December 1, 2021

County budget plan: Spending down, levy up

Cortland County property taxpayers could expect to see an increase in the tax levy exceeding the state tax cap, even though spending would decrease $5.3 million for the 2021 budget, according to a budget proposal released Tuesday afternoon.

“Cortland County department heads were tasked with developing budgets without the benefit of knowing how much state aid this county may or may not receive next year,” County Administrator Rob Corpora told legislators at a special meeting. “The lack of reliable state and other estimates has presented a tremendous challenge in crafting this spending plan.”

The county would have a $137.4 million budget, down 3.8% from the adopted $142.8 million 2020 budget. The tax levy would increase 2.8%, though, to $37.5 million for 2021 from around $36.5 million in 2020.

“We are unfortunately going to be going over the tax cap,” Corpora said. “It would be unrealistic to try and get below that threshold.”

The property tax cap, which the state set at 1.56% for Cortland County, can be broken by a 60% supermajority of the Legislature. The Budget and Finance Committee already voted, 6-1, to break the cap. Legislator Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) voted no.

Legislator Linda Jones (R-Homer) asked what the penalties would be for going over the tax cap.

Corpora said the county could lose $50,000 in reimbursement for Raise the Age funding, but that would be the only penalty.

“It has been over- — I’m not going to say exaggerated — but over-emphasized in the past years,” Corpora said.

He added the state may withhold the funding regardless of whether the county goes over the tax cap, given the state’s economic pain because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Corpora said the COVID pandemic caused increasing challenges with both this year’s budget and crafting the 2021 budget.

“It would be easy to simply pass the burden on to our already overburdened property taxpayers but that is simply not fair and is irresponsible at a time when many families are finding themselves out of work, struggling with lost wages due to reduction in hours or lost revenue at their own small businesses,” Corpora said.

Property taxpayers will see about a 1% increase in their property tax rates, going to $15.85 per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2021 from $15.69 per 1,000.

The county will take around $855,000 from reserves to offset the gap between spending and revenue, down 55% from last year when it used $1.9 million.

Corpora said one large increase in savings — more than $1 million — will be with employee health insurance. Corpora did not elaborate on what changes were being made.

The county also expects more than $700,000 a year in savings from the voluntary retirement incentive program the county implemented. Ten employees accepted the offer — one in building and grounds, one in the sheriff’s office, two in the health department, five in the social services department and one in the highway department. The program allowed employees to retire and receive a one-time payment of $10,000 if they met certain criteria.

Corpora recommended setting the 2021 sales tax revenue at $27.5 million, down about 10% from the adopted 2020 budget of $30.5 million. The department request was $26 million for 2021, which would be a 14.8% decrease.

Clerk of the Legislature Eric Mulvihill said if the county has no significant changes to the budget, it’s looking at voting on the budget at its Nov. 19 meeting. A public hearing is set for Oct. 22.