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Budget Workshop: Seneca Co. weighs options to avoid dramatic tax increases

The Seneca County Board of Supervisors will eventually come to a consensus on how spending should be handled within it’s borders.

That day was definitely not Saturday.

The board met in an informal setting to hear a presentation on the budget process from County Manager John Sheppard, how Seneca County can avoid becoming the next Victor, and what steps have to be taken in the coming weeks as the budget process comes to fruition.

No official votes were taken, but straw votes on how the board felt generally – regarding the individual allocation of funds going to organizations throughout the County were counted, and reflected the overall uncertainty of the board.

The straw counts would ultimately give Sheppard and his staff a direction to go, in terms of addressing which to include in the budget, which will be up for public discussion on November 1st at a public hearing.

The tax reserve was a major point of contention during the workshop.

Sheppard’s presentation highlighted the concern around pulling from the tax reserve, which traditionally was refunded by money that was allocated during budget season, but ultimately not spent.

The tax reserve fund, which has fluctuated mildly over the last several years – has begun to decrease more dramatically after a $4.2 million reduction of the fund in 2015. Members of the board debated the cause of this liquidation, but ultimately, the liquidation itself is something that the board will have to address in the coming years – unless a tax rate hike occurs.

Sheppard concluded that by 2019 the fund would be operating at a deficit at it’s current pace. At that point, several board member asked if raising taxes incrementally in the process would be a necessity to avoid a sudden spike that year.

That deficit would mean a 20 percent increase in taxes in 2019.

Fayette Supervisor Cindy Garlick-Lorenzetti asked if exceeding the 2 percent tax cap now would provide the county with some wiggle room moving forward. However, County Manager Sheppard said that it wouldn’t be necessary at this point – given that the County can still make acceptable modifications to the budget to provide that extra cushion.

Waterloo Supervisor Bob Shipley asked if the reason for this decrease in the excess fund is due to boards tightening spending, providing less room for leftover money in yearly budgets. Sheppard responded by pointing out the complexity of the budgeting situation plays the biggest role in how Seneca County can ensure that funds exist to be placed into this tax reserve fund.

“Not only is that a big jump, but it doesn’t look good either,” Lorenzetti said referring to the sudden jump in taxes. That line of logic was one shared with many other board members, who pointed out that raising supervisor’s salaries 22 percent, which cost the County a mere few thousand dollars in the grand scheme of budgeting – was viewed as an overinflated growth. Despite the fact that the board hadn’t received a raise in 8 years. Lorenzetti’s concern highlighted the need for gradual increases, if increases are necessary. Instead of a large, sudden spike in taxes.

Supervisor Lee Davidson reiterated the point about gradually increasing taxes, as the County bleeds employees to other municipalities and counties throughout the region. “We have to start raising taxes at some point,” he explained. He has continually called for a re-evaluation of wages throughout the county to bring Seneca County back into competition.

The supervisors have heard multiple scenarios where employees are taking positions with Seneca County, which pay significantly less than other comparable counties, and then ultimately leave for those more financially rewarding positions throughout the region. It’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be driven by the volume, or size of the county either – as multiple employees have left for places like Yates County to the southwest of Seneca.

Sheppard said that he believes most of the concerns individual board members have with the budget, or current financials – will be remedied by the introduction of gaming revenue, sales tax revenue increases, and increases in the occupancy tax revenue.

While salaries received a lot of attention throughout the nearly two hour workshop, budget requests were the other hotly debated subject.

A number of organizations and entities within Seneca County are seeking funding, which ranges in expense from a few thousand dollars – to several hundred thousand dollars. The largest requests came from the Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Development Agency, and the Cooperative Extension, which are seeking in the range of $54,000 to $342,000.

Multiple board members contested individual requests, but Seneca Falls Supervisor Greg Lazzaro said that the board should consider defunding all organizations who sought funding. “We give away too much money to organizations that could fund themselves,” Lazzaro said to the board, addressing concerns about spending that ultimately impact taxpayers the greatest.

Supervisor Shipley pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce is funded through the occupancy tax, which the board said after should be capped – to avoid a blank check scenario. The board will consider a reserve fund to address solely tourism-based issues – like a lake preservation fund – to have those funds set aside for future years should additional revenue come into Seneca County through the occupancy tax stream.

Multiple board members had additional questions, but the session was ultimately ended before the supervisors began breaking down individual line items in the budget.

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