Lifting the state-imposed tax cap will have a crippling effect on already struggling homeowners in Schenectady County, a majority of speakers told legislators during a public hearing Friday evening.
Many of the more than 50 people filling the Schenectady County Legislature’s chamber said the already high tax burden throughout the county is forcing people from their homes and causing others to contemplate a move either toward other more-affordable counties or even out of state.
They argued a decision by the county Legislature to override a state imposed tax growth limit of 2.95 percent in the 2013 budget would have a dire impact on businesses and families struggling with the sluggish national economy.
Niskayuna resident Rich Fisher questioned how the Legislature could consider exceeding the tax cap when the county is already among the highest taxed. He said additional tax increases could drive him from the county into a neighboring one after living here since 1987.
“Saying you have to do this and we have to pay for it is wrong,” he said. “I’d even say it’s illegal.”
Chamber of Schenectady County President Charles Steiner said breaking the tax cap would go against all the economic development progress that has been made in recent years. He advised the Legislature to take the same frugal attitude toward finances that many businesses and homeowners have taken in the down economy.
“Every business and every resident have had to manage their budget and haven’t been able to mandate more revenue,” he said.
But another vocal contingent of residents heading the county’s nonprofit agencies disagreed. They argued legislators should lift the cap so the county’s strong social service agencies — ones that might face dire funding cuts — can continue to adequately serve the segment of the population most in need.
Deb Schimpf, executive director of the Schenectady Community Action Program, predicted the cuts to the county’s budget required under the tax cap could leave her organization strapped for money to pay its workers. She speculated that a cut in funding could result in the closing of shelters such as the Sojourn House in Schenectady, a home for women and their children that assisted roughly 130 families last year.
“It’s quite possible without support, this house could close,” she said, adding that her organization could also lose 10 workers as a result of any cuts. “This all has an economic multiplier effect on our community.”
Niskayuna resident Ann DiSarno lauded the county for maintaining a structure that has provided a vital assistance network for the elderly. She feared a county budget wedged beneath the tax cap could mean dismantling many of the services seniors have come to rely on.
“It’s important for you to give yourself the opportunity to look at the whole system you have at hand here,” she said.
Last week, Schenectady County Manager Kathleen Rooney requested the Legislature give her the flexibility to establish a tax levy increase greater than the cap would allow. County officials haven’t disclosed how much taxes could increase if the cap is overridden or precisely the cuts that would be required if it’s left in place.
Lifting the cap would ultimately need to be approved by 60 percent of the Legislature's weighted vote, which went into effect this year. Under the new system, the vote of each city representative is worth slightly more than one, while the vote of each town representative is worth slightly less than one. The weighting is a legal system to establish political equity between municipalities.
Legislators didn’t act on Rooney’s request Friday, but the Democratic majority had a conference immediately following the public hearing. The full body is expected to discuss the matter during a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
On Friday, Rooney declined to discuss any particulars about the budget, which she is due to present to the Legislature after the special meeting. She said she’s looking at “multiple scenarios” based on what legislators ultimately decide next week.
County spokesman Joe McQueen said state law requires the Legislature to decide whether to override the tax cap before Rooney’s budget is proposed. He said 78 percent of the budget is nondiscretionary mandates and the remaining 22 percent includes items such as funding for nonprofit agencies, the county library system and other popular programs.
“There’s very little flexibility,” he said.
James Buhrmaster, the Legislature’s lone Republican, continued to speak against the override and even questioned whether he’d support a budget including any tax increase. He also speculated that majority Democrats would have a hard sell among their own members, considering seven are up for re-election next year and one — Angelo Santabarbara — is in the midst of a run for state Assembly.
“I’ve got to believe there are going to be some long, hard thoughts about it,” he said.