By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO December 13, 2005 The Sullivan County Legislature unanimously passed the countys 2006 budget, totaling $207 million, this past Thursday at the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello.
The new budget, much higher than last years $180 million one, will raise property taxes approximately 3.8 percent, according to Budget and Financial Management Committee Chairman Jonathan Rouis.
On top of that, the county is looking to raise the sales tax by one-half of a percent to 8 percent and the room tax by two-and-a-half percent to 5, if it can receive approval from the State Legislature.
Two budget-related resolutions drew opposition from some legislators. Gaining resistance was a resolution setting the salaries of elected officials, which raised the compensation of the Sheriff, Treasurer and District Attorney by one-and-a-half percent in the first half of next year and an additional one-and-a-half percent for the second half.
The DAs salary this year was $131,500, the Sheriff received $73,655 and the treasurer was paid $65,795.
Legislators Sam Wohl and Jodi Goodman were opposed to the pay hikes.
A resolution to approve the 2006 equalization table was opposed by the four Republican legislators Leni Binder, Rodney Gaebel, Greg Goldstein and Jodi Goodman due to its drastic increase of the taxes in the Town of Neversink. Voting in favor were all five Democrats Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham, Ron Hiatt, Kathleen LaBuda, Jonathan Rouis and Sam Wohl.
The legislators in favor of the increase were berated during the public comment session by one Neversink resident.
Goldstein also voted against the apportionment of the county tax, based on the Neversink issue.
The salaries for several management positions were approved unanimously. Among them were $78,500 for Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer, $65,903 for Deputy Commissioner of Family Services Robert Kuhn, and $62,504, $62,013 and $58,702 for three family services attorneys, as well as $56,640 for one of the assistant county attorneys.
Although Wohl voted for the budget, he disagreed with a pay increase for county legislators by $579 to $19,768. He wrote a letter to Cunningham in which he stated, I feel it unconscionable and reprehensible that at this time with property taxes rising and a sales tax increase on the horizon that public servants would receive an increase in salaries, and I for one will authorize a payroll deduction from my paycheck for the money attributable to the salary increase to be donated to the Federation for the Homeless. However, I feel the good points far outweigh the bad and therefore vote yes on the budget as it stands.
Rouis was proud of the budget, which he said legislators spent about 60 hours working on. However, he said he recognized the additional stress that rising taxes had on local residents.
We do understand the hardships people are under, he stated.
He said the county should be proud of a budget which mitigates the impact of property taxes while continuing to provide a host of services. The county has also settled contracts with most of its unions, he said.
We do not take the issue of raising taxes lightly, he added.
The increase in the room tax, is in part, to fund the Sullivan County Visitors Association, which received $800,000 from the county last year.
Rouis is also supporting a budget department which will regularly review the budget and report to the legislature monthly. He said that current staff are capable of handling the work and that new employees would not need to be hired. He said he wants the budget process to be long-term instead of just a yearly document. He said long-term budgeting would offer the county, its residents and businesses a better feeling of stability.
In addition, Rouis and other legislators, such as Ron Hiatt, have pushed for the countys internal auditing department to become more autonomous and to investigate departments more thoroughly. Rouis said there should be a change in the countys charter to free the department up from under the managers watch. Currently, the audit department reports to the county manager.
Meanwhile, the search for a new county manager is winding down. The initial list of 38 applicants is now down to six.
In other business, the Health and Family Services Committee approved a number of appropriations, including:
$70,000 for mandated early intervention and physically handicapped pre-school services. The county and state will split the cost.
$18,500 each year for two years with Cornell Cooperative Extension for registered dietician services. The countys cost is $8,786 each year, while the state and federal government will pick up the rest.
$7,600 each year for two years with Francis Clemente to provide legal services for the Sullivan County Office for the Aging. The countys portion will only be $760, while the federal government will handle the remaining portion.