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Franklin County lawmakers eye 5 percent tax hike

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MALONE - The Franklin County Board of Legislators finance committee has enough support from the full board to support a 5 percent tax levy increase for the 2014 tentative budget.

But some lawmakers want the county to keep the levy increase below the state’s tax cap –– a level officials have said is possible to reach.

Legislators Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, Sue Robideau, R-Brushton, Tim Lashomb, R-Malone, and Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, supported the 5 percent increase during a budget work session Wednesday.

Legislators Tim Smith, D-Fort Covington, and Gordon Crossman, D-Malone, said they didn’t support it, while board Chairman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said he was going to remain “open-minded.”

Mr. Burpoe, the finance committee chairman, said Wednesday that he asked County Manager Tom Leitz, also the county’s chief budget officer, to devise a list of scenarios showing what would happen if the board decided to raise the tax levy increase over the 2.99 percent state-mandated tax cap, which has already been calculated by Leitz as a possibility. Leitz came up with what the financial picture would look like if the board voted in favor of raising the increase to 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 percent.

Each increase would generate more funds than the county would need under the current spending plan.

The board ultimately decided to leave it to the next Board of Legislators, which will be seated in January, to decide what to do with the extra money. The incoming board will have three new members, as Mr. Burpoe opted not to seek re-election and Ms. Robideau and Mr. Lashomb were defeated in the November election.

“The idea is to replenish our fund balance,” Mr. Burpoe said.

A declining fund balance was one of the issues highlighted in a recent audit of county finances released by the state Comptroller’s Office. The board was chastised for using the fund balance to offset its expenses.

The 5 percent levy increase was supported in the finance committee by Mr. Burpoe and Mr. Maroun, while Mr. Smith, the third member of the committee, opposed the idea. The 2-1 split meant the recommendation was forwarded to the full board for approval.

Mr. Smith said he has received backlash from constituents who want the county to stay below the cap, since officials have already proven that it’s possible.

“It’s hard to argue with that,” he said.

Ms. Robideau spoke favorably of the 5 percent increase, noting that if the county does not go above the cap this year itcould mean a double-digit tax increase in 2015.

Mr. Lashomb said he was in favor of raising the levy increase, but was concerned about a companion proposal to borrow $1.25 million from the county’s retirement stabilization fund. However, all of the budet scenarios studied –– including the original tentative budget with an 8.76 percent levy increase –– included borrowing $1 million from the stabilization fund, according to officials.

Mr. Leitz added that not borrowing the money would in itself increase the tax levy by 8 percentage points.

Mr. Crossman said he was concerned about raising tha tax levy because of people who are on fixed incomes and could be hurt financially by a larger tax increase.

Mr. Jones, who seemed undecided about whether to raise the levy, said, “I think if we hold the line one more year, it proves we can do it.”

A point of contention for the board was the suggestionthat those who pay county taxes do not use many, if any, of the services the county provides.

Mr. Burpoe noted that the county is the “safety net,” providing services for those who don’t pay taxes because they don’t own property. He noted that the Department of Social Services is the largest of county departments and employs the most people.

“I think that’s the rub,” Mr. Jones said.

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