The tentative budget would increase the County property tax levy by 2.34%, adding $6.34 to the annual tax bill of the average County homeowner. Since the increase falls within the State-imposed property tax cap, that amount of increase would be returned to homeowners by the State under the new property tax freeze law. The recommended budget also includes a 7% reduction in the County solid waste fee. The budget maintains fiscal discipline, with minimal appropriation of County reserves and spending growth held to just 1.6% over 2014.
“The 2015 budget is characterized by continuity and restraint,” County Administrator Joe Mareane states in his Budget Message to the Legislature. “Departments have done an admirable job of maintaining services while still complying with budget targets that required a 1% across-the-board cut in non-mandated local costs. The budget allows us to maintain vital services, increase our investment in County infrastructure, and set aside funds for modest wage growth for our employees.”
The budget holds the number of employees steady—7% below the peak level of 2009—and addresses several emerging priorities, including temporary relief for the County airport; funding near-term recommendations of the Jail Alternatives Task Force; and continuing to address County living wage goals. The Administrator notes that, again this year, the budget is the product of contradictory trends—while some parts of the budget benefit from a growing economy, effects of the economic recovery have not extended to the demand for human service programs, where mandated expenses remain at a highly elevated level.
The Recommended Budget supports total expenditures of $180 million (up 1.6%) and local dollar spending of $83.3 million (an increase of 2.0%). The 2.34% tax levy increase is below the projected 2.65% property tax cap. Because property values are rising faster than the County’s tax levy, the 2015 County property tax rate would decline by 5 cents per thousand, to $6.84 per $1,000. The combination of a lower tax rate and higher property values will mean that the owner of a $165,000 median-valued home will pay $6.34 more in County taxes next year, with the State rebate offsetting that increase. The County Solid Waste Fee also would decrease from $56 to $52, reducing the overall budget impact on the average county homeowner to $2.34.
Regarding labor costs, the budget reflects reduced pension costs resulting from a projected decline in rates for the New York State Employee Retirement System, and a 5% increase in employee health care costs. All of the County’s labor contracts will have expired at the end of 2014. Funds have been set aside to settle those contracts. The local cost of mandated programs remains relatively stable—up by 1% from the current year—with the local cost of Medicaid projected to decline. Medicaid will, however, remain the County’s largest single program and, at $11.7 million, and consume 25% of the County’s property tax levy. Through the budget, the County continues implementation of plans approved for 2014 that stabilize sponsored and partner agencies, such as Tompkins County Area Development and the Tompkins County Public Library.
Among priority areas addressed in the recommended budget,
- Basic infrastructure: Investments in the 5-year Capital Program are targeted to keep existing roads, bridges, and County facilities safe and in good repair. A 0.5% increase in the tax levy is committed to support the County’s 20-year Capital Plan.
- Airport finances: To stabilize Airport finances and foster measures to improve passenger levels, the budget recommends a three-year suspension of the $126,000 payment made to the County for administrative services, to be offset by appropriation of reserves and not affecting property taxes.
- Alternatives to incarceration: The budget recommends funding of the near-term recommendations of the Jail Alternatives Task Force, including an allocation for an additional staff person at Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR) to assist with the bail program and provide additional case management services.
- Living Wage: County funds are recommended to bring employees of one contract agency to the AFCU living wage; the Human Services Coalition, as part of the budget, is providing support for another agency to achieve the living wage standard.
The 2015 Recommended Budget is posted on the County website. Public copies are available for review at the County Administration office, 125 East Court Street (3rd Floor), and at the Office of the County Legislature, 121 East Court Street.