TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — County Administrator Jason Molino released his proposed budget on Monday evening, the first look for county residence at what should shape up to be a difficult budget in light of the economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposed $189 million spending plan proposes a tax levy increase is 4.97 percent, while the budget itself decreased by about #3.7 million year over year. The tax rate would increase for the first time in six years, by 1.17 percent, to $6.38 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The budget also recommends a solid waste annual fee increase of $5, which would bring it up to $65. The median home price in Tompkins was up in 2020, so that average homeowner with a home valued at $200,000, would see their tax bill increase by $83, according to Molino’s budget message to the legislature.
“While we have no understanding as to what the future may or may not hold, I think we’ve put together a reasonable approach for the budget process to start, which is with the legislature,” said Molino before presenting his budget to the legislature.
There is not much mystery to what forced the county’s hand when it comes to breaking their streak of tax rate decreases. Decreases in sales tax revenue have been driven largely by the closure of higher education institutions shutting down in the spring during what is usually its busiest time of the year, as well as high unemployment decreasing household spending, have left the county with a significant budget hole — $4.7 million short of what the county projected for sales tax revenue in its 2020 budget. Couple that drop in revenue with the rising costs of social services due to the disarray created by the economic fallout of COVID-19, like spikes in SNAP applications, Medicaid cases, Safety Net cases and HEAP cases — and you have some sense of the factors being accounted for in Molino’s proposed budget.
The county is also contending with a withholding of sales tax revenue by the state as well as substantial drops in other revenue sources, like casino taxes, which in Tompkins amount to roughly $2 million in 2019.
This levy increase exceeds the county’s tax cap by .88 percent. The recommended budget calls for a $1.2 million decrease in local spending, and a reduction of the County’s full-time equivalent positions by just over 6 percent. To meet the county’s need to reduce spending on its workforce, the budget eliminates 47 full-time-equivalent positions budgeted for by the county in its 2020 spending plan, while effectively laying off zero employees.
“To support those 18 employees, our Human Resources Department worked diligently and in partnership with the department heads from Social Service, Health, Mental Health, Assessment and Probation, to develop a placement strategy to match impacted employees’ qualifications with those departments that need to fill vacant positions. As a result, all the impacted employees will be offered a vacant position if they want one,” Molino said in his budget message. “In short, any existing employee whose position is proposed to be eliminated in 2021 that wants a job with the County, will have one.”
While the causes are no mystery, what lies ahead for Tompkins County in fiscal year 2021 is anybody’s guess.
The governor usually proposes a budget in early January before hammering out an agreement between the senate, assembly and the governor’s office by April 1, the beginning of New York’s fiscal year. While in Tompkins, the announcement of this budget proposal signals the beginning of budget season, which usually ends in November. That means the county will be four months into whatever budget it adopts by the time the state clarifies its budget priorities and potential cuts become more clear.
The 2021 budget presents a unique challenge in that there is no certainty what sort of federal aid could be on the way, and in turn, no clear sense of what cuts the state may make. Molino says the county is bumping the amount of money in its contingent fund by about $1 million — to $1.9 million and also added that the county will need to be flexible to reacting to the state budget that finally materializes in early April.
“I would say the next two months (after the state budget is passed), May and June, we will have to react. They adopt in April and ours starts in January. We’re already a quarter into the year when the state adopts its budget.”