ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County government officials unveiled a proposed budget for 2016 on Tuesday.
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It mostly — but not entirely — consists of good news for local taxpayers.
Those who think the county takes far too much of their income already, for instance, probably won’t be pleased.
And there’s also the risk that the budget is too optimistic: Against expectations, county sales tax revenue fell in the first two quarters in 2015. The proposed budget assumes that’s an aberration, but county officials also acknowledge they could also be wrong.
That said, the budget mostly reflects Tompkins’ relative economic strength — with a small tax levy increase, no layoffs of county employees and modest growth for most county departments — built on generally rosy expectations for the region’s future.
Below are answers to five key questions about County Administrator Joe Mareane’s proposed budget for 2016.
(We’ll be writing additional stories as the budget process winds its way through the county government; the Tompkins County Legislature will vote on — and likely change — the budget.
Did we miss your question? If so, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it here.)
1 — What’s happening to my tax bill?
2 — Is the county slated to spend more or less taxpayer money in 2016?
3 — How is N.Y. state affecting my county tax bill?
4 — Are there increases to other fees for county taxpayers?
5 — Are county healthcare costs still flying out of control?
1 — County tax rates falls, though tax bills will rise
In 2015, county taxpayers paid $6.86 in property taxes for every $1,000 in home value. Administrator Mareane wants that to fall to $6.74 for 2016.
Now, if your property tax rate stays the same this is of course welcome news — your property tax bill will be lower than this upcoming year than the year before. But county assessments of home values are rising all over the county — meaning that, overall, more people will be paying more money in taxes.
As a result, the average homeowner’s county tax bill is expected to go from $1,131 in 2015 to $1,146 in 2016, according to Mareane.
The tax levy overall would increase by about $600,000 under the proposed budget, Mareane said.
2 — Is the county spending more or less taxpayer money?
Under Mareane’s proposal, Tompkins County will spend more taxpayer money in 2016 than it did in 2015.
Overall, the budget would increase from $169.7 million in 2015 to $171.1 million in 2016. That’s a 1.9 percent increase.
Here are some of the biggest new expenses:
— A $580,000 increase in county automotive equipment, including for new sheriff’s department vehicles and snow plows.
“With the downturn a few years ago, we had to reduce our spending on vehicles … so (staff has) been driving around in vehicles that are increasingly aged and infirm,” Mareane said.
— There’s a state mandate that will slot in a $850,000 increase in pre-K funding; that’s up 15 percent from the previous year.
— There’s also a few county positions being added, including a new staff member in the finance department and an additional dispatcher for the Tompkins County 911 Dispatch Center.
3 — Unfunded mandates rolled back
The rise in the overall county budget comes despite a reduction in some of the expenses Tompkins gets mandated by the state every year.
“I don’t recall a year, ever, where the overall cost of a mandate was down. That happened this year,” Mareane said, noting that the overall cost of the county’s mandate to pay for Human Services was falling significantly.
Additionally, county Medicaid spending — as mandated by the state — is projected to fall from $12.4 million in 2013 to $11.5 million in 2016.
“Post-recession we went into the stratosphere with some of the mandated costs,” Mareane said. This year, some of those numbers fall closer to Earth.
Mareane added that DSS will be freed up of five positions — all through attrition — which will also free up some revenue.
“It’s a good news story: Because caseloads are down, they’ve been able to operate with fewer people,” he said, “and the state is picking up a few more responsibilities and relieving us.”
4 — Are there other new fees for taxpayers?
Well, there’s at least one: a rise in the county’s “solid waste” fee.
In 2015, Tompkins residents paid $52 in an annual fee to held fund the county’s Solid Waste and Management Division, which handles local recycling.
But Mareane said that because the value of commodities is shrinking, the solid waste department is getting less money back from the recycled products they sell. Because of that change, the county is hoping to increase residents’ annual solid waste fee to $56.
5 — Are healthcare costs still flying out of control?
Short answer: No, not really. They’ve actually been reigned in significantly.
Mareane credited this reduction to negotiations that produced new health benefits plans with county unions, as well as a consortium that studied the issue carefully.
Healthcare costs have soared over the last decade. Now, however, they’re expected to remain relatively flat — giving lawmakers some more wiggle room.
“What had been a source of instability is now stable,” Mareane said. “It’s not just good rhetoric.”
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