October 22, 2021

County mulls diverting sales tax revenue permanently

The discussion hadn’t yet died Thursday night on moving $250,000 from an account funded by the sales tax to pay for repairs to the Cortland County Jail when legislators mentioned permanently moving money from sales tax revenue to a more general reserve fund.

County legislators will discuss next month at a Budget and Finance Committee whether they should amend or rescind a resolution on how it allocates $1.5 million in sales tax revenue. That income, under a separate resolution, is taken off the top of all county sales taxes before the rest is divided among municipalities.

As legislators discussed Thursday moving $250,000 from the jail reserve fund into the county’s general fund, Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) said he wanted to see more effort to explain what the money would be used for. He wants the same to happen with the next discussion.

“I think it’s critical that we decide together what decisions need to be made,” he said Friday morning. “I’m not opposed to us making a change.”

The resolution to transfer funds passed 15-2, with Harbin and Legislator Ann Homer (D-Cortland) voting no.

Homer said that she believed the motion to transfer money violated resolution 226-18.

That resolution established that $1.5 million in sales tax revenue would go to the county before the rest is divided between the county and municipalities. Of that $1.5 million, $1 million would go into a jail reserve account for future jail repairs, $300,000 goes to paying off debt and $200,000 goes toward paying off a bond the county has for the emergency communications tower project.

Clerk of the Legislature Eric Mulvihill said Friday morning that legislators have suggested changing the destination for that money to a capital reserve account to be used on various capital projects, such as paying to repair or replace of county building roofs, like the one at the County Office Building which began leaking during heavy rains Friday, he said.

Or it could be used to help fund the $5.1 million repairs needed at the Cortland County Courthouse, including almost $700,000 needed to fix the front steps.

Harbin said he understands that thinking, but added that dealing with the jail isn’t over yet.

“There’s still work to be done in that facility and it is an aging facility and we can’t bury our heads in the sand to say that there won’t need to be work done on in that facility,” he said.

However, he added, changing the destination for the funds to a general capital reserve fund would “be fine as long as we actually honor the fact these are reserve accounts.”

He said that there have been times while he was in office and for the many years before him where reserve accounts were raided to help the county with other costs.

However, he also said that a one-time withdrawal to help the county keep taxes flat as it battles through the pandemic and significant losses of revenue is not something he’s averse to. Still, even that needs to be talked about openly.

He also wants municipal leaders to sit in on the talks because they went along with the sales tax agreement with the understanding that the money off the top was being used for specific items.

“If we’re going to change that, we should bring them on board, let them know what the plan is,” he said.