The Tompkins County Board of Representatives held a public meeting yesterday evening in the Ithaca High School cafeteria, during which the board members listened to the reaction of citizens to the 2003 proposed county budget. At the meeting many citizens spoke out against both the proposed property tax hike of 12.9 percent, as well as the Board’s decision to cut funding to several community services, including the Tompkins County Public Library.
This meeting comes at a time when local citizens are already embroiled in controversy over the City of Ithaca’s proposed 16 percent increase in property taxes, as well as funding cuts to community agencies. “The 2003 budget should be recognized as the end of all growth and the beginning of a retraction in services,” said Tompkins County Administrator, Stephen Whicher, in the opening of the county’s proposed 2003 budget.
The county’s proposed total spending will be up $3 million from 2002 to $106 million. The local share not covered by federal and state aid will increase by $2 million to $52 million dollars. The budget contains cuts in funding to almost every department of the county’s budget, as well as an almost 13 percent raise in the property tax rate.
The Board’s initial approval of the proposed budget was passed by a slim eight to seven margin and the controversy about the budget was reflected in the varied response of citizens and board members.
Several citizens at the meeting voiced their concerns about the ways in which these cuts would affect the quality of life for locals. Sidney Green of Ithaca asked the board to consider the importance of the library to many citizens.
“The library is certainly very important to local residents, especially the elderly residents. We are the most loyal users of the library and it is a large part of our lives,” Green said.
Several others at the meeting also implored the board to consider the many benefits of the library when making decisions on what to cut but Representative George Totman (R) disagreed with their sentiments.
“I won’t vote for the budget until the tax increase has dropped several percentage points,” Totman said. “We have had to cut one Deputy Sheriff and one Deputy District Attorney. We have already spent too much money on the library, there is no reason for the county to pay for a city library. I understand the importance of the library but not at the expense of public safety.”
Other citizens were present to speak in support of the other community services facing cuts.
“Living at home is very important to many elder residents of our community,” said Margaret Arnsworth, from the Office of the Aging, whose budget faces a 17 percent reduction in 2003. “If our key programs are cut, then there will be fewer home-delivered meals, fewer home services and no housing program, which will make it much harder for seniors to continue to live at home.”
Despite the many that spoke out in favor of these community programs, others asked that the county consider the economic impact that the tax increase would have on lower income home owners. The 12.92 percent increase in property tax has been proposed to make up the $3.6 million difference between revenue and appropriations in the budget. The tax increase will raise property taxes on a $100,000 home $74 to $642.
“If you look at the budget, they have approved $5.4 million in over-target expenses for various departments, above their base budgets. There must be some room in there to cut the $3 million instead of hiking taxes,” said George Kennedy ’52, a resident of Ulysses.
The Board members expressed that they were receptive to the public’s opinion and that the budget process was far from over, with the final budget vote not coming until Nov. 19th.
“What I hear today from both sides is that we need to find innovative ways to fund the county,” Representative Frank Proto (R) said. “Right now in Ithaca, 29 percent of the residents pay 100 percent of the taxes.”
The issue of Cornell University and Ithaca College’s exemption from taxes was also raised by citizens eager to see more contribution to the county, especially from Cornell.
“It is an interesting area, one where the lines of dialogue certainly should be opened again,” Proto said. “But I would tell people to exercise caution, Cornell and Ithaca College are easy targets, but one should scratch the surface. In actuality both contribute a lot of money, such as Cornell’s providing one-third of the budget for TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit).”
With many citizens facing double-digit property tax hikes from both the city and the county, citizens such as Bob Carpenter expressed concern about the cost of living in the area.
“I’ve lived here 70 years and I wouldn’t want to leave, but if things keep going the way they are with taxes and such, I am just going to have to follow the others out of here,” Carpenter said.
Despite the large economic concerns facing both the area and the nation, including an already proposed 10 percent increase in property taxes for 2004, Proto maintained an optimistic view of the county’s future.
“Yeah, I see hope and the reason I do is looking at the projects like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Wal-Mart finally coming in on Elmira Road plus all of the development in the Pyramid Mall area, things will grow unbelievably.”
With the city raising its estimated tax increase for next year again this week, the budget proposal for the county could also face large alterations before it is finally approved. With a unanimous vote needed, county board members still must reach a compromise on these issues.
Archived article by Gautham Nagesh