By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO County Budget Commissioner Josh Potosek was blunt with legislators on Thursday.
“Two percent is a good sell politically,” he said of the state-mandated two-percent property tax cap, “but in some respects, it’s not realistic to maintain services.”
The state’s own mandated increases in programs and services are projected to cost the county at least $1.4 million in 2013, said Potosek in a budget presentation to legislators Thursday.
“In contrast, a two percent increase in the property tax levy would yield approximately $1 million,” he added. “The state has implemented a cap that their own programs are unable to accommodate.”
Legislators, therefore, are looking at a tax hike that could climb into the double digits (a 10 percent increase would add close to $100 to the county tax bill on a property valued at $100,000).
But at a public hearing last month, taxpayers begged legislators not to hike their taxes any more leaving county leaders very much stuck in between that fabled “rock and a hard place.”
So Legislator Kitty Vetter asked the unthinkable:
“If we didn’t follow the state mandates, what are they going to do to us? Slap our wrist?”
“It would start by withholding funding,” County Attorney Sam Yasgur advised. “... It would probably not so much be a legal issue as a cash flow issue.”
Since the state collects the county’s share of sales tax, those payments would likely stop, followed by the possible replacement of the leadership of the county’s social services, which are almost entirely state-mandated.
“They have the right to remove the social services commissioner and implement their own,” explained Legislator Jonathan Rouis.
Highway funds would probably be withheld, too, said County Manager David Fanslau.
“County government,” he explained, “is a creature of the state, even though we have ‘home rule’.”
Teamsters union rep Sandy Shaddock added that, as a result, businesses which serve the county would likely lose money, too.
But as officials prepare for the hard decisions coming on the 2013 county budget, there is some potentially good news for 2012.
Sales tax revenue is up 5.52 percent or nearly $1 million over this time last year, causing Potosek to revise 2012’s overall sales tax estimate from $33.8 million to $34.7 million.
“This is the most sales tax we have collected through July since 2009,” he wrote in a report to legislators, though he cautioned that mid-year figures “are not always a reliable indicator of year-end totals.”
The second payment to be received in October, Potosek told legislators, “is going to be a determining factor.”
While rising fuel and social services costs are concerning, he concluded in his report that overall the county is anticipated to stay within budget for 2012 leaving it slightly better prepared to handle what is estimated to be a $13 million deficit in 2013.
Changes in voting
A federal mandate that cost Orange County dearly to unsuccessfully fight in court has come to Sullivan County.
Board of Elections Commissioners Ann Prusinski and Rodney Gaebel told legislators Thursday that they must now provide voting information including ballots in Spanish within those election districts which have a population that’s at least five percent Puerto Rican.
(Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory whose residents are U.S. citizens with the right to vote. The Caribbean island’s dominant language is Spanish.)
The election districts affected are in Monticello, Liberty, Fallsburg, Livingston Manor, Wurtsboro, Bloomingburg, White Lake and Swan Lake, said Gaebel about half of the county’s 63 election districts.
Since the county has few elections inspectors who speak Spanish, however, Spanish-only speakers with questions will likely have to contact the Board of Elections office directly (which will satisfy the mandate), said Prusinski.
The biggest issue seems to be the cost while the commissioners don’t yet have firm estimates, they did say that printing just one ballot costs around 60 cents, and the state mandates that the board provide enough ballots for 110 percent of the voter rolls, even though a 30-percent voter turnout is considered decent in Sullivan County.
“What we order is overkill,” acknowledged Gaebel, though he added that the board tries to cut costs wherever permitted.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we have to foot this bill,” assessed Legislator Gene Benson.
And those expenses are certain to be more than actually needed, as Gaebel explained that the five-percent Puerto Rican population threshold the feds use does not differentiate between those too young to vote and those over 18.
Thus in places like the Town of Rockland where the Spanish-speaking population is pegged at 5.4 percent, according to the 2010 Census the amount of effort the Board of Elections will have to put into Spanish info and ballots will not be proportional to the amount of voters who’ll need such.
“It is ridiculous,” Gaebel agreed.
One aid for Spanish speakers, however, cost the county little.
“We implemented a translation tool” on the county website, Chief Information Officer Lorne Greene told legislators.
The site www.co.sullivan.ny.us can now be read in 66 different languages, including Spanish.