Central Valley lawmaker supports effort but says Woodbury deserves more from sales tax revenue.

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:51

    Orange County Executive Edward Diana's proposed budget includes no increase in the sales tax rate and a decrease in the property tax rate. The budget calls for total spending of $515.29 million, an increase of 6 percent over this year's $487.13. The county will raise $247.71 million through taxes. The sales tax will remain at 3.25 percent, and is anticipated to generate some $202.66 million, of which the county will hold $152.30 million. The balance, $50.36 million will be shared among the county's 40 cities, towns and villages. The property tax rate will be reduced next year, from $3.49 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $3.38 per $1,000, a decline of 11 cents, or 3 percent. Diana said past tax collections and a strong local economy made the reduction possible. Diana's budget calls for $11.93 million in accumulated surplus to offset taxes for 2005. That's $2 million more than was applied to the 2004 budget. However, all is not coming up roses. Diana had some harsh words for the state and federal governments, and some gloomy economic predictions. "Unfunded mandates placed upon us by the federal and state governments, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the national recession have all combined to threaten the economic prosperity and financial stability we have worked so hard to achieve," Diana said. According to the county executive, the county has been reducing positions, consolidating departments and revising internal policies to save money. "We are continuing to monitor travel and training budgets," he said. "All equipment purchases are carefully analyzed. We are continually working to tighten our belts even further." However, the budget includes nine new positions, all in the Sheriff's department. Diana is proposing two undercover investigators and seven additional corrections officers. But Diana noted that 75 percent of the taxes Orange County collects pay for unfunded mandates imposed by higher levels of government. For example, New York State will require county taxpayers to come up with $3.2 million more than last year for Medicaid - a total cost of $73 million. Early intervention services for county handicapped students is up 11 percent to $23.5 million in 2005. Pension costs - partly the result of the bursting of the stock market bubble - are up 16 percent to $14 million. Despite the problems, Diana said, "thanks to early action we are ahead of the curve." Legislator Michael Amo of Central Valley called the budget reasonable and fair "given the constraints we have with state and federal mandates." "My committee, Social Services, oversees a lot of the federal and state mandated programs, and I have seen the increases in costs to us," Amo added. "Social Services programs will cost $179 million, including Medicaid. The federal government has six programs that are required, and another 20 or so that are voluntary. New York State mandates providing most of those programs." Amo also created Diana with pushing for a sale tax increase last year. "That was forward thinking," the lawmaker from the town of Woodbury said. "We're in good financial shape because of it, and we just got Moody's top rating, which is a help when we borrow. "A large portion of the sales tax comes to the county via Woodbury Common," he added. "The county should realize that this is an important revenue source, and it should be helping Woodbury with infrastructure improvements. Under the current formula, Woodbury is compensated the same as other towns, based on population." Alan Seidman, the Legislature Chairman, said a public hearing on the budget is planned for 7 p.m. Oct. 20 in the county Government Center. One set of items Seidman expects to take a close look at - but without much support from his colleagues - is the list of private arts, land protection and planning organizations that will receive county funding. "We are elected to by the public to watch their money, and we shouldn't delegate that to a private organization. If we want to protect open space we should do it through our Parks Department - buy the land and hold it ourselves. I've been opposing this spending for years, but I know I won't get any support." "We'll be going over it line by line," he said. "We'll discuss it thoroughly. Legislator Thomas Pahucki of New Hampton was less upbeat about the budget than Diana and some of his colleagues, like Amo. "I hate to say, ‘I told you so,'" he said. "We didn't need to raise the sales tax last year." Pahucki described the executive's budget as "costly," and suggested that "he (Diana) took more from the taxpayers than he's giving back." By overcharging in one year, Diana can offer a tax cut the next, but it's really just "a major contribution to his campaign for reelection," Pahucki said. As far as the contributions to private organizations go, Pahucki said the county appears to have money for such items as an assistant who is still paid the salary she earned as county attorney. But the Land Trust, which is slated to receive $100,000, is called too large an expense, he said. While the property tax rate has been reduced, Pahucki said, actual tax collected is up from last year. That's because of new construction and increases in property values. Several other legislators said it would be premature to comment, as they have not yet received their copies of the 739-page document.