Legislators knock tax increase down to nine percent
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO After a Thursday full of closed-door discussions, arguments and negotiations, legislators finally passed a 2013 county budget that will raise taxes by 9 percent.
That’s below the initially proposed 13.77 percent hike, but three of the nine legislators thought it could be dropped to something at least in the seven percent range.
Legislators Cindy Gieger, Alan Sorensen and Kitty Vetter registered their dissatisfaction by voting “no,” but the “yes” votes from Scott Samuelson, Kathy LaBuda, Gene Benson, Cora Edwards, Jonathan Rouis and Ira Steingart were enough to pass the $193 million budget.
“I thought we could get it down to 7.4 percent,” said Vetter after the meeting ended at 9 p.m. Thursday.
“I run a small business and I simply cannot spend more than I take in,” Gieger remarked during the meeting. “... The reality is, without a reduction in the current level of services, we will continue to overburden our taxpayers.… I believe our residents deserve better.”
“Come January, we really need to move into the mindset of an austerity budget,” Sorensen urged, specifically referring to rebuilding the county’s depleted reserves and deeply investigating contracts. “We need to look at every opportunity where we can save money.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the adopted budget contains no layoffs, though several vacant positions won’t be filled, and it’s possible that slashed funding to Sullivan County Legal Aid and Conflict Legal Aid, plus 20 percent reductions in contracts with outside agencies from Cornell Cooperative Extension to CACHE to D.R.E.A.M. Tank to the Partnership for Economic Development may affect their staffing and services.
And a “restructuring” of the county’s Youth Bureau led Hurleyville resident Sandra Oxford to worry that its “focus is going to be dissolved.”
A large decrease in the premium rate the county expected to pay to the New York State Health Insurance Program helped legislators painlessly cut an additional $884,000 from the budget. Coupled with the other cuts, the budget was reduced by around $2.5 million, but that didn’t seem to leave legislators happy.
“You’ve elected us to make the tough decisions, and for me, tonight it’s one of them,” LaBuda acknowledged.
“It’s been a very hard learning year,” Benson added. “... I am pledging to you that the new year is coming, and changes will be made.”
He briefly attempted to resurrect discussions about replacing County Manager David Fanslau, but that ultimately was saved for another day of talks.
Nevertheless, a call for change was echoed by other legislators. Gieger, for example, pushed for a committee to review the budget preparation process, with a goal of moving up the presentation of the tentative budget from November to something far earlier.
“I’m determined to make change happen,” she promised.
“As Cindy said, I don’t want to be in this position next December, making drastic cuts,” agreed Edwards.
“It has been an extraordinary learning curve,” admitted Samuelson. “... Next year, we’ll be in a better position.”