Schenectady County

Schenectady County OKs big tax increase for 2013

Schenectady County legislators passed an amended 2013 budget that lowers the tax levy increase to 5.

Schenectady County legislators passed an amended 2013 budget that lowers the tax levy increase to 5.9 percent, but will require the Public Library to reduce its expenses by $250,000 next year and likely force a restructuring of its operations.

The revised $295.48 million spending plan was approved by a vote of 9-6 during a special session of the Legislature Tuesday. Conservative Holly Vellano and Republican James Buhrmaster were joined in their opposition to the budget by Democrats Tom Constantine, Cathy Gatta, Angelo Santabarbara and Jeff McDonald.

Only Buhrmaster and Gatta explained their decision to oppose the budget during the public session. Gatta said the amended budget improved upon the 7.49 percent increase in the total county property tax collection outlined in the initial proposal, but was still too high for her liking.

Buhrmaster blasted his fellow legislators for not heeding pleas they received from the public to keep any tax levy increase in the budget below the 2.95 percent allowable under the state’s tax cap. He described the county as being “in a crisis” with its property tax burden and fears the increase included in the budget will spur an even greater exodus of businesses and residents.

“The tax increase we’re passing tonight is a killer,” he said.

Buhrmaster also reiterated his criticism of the county Legislature’s continued financing of the Glendale Home, which he described as “an anchor around our necks.” The characterization drew a stern rebuke from Legislator Brian Gordon, who called Buhrmaster’s comment “unethical” given the number of elderly county residents relying on public assistance for assisted living care.

The amended budget trims an additional $552,204 from County Manager Kathleen Rooney’s original proposal. Residents owning a house assessed at $150,000 can expect to pay an additional $57 per year in county taxes; those bills will vary town-to-town.

To reach the tax levy increase included in the adopted budget, legislators outlined a number of cuts to the library system. The most significant reduction is $184,720 in the line item for the library’s hourly wages.

The library will also need to make an additional $66,000 in cuts, including recommendations of $25,350 less for educational books, $7,850 in professional services and $14,134 in employee benefits.

Finance Committee Chairman Philip Fields said the cuts in the amended budget are suggestions from the Legislature, while the cuts the library adopts will ultimately be up to its own board of trustees.

The Legislature is asking the trustees to provide Rooney with a restructuring plan by May 1, which would then be implemented by July, according to the budget amendment passed by the Legislature.

Esther Swanker, the president of the trustees, hadn’t reviewed the cuts and referred comments to Karen Bradley, the library’s new director. But she said any reduction in funding for books is one that won’t be easy to swallow.

“That hurts,” she said.

Bradley couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Legislators trimmed $156,000 that was originally slated to rent new space for county Supreme Court justices. They had initially budgeted the money with the anticipation of Schenectady County candidates picking up seats during the upcoming election for the 4th Judicial District.

The amended budget takes another $438,705 from the county’s reserve fund. The initial budget proposal already relied on $5.6 million in reserve funds to help reduce the tax levy.

Another $63,000 was trimmed through the elimination of an admissions coordinator’s position at Glendale. And $34,503 was removed from personnel services from the county’s Department of Human Rights.

The resolution amending the budget also includes a long preamble urging state legislators to eliminate the local share of Medicaid, a cost that will run Schenectady County $34.6 million in 2013. In her remarks before the vote, Chairwoman Judy Dagostino blamed increases in state mandates for forcing legislators to exceed the tax cap.

“The cap has made this a very challenging budget year,” she said.

But if legislators are expecting sympathy from Albany, they’re not likely to hear it from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Citing his own struggles with a multi-billion dollar deficit, the governor said local governments have to learn to live within their means or else face asking for more money from taxpayers.

“That’s called life,” he said during a news conference in Albany Monday. “And that’s called the constraints that you are in as a government official today.”

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