November 10, 2011

County Legislators Defend Tax Hikes

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The Tompkins County Legislature defended the compromises made in its its 2012 County Budget, which includes an increased tax levy and service cuts, at a meeting held for public comment on Wednesday.

Legislator Jim Dennis (D – 15th District), chair of the Budget and Capital Committee, said the two primary goals of the budget were to maintain the level of services in Tompkins County required by New York State and to keep the tax levy — which will rise by 3.99 percent — at a rate that would not force people from their homes.

Due to the tax levy increase, the average single family home will pay an additional $31.85 in taxes, Dennis said.

Tompkins County will also employ 25 fewer people in 2012 than in 2011. The legislature decided to privatize the Community Home Health Agency, which will remove 20 employees from county payrolls. Additionally, two retirees will not be replaced and three county employees will be laid off, according to Dennis.

Neil Oolie, who works for Loaves and Fishes, a pantry for the city’s homeless, expressed concern over cuts to services at a time when, he said, an increasing number of people are struggling to find food.

“We normally feed upwards of 120 people per day. In the last year or two, however, we have occasionally seen upwards of 200 people per day, with more coming back for seconds,” Oolie said. “We live in a time when budgets are declining while the number of people requiring services is increasing.”

Legislator Dooley Kiefer ’57 (D – 10th District) echoed Oolie’s concerns.

“We have gotten to a point where we cannot do more with less. We can only do less with less,” Kiefer said.

Oolie and Kiefer said their statements reflected what they called an increase in demand for Tompkins County social services. In the past four years, for instance, the number of families receiving Safety Net Assistance has risen 133.3 percent in the area, according to caseload statistics from the Tompkins County Department of Social Services.

Members of the legislature said they initially struggled to find funding in lieu of the tax cap enacted by New York State in June. Legislators also drew attention to declining state appropriations — funding from New York State has declined 13 percent since 2009 — according to Kevin Sutherland, executive assistant for the county.

While Tompkins County voted to exempt itself from the tax cap, which required a two-thirds vote, several legislators cast blame on the decisions made by New York State and Governor Andrew Cuomo (D).

“We implement state programs; they’re mandated by New York State,” Dennis said. “Our costs went up 11 percent in pension costs alone. Most county budget issues are the result of budget issues in Albany itself.”

Kiefer discussed the budget stress caused by unfunded mandates.

“The tax cap might be tolerable if it came with mandate relief, which was promised but didn’t happen. It’s hard to believe that our Democratic Governor is really a Democrat,” Kiefer said.

Kiefer said that it should be the responsibility of those who create mandates to fund them.

“The solution for county issues is for New York State to stop starving us of funds while demanding we pay their bills,” Kiefer said. “The state needs to bring back its progressive income tax and state aid to counties and municipalities.”

Legislator David McKenna (R – 8th District) agreed with the need for state relief but said the county’s budget could have been smaller.

“While I’d like to see the budget lower, I feel the process has been very equitable so far,” McKenna said. “We attempted to minimize the effects of the cuts as much as possible. Overall, it was a bipartisan effort.”

The budget itself is still open for amendment. The final budget vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

Original Author: Matthew Rosenspire