sales tax. LaBuda said she voted against it two years ago and would do so again. Hiatt said he is not excited about it.
Republican Minority Leader Rodney Gaebel said it was the job of the Legislature to reduce the proposed property tax hike. He called the 7 percent tax increase a last resort. However, he supported the room tax hike from 2 percent to 5 percent as long overdue. He said that 5 percent was the state average.
Gaebel said the countys fund balance could be used to offset the property tax increase. According to the budget, the county estimates that it will have a $13,500,000 cash surplus at the end of the current fiscal year.
Legislature Vice Chairman and Finance Committee Chairman Jonathan Rouis, who oversaw last years budget review and will do so again this year, released a statement but could not answer questions on Wednesday.
The tentative budget as submitted reflects the collective thinking and recommendations of county staff and is, as the title clearly indicates, tentative. Revenue enhancements are simply proposals by staff that would bring revenues in line with current and anticipated expenditures, Rouis wrote. It is the job of the Legislature to review these proposals with a critical eyes. . . . Tax increases are always a last resort in these circumstances, and the Legislature will make every effort to avoid them. . . . Over the years, shortsighted budgeting practices used large fund balances to balance budgets, and inevitably the time would come, as it has this year due to a number of factors, when that was no longer possible. The situation this year is challenging but not insurmountable.
The increase in spending is due to a large number of factors, including a spike in oil and Medicaid costs. Most county employees will be seeing a raise next year of 1.5 percent in January and 1.5 percent in June.
On the other hand, the countys coffers have expanded due to a high level of home construction and homebuying.
The Legislature began its budget hearings yesterday, and they will continue throughout the month. Most departments will receive appropriation increases in the proposed budget, although there were some cuts. Among the departments seeing gains are:
Department of Public Works Administration: $653,364 to $812,482
Management Information Systems: $1,972,143 to $2,102,627
Office of General Services: $497,498.86 to $572,052
Early Care Childrens Program: $2,424,076 to $2,534,436
Sullivan County International Airport: $343,334.23 to $427,651
Recreation: $486,719.24 to $570,124
Office for the Aging: $270,110.06 to $381,573
Nutrition Program: $268,796 to $380,934
Transportation: $244,377.73 to $445,198
Sullivan County District Attorneys Office Personnel: $870,698 to $937,296
Those seeing budget reductions include:
Family Services: $29,984,483.14 to $23,675,364 (requested by the department)
Sullivan County Sheriffs Department: $13,153,423.39 to $13,110,970.
Mental Health: $1,378,663.30 to $1,169,214
Addiction Control: $95,720 to $66,326
Sullivan County legislators would receive a pay raise from $19,187 to $19,768. Most of the legislators were quick to defend their raises this week as being in line with the rest of the countys employees. Legislators Leni Binder, Gaebel, Hiatt and LaBuda all said they supported it.
Binder said that a nearly $600 boost for each legislator paled in comparison to a much larger $188 million budget. She added that if the pay wasnt increased enough, the quality of the legislators would suffer.
Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham would receive a boost from $28,187 to $29,040.
The Sullivan County Managers salary will be set at $108,070 a raise of more than $3,200.
Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen, the highest paid official in the countys government, would see his pay stay idle at $131,500. The new Sullivan County Treasurer will also keep the same salary as this year: $65,795.
Sullivan County Attorney Sam Yasgurs compensation would jump $3,576 to the tune of $118,676. Commissioner of Financial Management Richard LaCondre would see an increase of more than $2,000 bringing his salary to $87,862. Commissioner of General Services Harvey Smith would receive a raise of over $2,600 to a total of $88,162. Just-hired Commissioner of the DPW Robert Meyers salary would climb from $80,749 to $83,191.