The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to override the state tax cap — after critics said the county was not being honest about the numbers.
The board also voted to add five road patrol deputies to the Sheriff’s Department in addition to the five new deputies and one new sergeant the proposed budget already funds.
“The county is throwing around this 0.68 figure, and they’re not actually telling people what the cap is before they’re asking for permission to override it,” Ken Girardin, a policy analyst for the non-partisan Empire Center, said Tuesday hours before the override vote. “That’s a big problem. That’s not responsible public policy.”
The county has maintained that the tax cap allows for a 0.68 percent increase in the levy. Girardin, however, said that number refers to the rate of inflation. The cap, enacted in 2011, limits tax levy increases to either 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. But it also varies by municipality, based on a multi-step calculation that factors in growth, economic development-related tax breaks and more.
“I don’t think anybody’s property tax cap is 0.68 percent,” Girardin said. He estimated the county’s cap to be closer to 1.98 percent.
County Administrator Spencer Hellwig dismissed that claim.
“I’m aware of some of the feedback that they provided, which has been inaccurate,” he said. “I’m not going to indulge him or the organization because I’ve seen or I’ve been told of some statements that they made relative to the county budget in terms of what should be included and what shouldn’t be. It’s misinformed.”
The board voted to override the tax cap at a special meeting Tuesday night, with supervisors Phil Barrett and Jonathan Shopf, both of Clifton Park, and Peter Martin of Saratoga Springs, voting no. The vote followed a public hearing during which several residents spoke against the tax-cap override and sets up a budget vote on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
It also followed an amendment to add the five sheriff’s deputy positions for a total of just over $500,000. The amendment passed, with supervisors Martin and Matt Veitch of Saratoga Springs voting no.
The board nearly approved an additional 10 deputies, but the motion by Barrett came up just shy of passing.
David Buchyn, a resident of Wilton, told the board that he had seen numerous conflicting numbers, “and even as of today there are disputes as to what the correct number for the cap is.”
“In the future it would be beneficial if the tax cap calculations and the amount of the override were put on the county website for review so that everyone is working from the same set of numbers,” he said.
Rob Arrigo, a Wilton resident who founded the conservative coalition Upstate Victory Fund, said he collected more than 700 petitions from county residents opposing “this budget and the violation of this taxation.”
“What’s unacceptable is the lack of transparency and inaccuracy by our county representatives as stewards of our money,” he said. “We are only talking about reducing roughly $1 million to $2 million in new spending from a nearly $300 million budget to remain under the cap and avoid excessive tax hikes.”
Girardin, of Empire Center, also noted that the county claims to be raising taxes by 1.77 percent, when the tax levy is actually increasing by 5 percent, or $2.76 million. The 1.77 percent figure refers to the tax rate increase.
Hellwig said he was aware the tax cap is imposed on the levy and not the rate. But he said the 5-percent tax levy increase reflects major growth over the past year in countywide assessed property value, not the impact to the individual taxpayer.
The $297.6 million budget would raise the average county tax rate from $2.26 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $2.30, or an $8 increase for a home assessed for $200,000.
“That’s really what the public should understand: Behind all these numbers, what the real impact is in terms of the cost to them,” Hellwig said.
Law and Finance Committee Chairman Ed Kinowski, of Stillwater, said the override was “absolutely essential.”
“And the reason is because next year, the growth rate in the tax cap is headed south,” he said.
Board Chairman Arthur “Mo” Wright said he’s heard people say the board members would be voted out if they exceeded the cap. He said if an opponent makes the override a campaign issue, “that’s a debate I’m looking forward to.”
“This is a very good budget,” he said, adding that it allocates more money for infrastructure upgrades and road paving than previous years. “It puts us back on track.”
He also said piercing the tax cap was a better alternative to using another $3 million from the county’s rainy-day reserve fund to balance the budget.
“We can’t do that forever,” he said.
Hellwig said that the county has grown increasingly reliant on its fund balance since 2014, when $1 million in reserves was used. The 2015 budget used $1.2 million and the 2016 budget used $2.34 million.
The proposed spending plan for 2017 takes nothing from the fund balance, which totaled $19 million dollars at the end of 2015, Hellwig said. The proposed tax increase will allow the county to “counteract the growing structural imbalance between expenses and revenues in our operating budget which has required the use of fund balance in past years,” Hellwig said, adding that it does not include raises for the county supervisors.
Hellwig also said the tax cap override is needed for the county to keep up with infrastructure upgrades and expanded demand for services, like water and sewer infrastructure and fire and police protection, that come with the kind of economic growth Saratoga County is experiencing.
Large-scale developments are often tax-exempt, and the tax cap doesn’t allow the county to raise the revenue needed to cover the associated expenses, he said.
Girardin, however, said growth in the tax base is taken into account when determining a municipality’s tax cap.
“That is the thing that Saratoga County has been saying doesn’t exist, and it’s the first big step in the tax cap calculation,” he said.