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December 6, 2012

Otsego board passes budget, meets tax cap

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — An 11th-hour gambit to exceed the state’s two-percent property tax cap was narrowly defeated by Otsego County lawmakers Wednesday. The panel instead enacted a 2013 budget that keeps the increase in the property tax levy to 1.97 percent while calling for $124.5 million in spending.

After nearly two hours of debating the spending plan, the Board of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to enact the plan as packaged by County Treasurer Dan Crowell. Voting against the it were Reps. Pauline Koren, R-Milford, Donald Lindberg, R-Worcester, Keith McCarty, R-Springfield and Betty Anne Schwerd, R-Burlington.

Prior to that vote, Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, convinced most of her colleagues that the board should consider exceeding the state-imposed tax cap in order to give raises of one percent per year, for the past five years, to agency department heads and others in appointive jobs who have been continually denied pay increases.

However, while Stuligross and seven others voted to open the door to spending more than the tax cap would allow, the six who voted against that idea prevailed because of the system of weighted voting giving greater clout to representatives from districts with higher populations.

Stuligross had proposed increasing the budget by $160,000 — a sum she said would add just $2.60 per $100,000 of assessed property value — in order to fund the salary awards.

“I believe we have accomplished the goals of the tax cap, and it would be appropriate for us to recognize that by cutting staff and other department costs, we have been asking our department heads to work even harder to provide the service necessary within the fiscal restraints we have imposed,” she said.

The vote on her proposal, however, did not deal with the specific suggestion to give raises to managers, but was confined to the question of whether the board would consider exceeding the 2 percent tax cap as it pondered its budget options at a future meeting.

That question spawned an unusual political alliance, with Reps. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, and Rich Murphy, D-town of Oneonta, joining the majority of Republicans in voting against the Stuligross proposal. Meanwhile, two Republicans, Reps. Edwin Frazier Jr. of Unadilla and Koren, sided with the majority of the Democrats who favored the idea.

Those opposed to reopening the budget considerations said it would put too many facets of the spending plan back on the table, not just the proposal to hand raises to managers. Schwerd said she feared it would “open a Pandora’s box.”

Earlier, Schwerd had sought to nudge fellow board members to make a variety of cuts in Office for the Aging programs — including cutting a weekday meal program serving about 25 seniors at the Elm Park United Methodist Church in Oneonta, one of two such programs in the city. She said she offered that plan in order to avoid the layoff of Office for Aging staffer David Polley, who specializes in advising the elderly about their options under federal health care plans.

However, she withdrew her own proposal after it appeared to lack broad support.

Though Polley won the praise of numerous people who turned out at a public hearing on the budget last week, the adoption of the spending plan means his position has been defunded and he will out of a job at year’s end. The only other other full-time county worker being laid off as a result of the budget was identified as a Building Department maintenance worker.

Crowell said the remaining two layoffs involve a half-time worker in the 911 communications office and a part-time public defender. A handful of other positions are being cut through attrition, he said.

Reacting to budget’s adoption, Crowell said, “I’m not thrilled with the budget because I’m not thrilled with the circumstances. But under the circumstances, this was the best of some poor options before us. My concerns are with the loss of services and the sustainability of some of the content.”

The plan includes utilizing some $800,000 collected from county residents through a $28-per-household solid waste fee. Supporters of that transfer argued that the county is simply recovering subsidies it has provided over the years to solid waste programs. Lindberg, however, said it was highly inappropriate to use that money for anything for trash programs. The board also received a letter from former county Rep. Alex Shields of Richfield Springs, who vowed to urge state authorities to probe the transfer.

The county’s fiscal predicament this year has been exacerbated by shrinking revenue and rising costs at the Otsego Manor nursing home, whose county subsidy would rise in the new budget to $5.5 million, up from $3.3 million in 2012. The county’s pension obligations for its retirees has also risen sharply.