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Essex County Preliminary Budget Exceeds Cap

WAMC/Pat Bradley

The Essex County Board of Supervisors will hold a special meeting Thursday to discuss the county’s proposed budget and determine if the preliminary 2015 levy can be lowered from an anticipated 9.4 percent.

Essex County supervisors are working to bring a nearly 95 million dollar budget in line with anticipated appropriations of 93 million, a shortfall of $2 million dollars. The county is in the second year of a five-year plan to balance its budget and bring its tax levy under the state’s mandated 2 percent cap. The plan had called for a 10 percent increase in 2015, but County Manager Dan Palmer has honed the preliminary 2015 county tax levy to 9.4 percent.  “The first year the plan called for 15 percent. The board passed 13. The second year the plan called for a 10 percent. It’s coming in at 9.5 and may get adjusted. But the problem is, and the problem continues to be the same as it was in previous years, the board used 7 million in fund balance to offset the levy in previous years and there is no fund balance left to do that with.”

Town of Moriah Supervisor and Chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee Tom Scozzafava says the 9 and a half percent on the levy is deceiving because the county appropriations are down.  “But unfortunately they base the tax cap number on the levy. Which I’ve had a problem with since its implementation because it really should be based on your total appropriations which really is more representative of what your actual expenditures are. But the 9.5 percentage-wise is a significant increase. Dollar-wise it amounts to about $19 on a $100,000 home.  Every $180,000 that we either add or take away in the budget equals about one percent. So we’re going to meet on Thursday to find more areas where we might be able to cut.  The bottom line is in the last few years we have significantly reduced the county workforce. And you’ve got to maintain some fund balance because what a lot of people don’t realize is that the county makes every taxing jurisdiction whole. So, in other words, if you don’t pay your school tax the county makes up the difference. If you don’t pay your town tax or your water tax the county makes that up. So just for that purpose alone you’ve got keep six to eight million dollars in a fund balance so that you can meet those obligations.”

During the November 3rd meeting, the Board of Supervisors passed a local measure to override the state 2 percent tax cap. Scozzafava notes that the five-year plan eventually will meet the state-mandated tax cap.  “A lot of what we have to deal with in a county budget is mandated by the state. Most of the programs that you have that you can either scale back on or eliminate unfortunately are the programs that directly serve the majority of our constituency, such as highway.  So when you’ve got to find areas to cut it’s usually in those areas. And you know the county provides a lot of services. More services that any other form of government that there is.”

A special board meeting beginning at 9:30 Thursday morning is structured for department heads to present their concerns and budget revisions. It is open to the public. A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday to discuss the tentative budget. About 38,000 people live in the county.

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