Niagara Gazette

November 25, 2013

Proposed county budget drives nominal tax cut

STAFF REPORTS
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — An average 12-cent tax rate cut is in the offing in the proposed 2014 county budget released last week by County Manager Jeffrey Glatz.

The tentative $333 million spending plan is financed from income sources including county property tax collection of $72.8 million. The tax levy would be reduced by $378,000 or 0.5 percent compared to this year’s levy.

The projected average tax rate is $7.60 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s 12 cents or 1.6 percent less than the 2013 average rate.

The budget projects $5.9 million of increased net county spending next year. The lion’s share of the increase is consumed by two mandatory items: “Safety Net,” the state-ordered welfare program whose total county cost is on track to increase by $2.1 million, to $7.4 million; and health insurance for county employees and retirees, the tab for which is set to rise by $2.3 million, to $28.6 million.

To offset the health insurance increase, Budget Director Daniel Huntington said, all non-union employees will start paying 10 percent of the cost of their premiums in 2014. County legislators who take insurance have been paying 20 percent for several years.

There is no offsetting the Safety Net increase. The state program, also referred to as “Temporary Assistance,” provides cash benefits to non-working poor after federal welfare benefits, which are limited to 5 years, expire. The state used to split the cost of Safety Net with its counties 50/50, but in 2011 shifted the formula so that counties are now picking up 71 percent of the cost.

Niagara County resident enrollment in Safety Net has risen steadily since 2000, according to Glatz. As of September 2013, more than half of all welfare cases are Safety Net, which is not time-limited. New York is the only state in the country that has such a program, Glatz observed.

The county’s Medicaid tab for resident recipients will decrease by nearly 1 percent or $447,000 next year. That’s only due to the county having to make less weekly payment to the state in 2014, however, according to Huntington. 

On the revenue side, the budget projects a 4 percent increase in county sales tax collection, up to $64.5 million next year. The county would distribute $47.7 million to its towns and cities and treat the rest as county income.

Another rising revenue source is general fund balance. The budget proposes to transfer $12.5 million out of savings, 3 percent or $374,000 more than was taken from fund balance this year.

The increase in fund balance spending nearly mirrors the reduction in the tax levy. Put another way, withdrawing more from savings is what enables the tax rate cut. Legislative Majority Caucus Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, last month encouraged Glatz to do just that.

The tentative budget shows funding for 1,387 full-time county jobs, 13 fewer than in this year’s budget. Eliminated positions include eight jobs in the county refuse district, where the C&D landfill was closed earlier this year, and a grant-funded criminal investigator’s post. Most eliminated positions were either vacant or employees were transferred to other jobs, Huntington said.

Five newly created full-time positions are budgeted: two grant-funded public defenders, a deputy sheriff, a microcomputer specialist and a geographical information system analyst.

Non-union county employees will receive a 2 percent pay increase next year. Union employees’ wages are frozen at 2012 levels, reflecting expiration of their collective bargaining agreements with the county, but longevity bonuses and step increases will be paid, according to Glatz.

In 2014 special district funds, the water tax levy is rising by 1.4 percent, the sewer tax levy is rising by 0.8 percent and the refuse tax levy will be reduced by 14 percent.

The legislature will hold public hearings on the various funds’ proposed budgets Dec. 3. Budget adoption votes will be held Dec. 17.