SARATOGA COUNTY — Saratoga County leaders say that despite the economic hit the county has taken from the COVID-19 pandemic, they will cut property taxes for county residents in 2021.
The $340.2 million budget proposal calls for the average property tax rate in the county to drop from $2.26 per $1,000 — already among the lowest county tax rates in the state — to $2.23 per $1,000. That will cut the county tax tax of a $300,000 home by $9.
There will be no service cuts, county Law and Finance Committee Chairman Dan Pemrick, R-Greenfield, said at a press conference in Ballston Spa. Pemrick is expected to chair the Board of Supervisors in 2021.
“I am confident that this is a responsible budget that will meet the needs of our 234,000 residents while maintaining fiscally conservative policies,” Pemrick said. “We are in a position to ride out the storm.”
The county put hard brakes on discretionary spending earlier this year in response to the pandemic-related business shutdowns, so expenses are down by more than $11 million, officials said. It also helps that the county’s tax base grew this year by $1.4 billion, to $29.1 billion.
“Assessed value in the county has gone up by $1.4 billion,” said County Administrator Spencer P. Hellwig III, the county’s chief budget officer. “That’s new residents and new businesses coming into the county.”
The county, which has been among the fastest-growing in New York state since World War II, continues to see new construction activity, and home values have also seen a boom during the pandemic, apparently due to people looking to move to communities they perceive as safer.
The increase in the tax base is one of the reasons the county is proposing a budget that doesn’t tap into the county’s surplus “rainy day fund,” which totals about $48.7 million. That gives the county a financial cushion in case rising COVID cases lead to new shutdowns.
“We’re in a position to survive that. The rainy day fund is really our safeguard,” Hellwig said.
Hellwig called preparation of this year’s budget “extremely difficult,” noting that much of his time this year has had to be devoted to dealing with the unanticipated demands on government caused by the pandemic and the need for a county public health response.
Since the $336 million 2020 county budget was adopted last December, the county saw the arrival of the pandemic, which shut down many businesses in the spring and has prompted a drop in sales tax revenue. Initially, there were projections of a 30-percent hit on county sales tax revenue, but as businesses and restaurants have reopened, the situation has improved. Sales tax revenue is now off 5 percent year to date, Hellwig said.
For next year, Hellwig is projecting the county will receive $127 million in sales tax revenue — roughly what it originally anticipated receiving this year.
The main new initiative in the budget is the anticipated hiring of a county public health commissioner with a medical degree, a first for the county. A commissioner could be hired before the end of the year. The plan to create a full-service health department was already in progress when the pandemic struck. The pandemic, however, has brought new attention to public health programs, including education, prevention and contact tracing of those who become ill.
“Our nurses are literally making thousands of phone calls a day, in terms of contact tracing,” Hellwig said.
Saratoga Springs County Supervisor Tara Gaston, one of the few Democrats on the Board of Supervisors, said she was pleased the county wouldn’t need to raise taxes as many other municipalities have, and said she had no problem with the county not dipping into its surplus to cut county taxes further.
Gaston said she was pleased with plans to expand the Public Health Department, something she has pushed for since being elected three years ago. A full-service health department would provide water quality and restaurant sanitation inspections as well as the public health programs the county already provides. The expansion of services won’t take full effect until 2022, but is needed, she said.
“I think we should be providing providing all those services to our residents and businesses,” Gaston said.
The county anticipates spending $16 million on capital projects, more than half of that for road and bridge maintenance. There will also be about $5 million in improvement at the Saratoga County Airport, but most of that spending will be reimbursed by the federal government.
Hellwig said the budget makes no assumptions about new pandemic financial aid coming from the federal government given the uncertainty around that issue.