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November 19, 2015 - 6:47am

County's proposed budget holds the line on property tax rate

posted by Howard B. Owens in budget.

County government is moving toward passage of a budget for 2016 that holds the line on the tax rate for local propety owners.

Wednesday, the Ways and Means Committee recommended approval of a $27,199,344 spending plan that keeps the tax rate $9.86 per thousand of assessed value for 2016, the same as 2015.

With increases in assessed value throughout the county, that rate will still provide the county with an overall growth in the tax levy by $323,051.

County Manager Jay Gsell said the county was able to trim off three cents from the original 2016 proposed rate by keeping the belts tight on government appropriations.

"We basically said to all the departments and agencies of county government, particularly the outside agencies, 'No increase in funding requests, and to the county departments, we want you to hold the line as much as possible,' " Gsell said.

It helps, Gsell said, that the state has capped how much it demands from the county for the local share of Medicaid funding. In each of the past two years, the county hasn't been asked to pay more than $9.3 million. In the past, that number would go up 8 percent or more each year, Gsell said.

The budget includes a full year of anticipated deficit spending to keep the county nursing home operating, though the Legislature anticipates the county will be out of the nursing home business before the close of 2016. There is a purchase offer in place with a private company that will take over operations and ownership of the property.

The spending plan includes appropriating about $2 million from the county's fund balance (or general fund cash reserves). That's a smaller draw on the fund balance than previous years. Primarily, spending fund reserves is a way of smoothing the county's cash flow throughout the year. It helps maintain the nursing home and covers beginning-of-the-year shortfalls while the county waits for property tax payments to roll in. In the previous years of fund-balance spending, the county has still finished the year in the black and at the end of 2014 the reserves stood at $10.5 million.

The budget process has gone well, said Ray Cianfrini, chairman of the Legislature, because the legislators, on the whole, want to be responsible about how they handle taxpayers' money.

"I think it's fair to say the mindset of most all of the legislators is pretty fiscally conservative and we're very conscious of the fact that we're elected by the public and we want to make sure the public is getting the best bang for the buck," Cianfrini said.

It was a priority to hold the line on the tax rate, Cianfrini said.

"Nobody likes to raise taxes unless it's necessary and the first thing we always look for in the budget process is 'Are we able to hold the rate down?' " Cianfrini said. "Last year we had a reduction of 16 cents per thousand, so I think going into this year's budget our mindset was we would prefer not to raise taxes."

Holding the line meant asking department heads to keep down spending, not hire more staff, postpone some projects or equipment purchases. Even so, Cianfrini said, county residents will still get a responsive, functioning county government.

"I personally feel this budget meets all the needs of the smooth operation of the county government," Cianfrini said. "Now, if we talk to the department heads, I'm sure the department heads would love to have more personnel, certainly. Talk to the Sheriff, talk to other people in different departments, would they like more? Yeah, absolutely they'd like more, but it comes with a cost. They all seem to be willing to work within the budget we presented."

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