County OKs budget with 3.4% tax hike

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The county Legislature Thursday voted 15-3, with one legislator absent, in favor of a $108.6 million budget for 2007 that will increase the average property tax rate in the county by 3.4 percent.
Spending is _up approximately $17 million over the 2006 budget of _$91.7 million, but about _$10 million of the increase comes from a new accounting requirement that includes sales tax dollars distributed to municipalities as part of total expenditures.
The average tax rate for county residents will increase to $14.91 per $1,000 of assessed property value, from $14.41 in 2006, while the tax levy will increase from $23.7 million in 2006 to $24.9 million in 2007.
“A 3.44-percent increase isn’t bad, and we worked hard to get it there,” said Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward).
Legislator John Steger (R-Preble and Scott) agreed.
“It’s a never-ending battle to stay as even as possible and still try to accomplish things, but we’re making strides,” Steger said.
Still, the tax rate increase could have been smaller, said Legislators Tom Williams (R-Homer), Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville) and Newell Willcox (R-Homer), each of whom voted against the budget.
Willcox and Breed both noted the county was creating a number of new jobs — a total of 16 new positions have been created, but nine have been eliminated, leaving a net gain of seven new jobs — and that payroll expenses had risen sharply, from $19.5 million in 2006 to $24.5 million in 2007.
“You don’t see an increase like that anywhere in the private sector,” Breed said, adding that she understood that new contracts with county employees contributed to the increase.
Legislator Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward) countered by saying that in her three years in the Legislature, she had heard countless complaints from department heads about their inability to hire qualified people due to non-competitive county wages.
“I’m actually proud of the fact that this county pays salaries that are finally competitive with other counties,” Tytler said, eliciting murmurs of agreement from a number of legislators.
Willcox then said that high wages and better benefits for county employees took away qualified employees from local private businesses, such as his own business, Willcox Tire.
“You just can’t compete in the private sector because the benefit packages are so superior and now the pay is up,” he said.
After the meeting, Van Dee, who owns Van Dee Plumbing, said his business was not affected by county wages and benefits, and suggested the county helps set a standard for other local employers.
“I pay my people a good, solid wage and they stick with me,” Van Dee said.
Meanwhile, Williams said his issue with the budget was the use of a portion of the county’s fund balance.
“It’s sort of a philosophical issue for me — there’s about $800,000 in projects paid for out of the fund balance that I felt it would have been more appropriate to bond for,” Williams said.
That money — with the largest portion of it funding construction of a new hangar at the county airport for $400,000 — could otherwise be used to lower the tax rate, Willcox said.
County Administrator Scott Schrader, along with various other legislators, have countered that bonding would cost the county more in the long run, and that one-time expenditures are a good use for excess fund balance.
Breed agreed with Williams on the fund balance expenditures, and also came prepared with a laundry list of issues with the budget.
Breed questioned Schrader’s sales tax projections and pointed to a number of lines in the budget that reflected increases in spending that she wanted explained.
“I don’t think anybody’s looking too closely at this, but I think there are a lot of discrepancies,” Breed said. “Is adding jobs maintaining efficiency?”
Van Dee and Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) questioned why the issues were not brought forward during budget reviews earlier this month.
“If she had these issues and these questions, she could’ve come to any of our meetings, but she came to none,” Van Dee said this morning, noting that the committee had done a line-by-line budget review and had likely addressed a number of Breeds questions. “All of last night at the meeting she had issues, but if she was really worried, she would’ve brought them up earlier.”


Legislature approves 0.25% mortgage tax

In an effort to reduce the total tax rate increase, the Legislature approved an additional 0.25 percent mortgage tax Thursday that would bring an estimated $250,000 in revenue annually to the county clerk’s office.
The tax would be a one-time payment that essentially adds up to a $250 payment on a $100,000 mortgage. Legislators adopted the measure 12-6.
It would be added to an existing 0.75 percent tax, which sends revenue to the state and the local municipalities.
Those in favor of the tax said it was a small, one-time payment that would help reduce property tax rates and offset losses of revenue, while those opposed said it was unfair.
“To put this on the backs of new homebuyers is just unfair,” said Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville). “A couple hundred dollars is a lot for somebody just starting out.”
Larry Cornell (R-Marathon and Lapeer) said the timing was not right to impose the tax.
“Right now the county’s in good shape,” Cornell said. “I think we should put it on the back burner for now.”
Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) said tax would help offset the loss in sales tax revenue the county would see in coming years due to a new contract with its municipalities.
Budget and Finance Chairman Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) agreed.
“Giving the sales tax back like we did, and like we should have done, is really going to hurt us, so somehow you’ve got to make that up, and this is a fair way to do it,” Van Dee said this morning, noting that most other counties in the state have a similar tax.
“It’s a one-time tax and it’s going to generate a significant amount of money for us,” he said. “I know some said we should wait, but when you start doing that, you’re looking at a big tax increase down the road, and we should be thinking ahead as well as we can”
Joining Breed and Cornell in voting against the tax were Mike McKee (R-Taylor, Willet, Cincinnatus and Freetown), Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil), Tom Williams (R-Homer) and Newell Willcox (R-Homer).
— Corey Preston/Staff Reporter



East End center gets funding to continue

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The East End Community Center, which has essentially been bankrupt since February, has received a $25,000 grant to continue its operation through 2007.
The funding, announced this morning, also will pay back the approximate $6,750 cost of operation that the Cortland Youth Bureau has absorbed since the previous police outreach grant funding the center expired in February.
The source of the funding is the federal Justice Assistant Grant program, which is administered by the state and was allotted to state Sen. Jim Seward (R-Milford) for distribution.
The announcement was made by Seward at the East End center on Elm Street, which has surpassed its original mission to provide a venue for community interaction with police officers. The center now hosts numerous meetings, classes and symposiums.
The Common Council will still have to decide if it will put up a 25 percent matching contribution, or $6,250, that the grant requires. At an Oct. 17 council meeting, when the center’s financial woes were made known, the council had decided to put off making a decision about whether or not it would match any incoming grant.
Mayor Tom Gallagher said this morning that he was “100 percent positive” that the Common Council would approve the matching funds.
Joe Armideo, of Homer, owns the building housing the center, which was formerly the Durkee Bakery. The center pays $750 a month for rent. That figure includes all utilities, said, Youth Bureau Assistant Director Cecille Scott.
At its October meeting, the center’s advisory board had also decided that after 2007, there would need to be a push to relocate the center to either a property the city would purchase, or already owns, such as the recreation building at Dexter Park on Elm Street. Continually paying rent for a facility is not feasible, the board had decided.
The Advisory Board was also concerned about the future sustainability of the center, and Alderman Jim Partigianoni (D-7th Ward) said he did not believe the Common Council would be willing to spend substantial amounts of money to keep the center open.
The current center is also not wheelchair accessible, and Scott and Partigianoni have said it is difficult to obtain grant funding to make modifications to a building that is not owned by a municipality.
Scott said that the Advisory Board will still work to make the current location as wheelchair accessible as is possible.




Legislature OKs conflict attorney office

Staff Reporter

After months of discussion, false starts and opposition, the Cortland County Legislature approved a local law Thursday that creates a Conflict Attorney Office to supplement the Public Defender’s Office.
The new, separate office will handle cases that are an ethical or time conflict for the public defender. The office could save the county between $150,000 and $200,000 annually on assigned counsel costs, which have increased dramatically in recent years, said County Administrator Scott Schrader.
The new office was budgeted but not approved in 2006 and had been brought to the Legislature a number of times since August, but had been pulled from the floor due to the concerns of the Cortland County Bar Association.
The Legislature approved the measure at its meeting Thursday in a 14-4 vote, with Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville), Mike McKee (R-Cincinnatus, Freetown, Taylor and Willet), Danny Ross (R-Cortlandville) and Newell Willcox (R-Homer) voting against it.
In the past, local attorneys have served as assigned counsel in all cases that have posed a conflict for the Public Defender, but the cost of the program has gotten out of control, Schrader said.
This year to date, the county has paid out about $252,000 on assigned counsel, with another $110,000 in bills that still need to be paid, Schrader said. The 2006 budget originally called for $175,000 in assigned counsel costs.
The assigned counsel program would co-exist with the new conflict attorney, handling any overflow cases and cases that might pose an ethical dilemma, but the theory is that it will be less expensive to pay an attorney to focus on the public defenders’ conflict cases to reduce the need for assigned counsel.
“I’m sure this is going to save us some money,” Legislator Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) said. “I think it’s the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do.”
The Bar Association, from which the pool of assigned counsel is drawn, had questioned the legality of the new position, and Bar President Bruce Fein, speaking at the meeting, continued to push that button.
While other counties in the state are using a conflict attorney, an administrative judge has not approved those programs, Fein said.
However, County Attorney Rick Van Donsel advised the Legislature that the creation of the conflict attorney’s office was within the county’s legal bounds.
Van Donsel said he had reviewed opinions from the state attorney general that the Bar Association claimed ruled against such a law, and found that they did not apply to Cortland’s situation.
“The proposal for a conflict attorney is, in my mind, compliant,” Van Donsel said, noting that so long as the assigned counsel program remains intact to supplement the conflict attorney, the position should hold up to any judicial review.
Van Donsel said he needed to continue to work with the Bar Association on a new administrative system for the assigned counsel program, but said the creation of the conflict attorney’s office could proceed.