$9.5M in surplus eyed to trim Schenectady County tax levy

Schenectady County will tap approximately $9.5 million from its fund balance to reduce next year’s t

Schenectady County will tap approximately $9.5 million from its fund balance to reduce next year’s tax levy by $135,000, or by 0.2 percent, according to a budget review Monday night.

The tentative $293 million budget represents an increase of $5 million in appropriations from the current $288 million budget. The 2011 tax levy is tentatively set at $64 million.

County legislators will continue their review sessions through this week and into next week. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 4 in the sixth floor chambers of the County Office Building. The Legislature will vote on the budget Oct. 5. The county’s fiscal year begins Jan. 1.

County Manager Kathleen Rooney said the $9.5 million amount is high but not the highest amount the county Legislature has appropriated through the years to balance the budget. “We’re using the surplus in a conservative and fiscally provided manner,” she said.

County officials said the Legislature appropriated $7.2 million of the fund balance in 2000; $6.3 in 2001; $9.2 million in 2002 and $9.9 million in 2003. In 2004, the amount was $10 million, used to reduce a 16.7 percent property tax increase.

For 2010 the Legislature allocated $6 million from the fund balance, but will close the fiscal year without having used any of it, said County Attorney Chris Gardner.

Democratic county legislators defended using the fund balance to lower the tax levy. “We have the healthiest surplus in the Capital Region, and it is OK to give the people back some of the money they gave us and to give them a benefit from money we received from other sources,” said Legislator Philip Fields, D-Schenectady, chairman of the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee.

County Legislator Vincent DiCerbo, D-Schenectady, said the county had to draw heavily on the surplus “because no one knew how serious or deep the recession would be. You need to use the fund balance for times like this.”

Despite the 0.2 percent reduction in the tax levy, some residents may still see an increase in their county taxes, Fields said.

Municipalities set their tax rates in December, based on their assessments and their equalization rates. County taxes represent about 15 percent to 20 percent of a resident’s total tax bill; school taxes and local municipal taxes and fees comprise the remainder.

Fields said the county is using the surplus to cover for the loss of federal stimulus funds, for increases in mandated payments into the state pension system and in costs for Medicaid and foster care and to cover the loss of state revenue. In all, the county is projecting the loss of $3 million in federal funds and $1 million in state funds for 2011.

The county’s budget has grown by 2 percent per year between 2001 and 2011. The levy, meanwhile, has increased by $12 million between 2004 and 2011.

The $64 million tentative tax levy includes a $4.1 million subsidy for the Glendale Home, a county-operated facility for the elderly. The $4.1 million subsidy is double the amount county taxpayers paid in the current year. The Glendale Home this year lost federal funding.

On the plus side, Fields said the county expects to see sale tax revenues increase slightly in 2011 to $84 million.

Two years ago, the county collected $80.2 million in sales tax revenues.

Mortgage recording fees and interest income are expected to remain flat, however.

The county plans to reduce 22 employee positions through attrition next year and will offer early retirement incentives to 35 employees.

It has reduced its 1,500-person work force by some 200 positions over the last seven years.

The county expects to achieve a further $1 million in savings through negotiated changes in health benefits with its unions next year. It generally uses the savings to offset any wage increases granted the bargaining units.

Contracts with all but one union have expired. The 2011 budget also omits salary increases for non-union employees, but they generally receive salary increases similar to the unions.

Minority Leader Legislator Robert Farley, R-Glenville, criticized the budget, saying it relies on an overestimation of revenues, contains no real cost controls and does not reduce spending. “It has a huge hole in it,” he said. Republicans, who are the minority in the Legislature, will offer amendments to reduce the budget, he said.

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