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County budget discussion gets testy at times as big jump in property tax looks unavoidable

By Howard B. Owens

Here's something you don't hear often in the chambers of the Old County Courthouse: Members of the Genesee County Legislature raising their voices and talking over each other during a policy discussion.

Members of the normally decorous body got a little testy with each other at times Monday night during negotiations over the 2017 county budget that has no easy answers as state and federal mandates continue to drive up expenses, eating up more of what local taxpayers contribute to the county budget, leaving precious little left for essential local services.

A substantial property tax increase looks inevitable, bringing it up to a rate as high as $10.30 per thousand. That's a 5-percent increase in the levy. That would mean the Legislature would need to override the state-mandated tax levy increase, which the full body approved earlier in the evening.

As members chattered near the end of the discussion about what level of increase they could accept, Legislator Shelly Stein said, "We know we’re going over. We absolutely know we’re going over."

It's just a question of if they can find a way to cut expenses enough to shrink the size of the increase, and with each member of the Legislature having a good reason to protect this or that expenditure, reaching a consensus on what to cut is proving difficult. They agreed not to eliminate the request for two new corrections officers in the Sheriff's Office, nor to eliminate a road patrol position next year. They also won't eliminate a case worker position in the Public Defender's Office after PD Jerry Ader explained that the position legislators thought was grant funded really isn't. They couldn't agree on whether to make cuts in the planning department or the District Attorney's Office -- and County Manager Jay Gsell explained why a hiring freeze would be a bad idea.

Cuts to the highway department would leave an already depleted staff with fewer people to get road work done. You would have, Gsell said, all flagmen and no workers on road projects, for example. In social services, there has been a significant increase in case load post-Obamacare with no increase in staffing. Any cuts to the Department of Motor Vehicles would reduce county revenue. 

“We are a service business," Gsell said. "Even in this day and age with all the technology, the bottom line is, we deal with people, and most people on a face-to-face basis, and if we don’t, they still end up coming in our offices to get their problems resolved. If we were retail, we could do that kind of stuff, just stop hiring people, but then of course our shelves wouldn't get stocked."

Over the course of his tenure as county manager, Gsell said, the county has eliminated nearly 100 jobs, leaving all departments operating at a bare-minimum staffing level.

When Chairman Ray Cianfrini did a straw poll asking members what percentage of tax increase would members be willing to support, there was no support for a 7-percent or a 6-percent increase, but a passing majority was willing to go along with a 5-percent or 4-percent increase.

Cianfrini joked that he knew Legislator Andrew Young wants to hold it at zero percent, but Young said he raised his hand for 5 percent.

"I understand we’ve got to increase taxes," Young said. "We can’t help it and we should increase it less by cutting more is my opinion, but can’t allow ourselves to become insolvent either. "

The potential of insolvency is a real concern for Young, who has raised it several times during budget discussion. The concern is a big reason legislators are unwilling to take more than $500,000 from reserves to help balance the budget and don't want to transfer nearly $1 million in anticipated sales tax revenue from the road and bridge fund and use it to balance the 2017 budget.

Young, Robert Bausch and Marianne Clattenburg are all arguing that the county needs to come up with a five-year plan that will guide budgeting decisions, with more data and some anticipation of the variables the county might face on revenue and spending in the coming years.

"I've never been part of an organization that didn't have a plan for the future, and we don't have a plan," Young said.

If the budget process doesn't start sooner next year, Bausch said, and there's no budget discussion prior to an October meeting, then that meeting might as well be canceled right now because it will be a waste of time.

The Legislature will meet at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the budget again.  

jeff saquella

correct me if i'm wrong but say someone's assessed value is 80,000 their taxes are going to rise by over 800 dollars?Thats at 5%....that is unacceptable. and we elected these people to figure this out??? I say back to the drawing board people. Gotta be another way.

Nov 22, 2016, 12:37pm Permalink
Dave Bateman

It is not going up 800 dollars. They would be raising the current rate by 5% up to a maximum of $10.30 per $1000 of assessed value. Before it might have been like $9.80 per $1000. So on an 80,000 assessment it would go from $784 to $824.

Nov 22, 2016, 12:50pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

It's raising the tax levy by 5 percent.

The tax cap is measured against the levy, not the tax rate. So there's a cap of 2 percent increase on the levy, but the formula also accounts for inflation and changes in assessed value, so the starting point isn't necessarily last year's total levy. The starting point is a levy adjusted for those variables, then you can go up by 2 percent without the elective body approving an override.

I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but let's say the base levy is $27,800,000, a five percent increase would make it $29,190,000.

To get there, the tax rate would then be about $10.30 per thousand of assessed value. The break-even rate for the adjusted levy is $9.69. Two percent would be something like $9.89 (I don't have the exact numbers in front of me right now, and this is mainly about trying to explain the process).

Nov 22, 2016, 3:13pm Permalink
david spaulding

hey, as a property owner in genesee county what ya say I give my house to genesee county and rent it back. I do own it, I could then apply for welfare section 8 and get the federal government to pay my rent and taxes. it's a win win for genesee co. or it's a no-brainer and my favorite from sen. schumer, a shot in the arm. I hope trump can see me out here treading water and throws me a life jacket.

Nov 23, 2016, 11:55am Permalink
david spaulding

getting to the point where I can't afford what I already own...... and to think I now have to pay the lawyer fees of immigrants illegal or not...... hail Cuomo your next president.

Nov 23, 2016, 12:00pm Permalink
Ed Hartgrove

Well, David, you "own" it, as long as you keep paying the "yearly fee" (property taxes) that allows you to live there. Doesn't matter if you've paid off the mortgage or not. Stop paying those taxes, and, the gov't will seize & auction off "your" home. Just saying!

Nov 23, 2016, 3:08pm Permalink
Dave Meyer

Nobody likes paying taxes, including me, but instead of railing against the county legislature, we should be railing against the state and federal unfunded mandates. What are beloved Hawley & Ranzenhoffer and trump's butt boy Collins doing to assist with relief for those mandates?? Answer, nothing. They're here to have their picture taken for the photo ops though, so we have that going for us.

You're blaming the wrong people.

There are certain essential services - highway maintenance & law enforcement to name a couple, that we simply have to have. As an example, you know what those 2 new corrections officers are for? They're to transport female inmates to other jails because we don't house female inmates. That's actually less expensive than paying deputies overtime to do those transports. Would you rather do that, or build a new jail that could house female inmates?
Add to those the social services, some of which come under the 'unfunded mandate' designation and our county is in a word fiscally 'screwed'.

You can threaten to 'vote the bums out' next election, but whoever replaces them will have their hands tied in a similar manner unless and until there is some relief from the unfunded mandates.

Nov 25, 2016, 11:40am Permalink
John Roach

Dave, try to be honest. Hard for Collins or any other Republican in Congress, to get rid of mandates until Obama is gone next month. Then we'll see what happens

Same in Albany. Democrats control the Assembly and might the State Senate. And our Governor likes mandates and is not likely to get rid of them. This $30,000 grand extra for the DA came from a Democratic party administration.

Nov 25, 2016, 1:07pm Permalink

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