I took last week off to spend time with my family after the election and am working hard to get back up to speed on many things that have transpired since November 5th. I intend to keep this blog going (with some much-needed cosmetic changes…coming soon!) while I serve as a member of the Chemung County Legislature to help keep people informed of the issues affecting our community. As always, everyone is invited to share information and opinions directly on the blog or on social media in hopes of generating productive discussions about ways we can improve the way Chemung County does business.
Chemung County Budget
The current Legislature has held two workshops and a public hearing to discuss its proposed 2019 budget. A special meeting to vote on the proposed 2019 budget will be held on November 26th at 7:30 pm on the Hazlett Building’s 5th floor following the Standing Committee meetings. A link to the budget is found here, and all figures and diagrams shown below are contained within it.
There are several notable characteristics of the budget. At the onset, as described in detail in a letter from retiring Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli, the budget does not call for an increase in the property tax rate for the 14th straight year. This is commendable, particularly in a high-tax state like New York, but brings with it some budgetary difficulties.
In Chemung County, the two primary sources of revenue are monies collected through property tax and sales tax. The total amount spent by Chemung County has risen from $158,030,501 in 2014 to $168,941,938 in 2019 – an increase of over $10 million dollars in five years.
Without increasing the property tax rate, how does Chemung County make up the difference?
Challenges predicting sales tax revenue
The first way – at least over the past few years – has been from favorable sales tax collections. The graph below shows a substantial increase in sales tax revenue from 2016 through 2018 of nearly 10%.
The proposed budget calls for this positive trajectory to continue, with projected collections of almost $62 million dollars.
Unlike revenue generated through the property tax levy that tends to be quite predictable, sales tax is fickle and extremely susceptible to economic and political currents as shown in the graph below. Understanding what economic and/or political factors underlie the increased sales tax collections in 2017 and 2018 – and whether these factors are sustainable – is the difficulty.
At this time, I do not have an accounting of which specific goods and services generate the largest proportion of sales tax collections in Chemung County, but at last night’s public hearing and budget workshop current Legislator Marty Chalk and incoming Legislator John Burin both raised concerns that the uptick may be related to gas prices. People who buy gas in Chemung County also pay sales tax on it, and therefore the higher the price of gas, the more sales tax money the County receives. As the AAA graph below shows, gas prices in 2018 have been high and may be related to the increased revenue.
However, reports out since October show that gas prices have begun to fall, as described here. Although this is good news for consumers, it could affect the projected amount of sales tax revenue for 2019. I will provide more information on this matter once I have additional data regarding the specific sources of sales tax collections in Chemung County.
Deficit Spending is Risky
Even though Chemung County has not raised the property tax levy in many years, it has engaged in consistent deficit spending that pulled more than $8 million dollars from reserves over the past five years.
The projected budget deficit for 2019 is currently $866,549 but will likely go up to over $1.3 million dollars if the Elmira City Council chooses to accept the County’s offer to delay repayments for shared services through a revised Sales Tax Agreement discussed in detail below.
Chemung County has enjoyed a healthy fund balance for many years despite deficit spending, tied largely to revenue generated in 2009-2012 during the natural gas boom. However, current predictions in the 2019 budget show reserves are projected to fall by 67% by 2023.
Clearly these are just projections subject to change, but they nonetheless drive home the importance of working as hard as possible to create a fairly balanced budget.
The property tax rate has not gone up — but the levy has
The third way Chemung County has been able to make up for a $10 million dollar increase in appropriations without raising the property tax rate is by increasing the property tax levy.
Since 2005 – the last year Chemung County had a property tax rate increase – the property tax levy, i.e. the amount of money property owners pay in county property taxes in addition to town/village/city property taxes, has increased by nearly $6 million dollars. Some of this growth is due to new construction, but it is also attributable to increased taxes on existing properties based on increased assessments.
I will try to learn more about what precisely led to the increased levy despite no changes in the rate, as at the end of the day property owners simply care about what is coming out of their earnings, not the accounting that led to it.
Renegotiated Sales Tax Agreement?
As referenced above, the City of Elmira still has an opportunity to accept a new Sales Tax Agreement passed by the legislature earlier this fall. The proposed agreement calls for a 3.4% increase in the amount of sales tax revenue going to Chemung County’s towns and villages, and an extension of time for the City of Elmira to repay the County for certain shared services arraignments.
In terms of dollars, the proposed agreement specifically allows for the City to defer $400,000 payments to the County in 2019 and 2020 for the City to have greater cash flow and regain better fiscal standing.
The City’s 2019 proposed budget is found here. It is my understanding that the budget does not call for a property tax increase for next year, and that City Council intends to vote on the proposed Sales Tax Plan sometime next week.
Elected County Treasurer to be hired back as Deputy
Finally, Chemung County’s proposed budget included at least one unexpected aspect, as it notes Joe Sartori will be hired as the Deputy County Treasurer at a salary rate of $105,000.
Joe Sartori has been the Chemung County Treasurer since 2003. In 2007 he hired Jennifer Furman to serve as his Deputy County Treasurer.
Sartori announced his intention to retire in a statement last year, found here:
After much consideration and discussions with my family, I have decided not to seek re-election for another term as your County Treasurer as I plan to retire in 2019. It has truly been my great honor to serve the citizens of Chemung County in that capacity for the past 16 years.
During that time, I believe we have achieved a great level of success in improving our interaction with the residents of Chemung County. We implemented an installment payment program and repurchase program to help residents avoid foreclosure and sale of their properties. We have also adapted to allow the use of debit and credit cards for payment of taxes, fees and other charges. We have upgraded our financial reporting and have been awarded the Government Finance Officers Association’s prestigious Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the past five consecutive years.
I am confident the current staff will continue to improve the services provided by this office into the future.
Just after this statement was released, Furman announced her intention to seek the position. She was elected on November 5th after running unopposed.
It is my understanding that the decision of who to hire as deputy ultimately lies with Furman, not the legislature or county executive. Nonetheless, it begs many important decisions: Why wasn’t the public informed of Sartori’s desire to be rehired at a high rate of pay ahead of the election? Is it necessary for Sartori to stay on to “train” or “transition to” Furman, as some have suggested, even though they have worked together for over 11 years? Why wasn’t a new Deputy Treasurer identified before now as Furman was running unopposed? Is the pay rate of $105,000 reasonable for this type of “training” or transitioning?
Moves like this have gone on for way too long in Chemung County, and are likely one of the reasons why the elections unfolded in the manner they did last month. If nothing else, these questions should be answered in an open and transparent way to assure the public that rehiring Joe Sartori is the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Christina I do not believe that the proposed 2019 City budget is correct. I will keep this short, here are a couple of items to look at…… Notice that the year in the upper right corner is written over ink……check the Sanitation Fee on page 10 it is the 2017 fee (275.00). In 2018 it was raised to 365.00. The whole budget on the city’s web site appears to be a 2017 worksheet. Where is the real proposed 2019 budget for the public to see.Loading...
Thank you Christina for keeping us taxpayers informed. All top salaries in Chemung County government need to be cut 25 percent and the raise the county legislators voted themselves needs to be recinded. It is outrageous that Mr. Sartori is rehired at that high salary. He stepped down and should be gone permanently.Loading...
Thanks Christina for the informative update on the county budget. I am very happy you are one of the new voices in the legislature. The public will be well served with the scrutiny and communication you, as well as other newly electeds, will extend and deliver.Loading...
Sue, In the 34 years I served on the CC Legislature it was done this way. The selection is made official at the January 1st, Organizational meeting by Resolution. I am very uncomfortable with Sartori hanging on in the New Year, when he is no longer Treasurer. Especially a $105,000.00 stipend. More like a going away present for being a good boy.Loading...
How can they switch places if Furman is elected? 105,000 is better than 72,979.20 pension penaized only by a percentage of that Sid. No waiver unless applied for, 211 waiver hard to get as I understand. There are currently no 211 waivers in Chemung county. Waiver is automatic for remainder of elected position if you are in your 65th year of life or beyond.Loading...
I understand that Sartori & Jen Furman are switching places for six months. Will he get the full $105,000.00? He may have not retired yet, because if he had his pension would be penalized. Unless there was some kind of a waiver. Who knows?Loading...
Thanks for this piece Christina. Majority of people dont think of all the taxes on the gas we buy and where it goes. I’ve mentioned it a few times in other threads.
Can I be shocked about Mr Sartori?. Smh…yes the Hazlett Club. Makes me wonder why he bothered to retire? Something foul is brewing. I also like how the outgoing legislative body chooses their replacements before new legislators are seated.Loading...
Thank you Christina for this information! The county budget is well presented on their website but for the average person would be difficult to pick apart. With regard to Mr Sartori and many other high paid county positions I personally refer to as the Hazlitt Club, anyone interested in viewing salaries can access seethroughny.net. find chemung county and select a name, or just scroll through the whole county. For example Mr Sartori had pay raises totaling 31,829 from 2012-2018, 14,299 in 2016 alone. There are many other large raises in upper level positions given in that time frame if one cares to spend time surfing that web site. I find it strange that raises of this magnatude and many others for the high profile positions were awarded while that same year blue collar employees have been taking on more work responsibilities for the same pay bLoading...
ecause the county exec preaches times are tough. the county exec. writes in his budget letter praising gov. Cuomo for tier 6 retirement plan that reduces benefits for future employees, all these generous raises when in the midst of the tax reallocation plan initiated because local government cannot afford to continue business as usual. He wrote of difficulty retaining aides and nurses at the facility only several years after reducing benefits and raises for the “blue collar” county positions. I am sure Mr Santulli will be more than happy to accept his tier 1 retirement with full health insurance. The good times are still rolling on at the Hazlitt building folks. Sure to be more suprises in the works before Jan. 1.
“Since 2005 – the last year Chemung County had a property tax rate increase – the property tax levy, i.e. the amount of money property owners pay in county property taxes in addition to town/village/city property taxes, has increased by nearly $6 million dollars. Some of this growth is due to new construction, but it is also attributable to increased taxes on existing properties based on increased assessments.”
Finally someone is seeing and saying it. To tout “no property tax increases” while raising assessment rates, thus property taxes, is pretty disingenuous. Imagine our surprise last year when our escrow payment went up $200 a month because of our assessment/ taxes going up. When I called to dispute it, I was told it was because of the addition we had put on our house. A 10×12 addition warranted such an increase?!? Baloney!
So here we are paying taxes on a house and property assessed at a value which we would NEVER be able to sell it for, especially in our township.Loading...
Christiana, Thank you for keeping us updated.Loading...