ITHACA, NY – On Tuesday, County Administrator Joe Mareane laid out the recommended budget for Tompkins County in 2017. Here’s the key points, including the question on everyone’s mind: how it will affect tax bills.

Mareane characterized the budget as “low-growth,” with county spending being increased by less than one percent. The overall tax levy — the total amount collected from taxpayers — will be increasing by three percent.

However, the tax base in Tompkins also grew by 4.5 percent, meaning that the tax burden is spread out a little bit more and the actual tax rate for each taxpayer is going down by 1.5 percent. Offsetting this is the fact that many people saw their property assessments increase — the median home value is $5,000 higher in 2017 than it was in 2016.

What this all adds up to is an approximate $16 property tax bill increase for a median-valued $175,000 home.

The three percent increase does bump past the state-set “tax cap” of 2.22 percent. In previous years, this would mean that residents would not receive “tax freeze” rebate checks, but that program is no longer in effect, so there is no direct penalty for going over the tax cap.

So why the increase?

Half of the tax levy increase goes to offset low sales tax income in the county. Retail has been on the downswing in the county for the past two years. While the county is projecting some recovery in 2017, there is still a substantial deficit — nearly $700,000 — to make up.

Mareane explained that the sales tax figures are an anomaly — the local and national economy are both doing well, which should lead to more sales. For some as-yet-undetermined reason, this simply isn’t happening. Mareane pointed out that sales tax figures statewide are showing no particular pattern, either. Sales tax performance is at its lowest level in 20 years.

Another half a percent will go toward infrastructure improvement projects. According to Mareane this is a standing increase set by County policy, and it is a part of every budget.

The last one percent covers “everything else” in the budget. The biggest pieces of “everything else” include:

  • Labor: 1.3 percent increase in labor costs due to wage and benefit growth and 10.8 new full-time equivalent positions.
  • State mandates: There are a number of programs that the state mandates the county pay for, such as Medicaid, psychiatric care, and family assistance programs. These costs are generally in flux year-to-year based on need and other factors. One notable increase for the 2017 budget is a $100,000 increase recommended for indigent legal defense. The state is considering legislation that would greatly expand the number of people who qualify for county-funded legal defense, and this increase is to prepare for that.
  • Capital reinvestment: $233,000 in additional infrastructure improvements, or paying down debts on already-authorized projects. In particular, the county has invested in a $200,000 per year “Natural Infrastructure” program designed to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events, which are expected to become more common due to climate change.
  • Contingencies: A $230,000 (offset by similar savings in the county’s pension system) were put toward a contingency fund to cover potential budgetary risks, including sales and indigent defense costs as noted above, as well as potential cost for boarding out inmates from the Tompkins jail
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What wasn’t funded

No one likes to see a tax increase, but it’s worth noting that it could have theoretically been a lot worse.

Various county departments and agencies submit Over Target Requests (OTRs) to help them fund various projects and programs. Some of them, such as a $408,000 request for new highway equipment, were recommended for the budget. Many others were not.

All told, county departments requested $3.14 million worth of funds. If all of these were fulfilled, it would have raised the tax levy by an additional $1.58 million — more than double the $1.4 million increase under the current recommended budget. In addition, it would draw $1.5 million from the county’s reserves.

The recommended budget provides for $1.74 million in OTRs, most of which ($1.38 million) is drawn from reserves, and about $330,000 coming from the tax levy increase.

Some notable OTRs not met or not completely met in the recommended budget (all figures approximations):

  • $22,000 for the Office for the Aging
  • $38,000 for the Health Department
  • $89,000 for Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR)
  • $100,000 for the Planning Department
  • $600,000 for the Sheriff’s Office and Jail
  • $125,000 for the Tompkins Public Library

Of course, this is the recommended budget and thus is not finalized. These various departments will be able to plead their cases as to why they should get more funding while the legislature works through the budget in the coming months.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.