Saratoga County

Saratoga County budget carries 3.5 percent tax hike

Saratoga County supervisors on Wednesday adopted a $309 million budget for 2012 that raises property

County supervisors on Wednesday adopted a $309 million budget for 2012 that raises property taxes 3.5 percent and reverses a handful of proposed funding cuts.

Among the changes, at least for now, was dropping a plan for county employees and retirees to pay more of their health insurance costs.

The budget, in which total spending is up about $14 million from this year, was approved 21-2 at a meeting in Ballston Spa, with Democrat Joanne Yepsen of Saratoga Springs and Republican Phil Barrett of Clifton Park casting “no” votes.

“Raising taxes is just not an appropriate step in this economy,” Yepsen said.

Other supervisors, however, said the property tax increase has to be part of balancing the county budget. About $10 million has been cut from the original budget proposal, and supervisors said much of the increased spending is driven by federal and state program costs.

“So much is out of our control … I don’t see another alternative at this time,” said Supervisor Patti Southworth, I-Ballston.

Under the new budget, the average county tax rate will rise from $2.15 to $2.23 per $1,000 in assessed value, county officials said. That’s a $16 tax increase for a house assessed at $200,000.

“The Saratoga County tax rate continues to be the lowest in the state of New York,” said board Chairman Tom Wood, R-Saratoga.

The initial budget draft had included a sales tax increase but no hike in property taxes. But the county’s state representatives said they wouldn’t support the state legislation needed for a sales tax hike. County officials said that forced them to turn to spending cuts and a property tax increase.

Wood said the 2012 budget was the most challenging the county has seen in decades.

“Our state government has not reduced mandates, and our state legislators did not support efforts suggested by the board to provide revenue to meet the state mandates,” Wood said.

Among the organizations that saw their county funding partially restored Wednesday were the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa, to $5,625; the Saratoga County Fair, $9,000; and Saratoga Arts, which uses the money to pay for First Night Saratoga fireworks, $3,750. Each had half of its funding restored, after being eliminated from the proposed budget during a Nov. 18 board workshop.

Supervisor Art Johnson, R-Wilton, who proposed the restorations, said the three organizations should be advised not to expect county funding in 2013.

A three-hour public hearing on the budget on Dec. 1 drew many speakers urging that funding to those organizations be restored.

The final budget also reinstates the full $53,847 in funding for the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, after supervisors determined the county had a legally binding commitment to fund the organization. Earlier, the commission was going to be eliminated from the budget.

Supervisors announced Wednesday they expect to save $1.3 million on next year’s Blue Shield health insurance premiums, using a new system in which the county pays only for actual medical claims made and some administrative costs. The insurance premium will drop from $25.7 million to $24.4 million.

The change was recommended by Benetech, a health insurance consultant working for the county.

“Basically, we’re extracting a lot of expenses and administration fees,” said Kyle Wessels of Benetech.

That savings gave supervisors money to reverse some proposed funding cuts.

The final budget restores retiree Medicaid Plan B payments the county was going to cut. It also drops plans to ask Civil Service Employees Association members to part more of their health insurance premiums. These moves added about $1.1 million to the budget.

But supervisors said they’ll still try to get those costs down.

“All those items will be negotiated with the unions,” said Johnson, chairman of the county Personnel Committee.

During a 45-minute debate, many supervisors said the budget development process could have been handled better, but they think the final budget is an improved one.

“I believe this is the first time we’ve raised taxes since 2002. I’m not sure any other county can make that claim,” said Supervisor John E. Lawler, R-Waterford.

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