ELIZABETHTOWN - Essex County supervisors passed a budget Tuesday, Dec. 17 that will raise the tax levy in 2014 by 13.35 percent over the current year.
That means property owners in the county will pay $2.82 per $1,000 in assessed property value, an increase of 35 cents.
The total amount of the budget to be raised through taxes in 2014 will be $18,659,280, which is about 18 percent of the total budget.
Seven of the board's 18 supervisors voted against the final budget, including board Chairman Randy Douglas of Jay and Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston. With the votes weighted, the final budget passed with 1,758 votes in favor and 1,163 against.
Through a three-and-a-half-hour workshop, the board whittled the tentative budget down from a 15 percent increase in the tax levy, which was the first step in a five-year plan developed by county Manager Dan Palmer and Linda Wolf, the county's certified public accountant and purchasing agent. The plan aims to ween the county off its dependence on using fund balance to lower taxes, something the county was criticized for in a recent state audit.
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said he would have preferred to see a 33.9 percent increase this year to balance the budget all at once, an alternative Palmer proposed, because Politi noted that the board doesn't have any control over the budgets boards pass in future years. Also, the state is considering a plan that would reward municipalities that come in under its 2 percent tax cap in the next few years, he said. There wasn't enough support to pass that kind of increase, though, he said.
Politi noted that under the plan that started with a 15 percent increase and uses declining increases in coming years would end with the county maintaining a $3.9 million fund balance, which Palmer said is low enough to make him nervous but better than the $16,000 or so it would have ended up with had the county gone with a series of five 9 percent increases, another proposed alternative.
"I just don't think that we can enable taxpayers into feeling comfortable anymore," Politi said. "The times are difficult. This is a difficult financial situation."
Changes made during Tuesday's workshop include removing the purchase of a $230,000 grader for the highway department, restricting the county's contribution to contract agencies to 2013 levels for a savings of $74,479, and doing away with a requirement that workers plowing roads have two people in the truck, which is estimated to save about $16,000. County Department of Public Works Superintendent Tony LaVigne assured supervisors that he would still send two workers out in plow trucks on particularly hazardous roads.
Supervisors also added a few things into the budget. After the contract agencies funding was restricted, Chesterfield Supervisor Gerald Morrow, who also serves as chair of the Soil and Water Conservation board, moved to reinstate Soil and Water's requested increase in funding. The agency got $100,110 from the county this year, and it requested $111,233 from the county for 2014.
Morrow told his fellow supervisors that the agency now does work for free for the county's towns, but if its budget is restricted, it's going to have to start billing towns for the work it does. Several supervisors praised the work Soil and Water does. Others noted that the other contract agencies do good work as well but didn't "have cheerleaders in the room," as Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey put it as she voted no. Still, there were enough votes to reinstate the funding.
The board also added in raises for Judy Garrison and Dina Garvey, who split the duties of clerk of the board after Deb Palmer retired last year. Douglas said the county saved $44,952 by not hiring someone to replace her. He said he met with Garrison and Garvey about a month ago to see how they were doing with the workload. He expected them to ask for the board to hire someone part time or on a per-diem basis to help out, but they didn't.
He recommended they each get a $5,000 raise, which, with benefits, comes out to an $12,865 increase in the budget. Douglas said that will still keep spending in that department significantly lower than it was before.
Every county employee got a 1 percent raise in 2014. A vote to eliminate raises for all elected officials was shot down. Five other county employees got raises of more than 1 percent, including a $5,000 raise for Deputy County Manager Mike Mascarenas and a $6,996 raise for IT Coordinator Steve Towne. Those raises were included in the tentative budget, but Garrison and Garvey's were not because their request wasn't submitted by the time it was filed.
Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston criticized the way the budget process went. He said he participated in budget subcommittees that were formed this year to try to take a closer look at the budget, but they weren't successful.
"We're shooting from the hip, making decisions that probably aren't the best ones," Preston said. "I think all these things should be hashed out starting in August."
Douglas said he had thought the budget subcommittees would help, and he noted several areas where they did improve things. He said he hopes that in 2014, supervisors will come with more ideas on how to improve the process.