A recent policy proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and enacted in New York State has placed Tompkins County in a difficult situation, according to local officials.
“We think the whole paradigm is wrong,” said County Administrator Joe Mareane.
The policy in question, which was passed in an effort to get counties across the state to reduce their spending and their property taxes, is the New York State Property Tax Freeze Plan.
The plan focuses on the promise that the state will reimburse all homeowners for any increase in their property taxes, provided that the counties they live in meet two major requirements:
1 — Counties’ tax increase stays below the 2% tax cap
2 — Counties reduce their spending by 1% of their total tax levy
The first requirement deals with the idea of a tax cap. This says that counties can only increase property taxes by a maximum of a certain percentage of their current tax rates. In New York State in 2012, this was implemented and set at 2%, or about $900,000 for Tompkins County.
The second requirement asks counties to, through various methods, reduce their total spending by at least 1% of their tax levy, or the total amount of money they receive from property taxes. In Tompkins County, which received $45 million according to Mareane, the amount of savings needed is $450,000.
Counties need to submit a plan to reduce their savings by June 1, 2015.
Savings from the past are considered within the assessment of the total amount for the year, so if a county instituted a change that saves $100,000 every year, that is not considered a one-time saving.
Unfortunately for Tompkins County, any changes made before 2012 are not considered.
“So if you did a grand consolidation of shared services, as we did in 2011,” Mareane said, “they’re oblivious to it. They don’t want to know about that.”
This has created a problem for Tompkins County, which enacted major cost-saving legislation prior to 2012. In 2011, the county began having nearly all of its local government buy health insurance plans together, saving around one million dollars, according to Mareane.
Additionally, the county has a consolidated 911 service, a community college shared between two counties, a county-wide assessment office and an agreement with Cornell and the City of Ithaca to provide a non-profit bus service. All of these policies generated major savings when they were enacted.
“We’re not complacent,” Mareane said, “but we’re proud of what we’ve done. We have a county-wide assessment office. There’s one other county in NYS (that) has that, it’s very efficient. We did that 40 years ago. We have a county-wide 911 center. Other counties have done it, often more slowly than us. We’ve done it.”
Mareane identified the problem as having to do with the amount of savings actually left, with all of these other changes being off the table.
“I don’t even want to call it low hanging fruit that doesn’t exist anymore, it’s high hanging fruit that we’ve reached here, so the question is, ‘What’s left?’ ”
Mareane was pessimistic about the county’s ability to meet the amount of savings that it needed, saying “When you look at it, you know there’s always something to be done, but there isn’t anything, I don’t think, that can tally up to the 1% threshold.”