TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. ––The Tompkins County Legislature approved a tentative budget on Thursday, meaning the proposed budget will now advance to a public hearing and subsequently a scheduled vote in mid-November. 

The tentative budget has been approved for $180 million overall. The estimated total tax levy is $52,399,459, with a tax rate of $6.21, meaning the taxes on a median-priced home of $200,000 would be $1,242. The proposed tax levy increase currently sits at 2.21 percent, less than half of what was initially brought forth by the Tompkins County administration back in September when budget talks began. 

Notably, the budget as of Thursday also looks to draw on the county’s reserves more than Tompkins Administrator Jason Molino had projected early on –– the initial budget had called for a $1.24 million usage of reserves funding, but county legislators are instead looking for $2.62 million. Molino said the higher reserves draw was enacted to help drive down the property tax impact on residents, and that the county is still maintaining an amount in its fund balance that is equivalent with at least 18 percent of its total budget, in accordance with best budgetary practices. Years of relative financial health, he said, have put the county in a position to help offset potential property tax rises this upcoming year, even if that’s only a one-year fix.

Early in the budget process Administrator Molino had laid out some of the damning effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the county’s spending power next year, exemplified by a $189 million initial proposed budget that was a 1.89 percent decrease from 2019’s adopted budget (that number was corrected later in the process, meaning Molino really started at about $180 million). That was primarily driven by a predictable but still steep decline in sales tax revenue, to the tune of $4.7 million under projections, and going forward Molino projected that revenue from sales taxes in 2021 would still fall about 8.7 percent short of normal.

Compounding the issue is Governor Andrew Cuomo withholding some state aid, and diverting other portions of it, while keeping in place the notorious unfunded mandates that New York has placed on municipalities to increasingly fuel in recent years. 

“The Governor has been forthcoming in stating publicly that in the absence of federal relief, localities should expect a cut in state aid to the tune of 20 percent or greater,” Molino wrote in his budget introduction. “While any action taken this year may only impact the current fiscal year, it is likely to carry over into future years. These three areas alone—sales tax, mandates, and state aid—explain much of the pressure on the County budget.”

In May, department heads within county government were given a task –– prepare a budget for 2021 that would show no growth and an additional budget for each department that would show 12 percent cuts to each. Due to the length and severity of the coronavirus economic impact, Molino said the plans including 12 percent cuts were the starting point for negotiations. 

In a bit of a silver lining, the county was able to avoid laying anyone off as part of the budget cutbacks. Overall, 47 positions that had been created as part of previous budgets were on the chopping block, but only 18 are actually filled by employees currently. Molino said that if those employees wish to remain employed by the county, they will be able to do so. 

“COVID‐19 has forced countless employers across the region and country to downsize, increasing the number of people unemployed,” the budget states. “Tompkins County will not be one of the employers contributing increased unemployment rates.”

There were 36 amendments proposed during the entirety of the budget discussion process over the last two months, of which 26 have been approved by the county’s Expanded Budget Committee. The full list of approvals and denials can be found here, though the most sizable was a $1.13 million allocation from the fund balance approved Tuesday, in order to reduce the budget’s impact on the tax levy. The amendment was introduced by legislator Anna Kelles.

Another amendment approved Oct. 19, brought back $60,000 in funding for the Community Outreach Worker Program that works with local residents struggling with a variety of maladies like unstable housing or mental illness, matching the City of Ithaca’s contribution to the program. The county’s initial budget had cut the funding for the program, which would have reduced the number of workers to just one. 

The tentative budget did have one slight change on Thursday night, granting an extra $20,000 which will go to Legal Assistance of Western New York, designated for the early intervention homelessness prevention program (a previous request had asked for $40,000 but was rejected). Only legislator Mike Lane voted against the measure, feeling it should have been introduced earlier so the legislature could have had more information. 

A public hearing will be held on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. to speak on the budget, with time remaining for potential amendments. Without any unscheduled changes, there will be a final budget vote on Nov. 17.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com