No tax increase anticipated for Lewis County residents in draft 2022 budget

·7 min read

Oct. 24—LOWVILLE — With fund balances up and property tax revenues predicted to increase slightly, Lewis County has no plans to increase tax rates in 2022 so far in the budgeting process.

County Manager Ryan Piche held his annual draft budget workshop during the Finanace and Rules Committee meeting on Tuesday night with the entire board of legislators in attendance.

Overall, expenditures will take about $3 million more in 2022 than this year, a 5.9% change, with total appropriations expected to be at about $53.73 million, while the county anticipates to have an income increase of 8.2% or about $2.6 million, to $33.94 million.

"We are reflecting a lot of extra spending from human services departments that have been given extra funds because of COVID," Mr. Piche told the board. "Yes, they're up but they're up correspondingly because of extra revenue that is coming in from the state and feds."

Taxes will pay for $19.78 million of the expenditures, a 2.2% increase, and the fund balance will pick up about $1.98 million of the tab, an increase of 19.7% over last year.

The county's tax rate will remain just under 7.6%.

"I like the 0% (increase)," said Legislator Phil Hathaway, noting the increase in gas prices compared to the increase in social security payments announced for next year. "Usually I would say let's make it around one (percent increase)... but in this year I'm really grateful you have a 0% because I think it's going to be difficult for people, particularly vulnerable people that are older and can't have another income. Social Security is all they've got in a lot of cases."

All of the county fund balances are healthy again this year and the self-insurance fund balance, being well over the $4 million goal for that fund at $6.3 million, will make it possible for the county to once again give employees a month "holiday" from insurance payments. A second month is also possible if the board so chooses.

There were no raises this year for hourly employees because of ongoing negotiations with the civil service union, CSEA, however an agreement is close to being reached and the draft for next year's budget includes a 5% increase in hourly wages for each department based on a combined estimate of the retroactive settlement for wage increases for 2021 and the estimated incremental increase for next year.

County Treasurer Eric Virkler and Mr. Piche have also restructured some aspects of the budget to cut down on bureaucracy and increase accountability.

With the entire fleet of cars and pick-up trucks in the county to be under lease agreements next year from Enterprise, rather than having the budget lines for those vehicles fall under the capital account, each vehicle is included in the new budget for the department for which it was leased.

Until this point, the board had to vote to appropriate the budgeted money to each department from the capital account at the beginning of the year to re-allocate what had just been allocated to the capital account.

Similarly, the Information Technology funds for the equipment for each department has been kept in a "shared services" budgeting area, but now, to create a higher level of accountability from departments with their tech purchases and for the IT department's accountability with what gets purchased, there is a "new arrangement."

"Each department will be charged an overhead fee that will be money that comes out of their budget and appears as revenue in the IT budget. So, every time a department wants to make an IT purchase, it has to go through Connor (Biolsi, IT director)... to streamline our IT purchasing," Mr. Piche told the board.

Mr. Biolsi said the change will also help to ensure all departments are using the same systems and compatible equipment.

Both of the high revenue departments, the county clerk's office and the county treasurer's office, will add less money to the county coffers next year.

The Clerk's Office is anticipated to bring in 51% less money despite a 15% increase in mortgage tax fees, largely because of the addition of a security guard at the DMV and significant benefits increases in the department. This year's budget anticipated the department would bring in $167,630, but next year, about $81,255 is expected.

Mr. Piche said he thought that number was conservative.

The Treasurer's Office is slated to garner 20.8% less revenue in 2022 because of a decrease in interest and tax foreclosure advertising revenue and an increase in wages.

Departments that have a planned increase of more than 10% in their budgets next year include:

— Legislative: +24.3%

Funds were added to allow for increased travel that wasn't necessary as much in 2020 because of COVID-19, to engage lobbying services to advocate for ATV legislation in Albany and for 2% salary increases.

— Clerk of the Board: 68%

A new position, purchasing manager, was slotted into this department causing the budget increase, however, legislator feedback indicated they prefer the post has its own budget.

— County Manager Office: +14.7%

A significant increase in benefits for the department and a bump to the miscellaneous line item that is often used for county promotional videos and special one-off efforts that come up throughout the year account for the budget increase.

— County Attorney Office: +11.9%

An increase in benefits and wages were given as the reasons for this increase.

— Planning Department: +39%

This department will continue to grow with the addition of a community development specialist, although the county bus system that is managed by this department will continue to be budget neutral.

— Sheriff's Office (with patrol and recreation): +13.8%

In addition to the vehicle leasing and IT additions, the office has requested two new UTVs and tasers and has personnel increases including a new School Resource Officer at Copenhagen Central School and some new part time dispatch staff to help decrease overtime expenses.

— Buildings & Grounds +12.8%

Vehicle leases have been added to the budget for next year as well as the HVAC maintenance contract for the Education Center building. Wages and benefits increases have impacted this department's budget as has a 10% decrease in solar savings from the county's solar array.

— Codes: +15.9%

A part time junkyard inspection officer has been added along with a new vehicle lease.

— Community Services: +54%

The county is back to fully funding this department after it proactively used a federal funding source to reduce administrative expenses last year in case the state cut funding as it was anticipated to do. It did not.

— Information Technology: +56%

A new employee, a line-item to cover after-hours services the department supplies and increases in software licensing and network support costs are the biggest drivers in the department's increased budget. The addition of the former "shared services" budget requests accounts for about 44% of the increase.

Fiscal targets created in 2015 are still the goals for the county: to maintain a $13 million general fund balance or 10% of the combined operations of the county and the hospital; maintain an A+ credit rating; and keep service levels at least where they are.

Mr. Piche told the board that even with the capital projects and their related bonds, the county's credit is where they want it to be.

"We've been talking with bond agencies for two different projects — for the hospital and for our renovation and highway project — and all indication is that the county's credit is in excellent shape and it will stay in excellent shape even with the additional debt," Mr. Piche said.

The budgeting process in the county began on Aug. 1, when department heads began submitting their fiscal needs to Mr. Piche.