Treasurer: Tax hikes are board's call, not mine

Ruffles

 Otsego County Treasurer Allen Ruffles told the Board of Representatives he plans to submit a 2021 budget to the state that does not exceed the state cap on property taxes.

Ruffles addressed a meeting of the full board Thursday, Oct. 1, via Zoom. He said, given the financial climate in New York, he couldn’t justify raising taxes on people. He also said he feels overriding the cap is a board decision and not a decision for him to make when submitting his version of a budget.

“This is the budget that I will submit to the state. The board can do whatever it wants with it,” Ruffles said.

The board was scheduled to consider a local law to raise the tax level above the cap at its meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 7. 

Ruffles said unemployment and use of state and federal aid is higher in Otsego County this year than it was during the recession that began in 2008. He said the job losses are clustered among workers at the bottom of the economic scale and in industries that are significant in Otsego, such as restaurants and lodging.

Ruffles’ proposal would raise property taxes in the county by about 2.2% while staying under the cap. However, that would raise only an additional $272,000 in revenue, he said.

Town and school taxes vary through the county, but he said on average the 2021 increase would raise property taxes by about $27 per $100,000 of assessed value.

By comparison, he said the county would need to raise property taxes by 32% to make up a projected $4 million loss in 2021 sales tax revenue.

Ruffles’ version of the 2021 budget cuts all building upgrades and does not include money for a county administrator.

He said he sees the need for an administrator, but because the county has put it off a year, it would not hurt to delay it one more year. He also called for a county commission on buildings and facilities to help create a long-term plan for economic use of facilities.

Ruffles said State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s evaluation of the county’s financial situation produced its first concern in at least 10 years when it ruled Otsego is susceptible to fiscal stress. The rating of 33.3 included warning signs of a decreasing population, declining home values and too much reliance on state and federal aid.

Some of those assessments lag by several years, he said, so an increase in home prices this year would not be reflected in this year’s rating.

Since the board’s first 2021 budget meeting, which was held Thursday, Sept. 10, Ruffles said he has closed a budget gap of about $14 million. He said department heads have made about $5.4 million in 2021 reductions. In addition, the county will use about $860,000 from a tobacco settlement fund and $3.5 to $4 million in fund balance money.

The remainder of the gap will be closed by a revenue anticipation loan based on highway department projects set for 2021, Ruffles said. He said he met with Highway Superintendent Rich Brimmer and worked out a plan to take out a loan based on state CHIPS money for road and infrastructure improvements. The loan can be paid back over 12 to 14 years, Ruffles said, therefore state repayments to the county for the projects can be used to help county’s cash flow in the interim.

Ruffles has to submit the budget to the state by Nov. 1, he said. The county representatives will hold a public hearing on the budget at the Otsego County Courthouse in Cooperstown at a time and date to be announced later.

The board typically votes on the budget at its December meeting, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2.

Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at gklein@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7218.

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