KINGSTON – Ulster County's Truth in Taxation Subcommittee met for the first time on Tuesday evening, April 3, to discuss a resolution — referred back to committee during the last legislative session and entitled the "Truth in Taxation Act" — which seeks to itemize the costs of state-mandated programs such as Safety Net and elections.
The meeting failed to garner a quorum, however, so it was cancelled after some discussion of a newly revised Truth in Taxation resolution written by legislative attorney Langdon Chapman.
Some lawmakers and county administrators seem inclined to believe that the resolution is a ruse to garner support for a county takeover of the Safety Net program. Chair of the subcommittee, James Maloney, R-Lake Katrine, argued that the intent of the law is not to shift the expense of such program, but, rather, to allow the costs of state-mandated programs to be itemized on each town's tax bill. Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell said the law that's being contemplated is not just information, but has much more serious implications.
"The better alternative may be to provide an insert," he said.
"The towns are still going to pay the same amount," Maloney said. "It's just a breakdown — it's transparency."
Maloney was chosen to lead the subcommittee by Legislative Chair Terry Bernardo, R-Accord, who in her January acceptance speech described him as "knowledgeable in taxation issues."
Maloney is the assessor for the Town of Ulster, something that Legislator Jeanette Provenzano, D-Kingston, says presents a conflict of interest for him as chair of the taxation subcommittee.
The Town of Ulster supervisor, James Quigley, along with the Town of Rochester supervisor Carl Chipman did not include line items on their 2012 budgets for their respective town's Safety Net social services obligations. Crannell called the supervisors' omissions "outrageous" and said, "It's like saying, 'I don't like the pension bill this year, it went up too much, so I'm not going to pay it.' It's a state mandate."
Chipman, a member of the subcommittee, makes no bones about his intentions.
"I've seen Safety Net costs rise from $30,000 to $150,000 in two years," he said. "So would I like to see the county take over the costs of the program? Yes."
For now, Chipman says he's content with the Truth in Taxation law, as it will highlight the costs of these state-mandated programs to the average taxpayer. He said that although he didn't include the costs of Safety Net in his budget, he has money set aside for it.
"I can't possibly plan for it in my budget when I never know how much these costs are going to balloon each year," he argued.
Crannell contends that by not including the line items in their budgets, the county will have to re-levy those taxes at the end of the year, which would use up most of the entire tax levy increase allowed under the state's tax cap, forcing the county to cut services.
"I'd like to work together to find a solution to the problem," Crannell said. "But state law requires the town of Ulster to budget for and pay the Safety Net expenses. These towns chose not to budget for that expense."
Ulster County is the only county in New York that passes Safety Net costs onto its municipalities. Provenzano said she finds it "incredible" that the legislature is spending so much time talking about listing the costs in the town's tax bills, when "we should be fighting to change it."
"We're already into April — why isn't the chairwoman or the chair of the Ways and Means getting this on the table so we can discuss how the county can take over these costs?" she asked.
The supervisors' move to exclude the costs for Safety Net from the towns of Ulster and Rochester's budgets also prompted a response from the county comptroller's office. In a letter addressed to the town supervisors, deputy comptroller Joseph Eriole cited state law that says the line item "is not discretionary" and "is directly attributable to the town."
Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach said he's uncomfortable with a proposed law that could have an "unintended domino effect" with other towns. He argued that the county budget is "close to the bone" after several years of budget cuts.
"There is no department of fat and waste in the county" to cover these costs right now, he said.
Though the revised Truth in Taxation proposal hasn't been vetted by the subcommittee YET, Maloney intends to submit it to legislative committees next week and have the full legislature vote on it at their April 17 legislative session.