The following was post was submitted to the Star Gazette as a Your Turn editorial on October 12, 2018 by me (Christina Sonsire) and Tony Pucci, candidates for Chemung County Legislature.
On October 9th, we attended a meeting of the Chemung County Legislature during which it voted to change the way sales tax revenue is shared between the county and its municipalities.*
The issue of whether sales tax revenue is shared in the most economically sound way for our community has been hotly debated since 2013. At that time, Chemung County was facing significant fiscal hardships. Arguing that all municipalities aside from the City of Elmira had too much money in the bank, the County enacted a plan that took money from these municipalities in order to shore up its own finances.
The plan worked in part. The County was able to avoid a tax increase; however, many of the municipalities began to experience significant financial stress.
The Town of Horseheads levied a tax for the first time in 30 years. The Village of Van Etten voted to outright dissolve. The Village of Elmira Heights is teetering on the edge of solvency. The Towns of Veteran and Chemung are facing potentially significant tax increases. The Town of Elmira has been on New York’s “Fiscal Stress List” since 2016. The Town of Southport halted all plans for infrastructure projects and buildings, and the City of Elmira, even with ample shared services agreements, had to impose a 17% tax hike this year. All you need to do is attend a budget meeting for any of these municipalities to learn the truth of their precarious financial conditions.
Despite plenty of objective facts, County officials have insisted the municipalities except the City are in excellent financial shape, dismissing calls for sales tax reallocation as a convoluted campaign ploy. Indeed, responding to these very arguments last spring, Chemung County Treasurer Joe Sartori said Ms. Sonsire “could ask [people facing foreclosure] if they are okay with municipalities holding their tax dollars in reserve. She could get their thoughts as to whether the county should give away their tax dollars without requiring reasonable restraint with regard to spending.”
This is precisely what makes the vote on October 9th so confounding.
As it turns out, the new sales tax allocation plan actually gives more money to the towns and villages. If the towns and villages are doing as well as we have been led to believe, why does the County want to give them more money? We have each asked this question to County officials many times since the new plan was unveiled, but have not yet received an answer. As Mr. Sartori pointed out, it is not fiscally responsible for the County to give away your tax dollars without a purpose.
But, if many of them have been harmed, as we and others have pointed out exhaustively over the past year, the intent behind the new sales tax plan is commendable even though it is questionable whether the plan goes far enough to provide adequate relief.
We must wonder how soon the County will have to revise their revised plan. Instead of rushing into an agreement with so many unanswered questions, it would behoove the County to conduct a more thorough analysis, not just to get a deal done, but to get a deal done right.
Thanks for reading,
Christina & Tony
*It should be noted that the new plan passed with a vote of 12-2, with Leg. Rodney Strange and Peggy Woodard voting against it.