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Legislature delays 2012 budget vote

    SCHUYLER COUNTY—At the urging of Legislator Barbara Halpin, the Schuyler County Legislature passed a motion by Legislator Doris Karius to table the vote on the tentative 2012 budget at the meeting held Monday, Nov. 14. The legislature was scheduled to vote on the proposed budget following County Administrator Tim O’Hearn’s budget presentation and a public hearing but postponed the vote after Halpin voiced her opposition to raising property taxes before a sympathetic audience of county residents. The motion passed 5-3 with Legislators Thomas Gifford, Michael Yuhasz and Glenn Larison opposed.
    Halpin hinted at her discontent while discussing a resolution to increase the salaries of certain public officers in the county. “This is part of an increased budget and I will not vote for any budget that increases taxes,” Halpin stated. She added that her vote had nothing to do with the performance of the officers, who she feels have done an “excellent job.” The resolution ultimately passed 8-1.
    When it came time to vote on the budget resolutions, Halpin echoed some of the sentiment expressed by county residents in the earlier public hearing. “We start the meeting tonight by saying New York is the highest taxed state, and we end by increasing taxes,” she began, “our goal should be to decrease the tax levy on an annual basis.” Halpin acknowledged that this would “absolutely” result in decreased services and probably layoffs, but added that the county had scaled back in the past and then reimplemented the services that were necessary.
    Halpin was also “dismayed” by what she perceived as a “total lack of respect for myself and for... taxpayers of Schuyler County.” The feeling stemmed from Halpin’s belief that the “hurried” process did not provide for adequate legislative input. Specifically, she felt she was denied the opportunity to “discuss cost saving proposals or alternative revenue options.”
    Legislator Michael Yuhasz explained that the legislature “achieved [its] goal of not increasing taxes by more than three percent.” Chairman Dennis Fagan then added that he had sat in on two or three committee meetings and offered suggestions for the tentative budget while Halpin stayed silent.  Legislator Glenn Larison concurred that they all had a chance to speak and provide input. Halpin explained that at the time she did not have the opportunity to review the budget, but that now, she had gone over it line by line. Halpin added that she was uncomfortable voting on the budget the same night of the public hearing. She said that to her, it sends a message of “OK we have listened to you and we are going to do exactly what we were going to do anyway.”
    The vote to table the budget prompted more comments from the public. Richard Scuteri gave an impassioned snapshot of sales tax revenue over the past 14 years. He explained that the sales tax revenue over the last seven years has increased by $21,089,717 over the preceding seven years, due in large part to the Wal-Mart in Watkins Glen. He added that because of this increased revenue, there is no reason the property taxes should be going up and that Chemung County has not seen a tax increase in six years.
    Earlier in the evening, Mark Rondinaro, who sought a legislative seat during the recent election cycle, urged the legislature to reconsider the tentative budget. He stated that the “2012 sales tax revenue is over projected.” Rondinaro also criticized the overall budgeting process. He said that department heads submit budgets for their respective departments in an effort to accomplish their mission, but that it is up to the legislature to ask whether that particular mission is necessary.
    The decision to postpone the budget vote overshadowed a presentation delivered by O’Hearn explaining the tentative 2012 budget and the hurdles the county had to overcome so that the tax increase was not higher. O’Hearn said that the legislature could have increased the levy by as much as 3.1 percent, but was able to keep the increase around 2.2 percent despite significant increases in Medicaid, pension and salary spending. These spending increases were offset by a concession by county employees, who O’Hearn would “match with any employees in the state,” in their health care plan and by increased sales tax revenue, which was largely due to the Phish concert held at Watkins Glen International over the July 4th weekend. O’Hearn’s budget slideshow will be available on the Schuyler County website.
    The tentative budget was released on Oct. 26 and does not need to be approved until mid December. The legislature scheduled a budget workshop for Nov. 30, with another attempt to pass the 2012 budget scheduled for the regular legislative meeting on Dec. 12.


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