By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Don’t do it.
That was the consensus of nine of 11 speakers at Thursday’s hearing on potentially increasing county property taxes past two percent.
“I’m strongly opposed to any attempt by this board to exceed the property tax cap,” local Realtor Melissa Lanza told legislators.
With a 33-month supply of homes for sale countywide, she warned the legislators that the well of taxpayers has run dry.
“I’m a widow living on a fixed income,” explained Liberty resident Carol Benton. “I’m willing to sell [my home] just to get out from under the strain of all these taxes.”
But, she added, who would buy with a hefty tax increase looming?
“I’m here to ask for a 20 percent tax reduction,” said Monticello resident Tom Manza, to gales of laughter (including his own).
“Actually, I’m only half-kidding,” he added, noting that many property values have dropped by that much since the recession hit. “... I think the taxpayers can’t pay anymore.”
Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce President Terri Ward pointed out that those taxpayers include the Chamber’s 650 member businesses.
“We understand you guys inherited a mess,” she acknowledged, then added that with a large tax increase, “you will see a mass exodus of businesses and residents.”
“I say we can’t even afford the two-percent tax,” mulled North Branch resident Joan Kern, who suggested cutting social services. “... We have to stop helping all these people who know to come here because we’re an easy squeeze.”
Cochecton Supervisor Gary Maas, speaking as a resident, thought the Adult Care Center should be sold, especially with a roof repair coming.
“All county assets should be reviewed and evaluated,” he insisted. “And for some, liquidation may be necessary.”
Seniors advocate and Grahamsville resident Priscilla Bassett didn’t care for that idea and expressed support for giving the Legislature leeway over the state-mandated two-percent property tax cap.
“Your goal is not just the bottom line,” she told legislators. “It should be the bottom line with preservation of serving the needs of your community.”
She found a comrade in fellow Grahamsville resident Ken Walter, who pointed out that the county really only has discretion over about seven percent of the tax bill it sends out every year valued services like the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, 911 Center and the Division of Public Works.
“The mandated costs you’re going to have to cover ... there’s no way around that,” he told legislators, suggesting a reopening of the county landfill to generate revenue.
Hortonville resident Al Steppich felt gas drilling should be welcomed in the county.
“It would bring in jobs and revenue like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
Whatever the county does to increase income, however, can’t include taxpayers, indicated Monticello businessman Bill Franklin.
“I’m paying over $17,000 a year now in taxes,” he explained. “We just can’t afford anymore.”
Legislators said they’ll take those comments into consideration as they discuss a coming vote to exceed the state property tax cap.
“We need your input on these things,” stressed Legislator Cora Edwards, who’s hoping soon to see a breakdown of what would have to be cut in a 0 percent, two percent and five percent tax increase. “From here on in, the options get more and more limited.”
While it seems likely legislators will agree to exceed the cap (Medicaid increases alone may force a two-percent-plus tax increase), that particular vote will not set a specific tax figure.
The actual tax hike will be determined later in the year, when legislators and county officials hammer out a 2013 budget. Final approval is expected in December.