December 1, 2021

Legislators hold off decision on finance items

Cortland County Seal

Following four public hearings Thursday, four resolutions related to county finances — including the 2020 budget — were pulled from the Cortland County Legislature agenda, meaning legislators will probably not consider them again until after November’s general election.

The measures would have considered a proposed $142.8 million budget, breaking the state’s property tax cap to allow a 7% increase in the property tax levy to fund that budget, increasing the county’s constitutional tax limit to 2% from 1.5% and to inform city taxpayers they will be charged extra on their property tax bills to pay a fee the city is charging the county to collect the payments.

  • Increasing the county constitutional tax limit

No reason was given to explain why it was pulled. The resolution would allow the county to tax up to 2% of the value of property in the county, or $48 million, from 1.5%, or about $36 million. The state Comptroller’s Office had chided the county for being so close to the limit, but the proposed 2020 budget would have levied $37.9 million, probably over it.

Tony Pace, a former legislator and Cortland resident, said during a public hearing that legislators should consider it.

“I think it’s a safety valve you can use here,” he said. “It is not a green light to go hog-wild on spending.”

  • Local Law “K” of 2019, overriding the tax levy cap

Speakers at a public hearing were largely opposed to breaking the cap, 3.74% this year.

“We live in a county where two-thirds of families live paycheck to paycheck,” said Homer resident Richard Berry.

“These families simply cannot afford a 7% increase.”

“This is merely an insurance policy in case we make a mistake or if the budget gets passed as is,” said Legislator George Wagner (R- Marathon, Lapeer).

The county did make a calculation mistake in 2016, said Eric Mulvihill, the clerk of the Legislature.

However, during a discussion on the item several legislators said they didn’t want to exceed the cap. Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland) said she was going to vote against the law because she promised her constituents not to exceed the tax cap.

“I wouldn’t want to vote on it tonight to inhibit us from making the tough decisions,” said Legislator Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil).

  • Adoption of the 2020 budget

Wagner pulled the item from the agenda. Many of the legislators have previously said they want to work on the budget more to find spending cuts.

The proposed $142.8 million plan would raise spending 6.4%, raise the property tax levy 7% to $37.9 million.

Wagner had previously suggested using an additional $1.2 million from existing funds on top of $500,000 already proposed in the spending plan to lower the tax levy increase.

Many residents also spoke on the effect of raising taxes.

“I got a lot of neighbors in their 90s and have been widowed for 20, 30 years with no income and Social Security doesn’t cover it,” Pace said. “They can’t even afford garbage bags in the city. You can’t do this to them. You’ve got to keep this within the tax cap.”

He supported Wagner’s idea to use a total of $1.7 million from the general fund to lower taxes.

Some people spoke to how raising taxes makes it harder for new homebuyers as well.

“You have failed,” former legislator Jim Denkenberger said. He also said a few days ago, as he got a haircut, someone had told him she had just moved to Cortland County. “I looked at her and I said, get out.”

  • Local Law “M” to place a fee on city taxpayers’ bills to fund a city fee for collecting county taxes

The county is short around $123,000 in property tax revenue for this year after the city implemented a 1.5% fee to process property tax payments earlier this year.

The county may recover the loss by adding it to the city’s share of the levy for 2020, raising the property tax bills for city taxpayers.

Further, even if the law isn’t passed, Legislature Chairman Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) said the county would still add the amount of the 1.5% onto the city’s tax levy to account for the amount the city would be taking — only it would be done in the background calculations.

Whitney said this morning he was unsure whether that process would require Legislature approval.

The law, said he and Karen Spafford, the director of Real Property Tax Services, was to be transparent with city residents.

Whitney said county officials have met with Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin and Mack Cook, the city’s director of Administration and Finance, to hash out the problem, to no avail.

Legislator Kelly Preston (R- Homer) said it goes back to inter-municipal fighting and that “people need to grow up.”

However, Legislator Ann Homer (D-Cortland) said the county should become the adults in the situation because the city taxpayers are the ones losing.

“I don’t support what the mayor and his group has decided to do,” Homer said. “I left kindergarten 53 years ago. I’m tired of the playing of little boys in the sandbox kicking sand in each others eyes, somebody has to be the adult here.”