February 26, 2008

State Budget Proposal Forces County to Reassess Policies

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The Tompkins County Budget and Capital Committee met with Tompkins County Administrator Steve Whicher yesterday to discuss the possible effects of New York State Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposed 2009 budget.
The changes in the state budget could have a potentially negative impact on the county’s budget — ranging from $500,000 to $1 million — unless the county legislature makes some policy changes to offset the state’s changes. In order to help make up for the cut in state funding, the state’s proposal also gives the state legislature the authority to increase fees.
“We just had another meeting and I am advising to not only take a look at the potential cuts to the county but also at the effects to the agencies that we help support. Sometimes the reductions are hard to see at first,” Whicher said.
Chair of the Budget and Capital Committee Nathan Shinagawa (D-4th District) noted that although the governor’s proposal did cut back in some funding, it also took steps to make improvements in Upstate New York.
“The governor’s budget does have a lot of good impact funding for rural doctors and gives $1 billion to improve and revitalize Upstate New York,” Shinagawa said. “The state is under a lot of budget pressure right now. Basically we have unfunded mandates and the state is mandating that we do certain programs, but is taking a step back from the financial responsibility to mandate those programs.”
One of the main areas of concern for legislators was cuts to the Department of Social Services, which supports the food stamp, Medicare and Welfare programs. The DSS could lose $200,000 in state funding. According to Whicher, while now funding for the program is split between the county — contributing 50 percent — and the state and federal contributing the rest. If the budget goes through, the county will have a much larger responsibility.
According to the Tompkins County website, other possible reductions include a decrease of $100,000 in state aid for Tompkins Cortland Community College and a loss of $43,000 from a 3 percent reduction in state highway funding.
In order to make up for the cut in state funding, the county may have to reform some of its tax policies. A possible change is changing the property tax assessment process from being conducted every three years to every year. Reassessing property every year is more likely to raise taxes as property values go up.
“We are not sure if we want to make those policy changes some people see as a backdoor way of raising taxes. An annual assessment is a tricky issue people are concerned with property taxes in Upstate N.Y.,” Shinagawa said. “At the same time, with the possibility of a recession looming this may be a better alternative to increasing property taxes.”
Raising taxes is especially problematic for the elderly in the area who live off of a fixed Social Security income and may be forced out of their homes.
“We are not sure if we want to make those policy changes some people see that as a backdoor way of raising taxes,” Shinagawa said.
Yesterday’s meeting was the start of a long process of state and county budget reviews.
“We are in the very preliminary steps. All we are doing is looking at the proposed budget and looking at the impact right now,” Whicher said.