Tompkins Tortured Tax Compromise

Closely-divided Legislature sets tentative 2% levy hike for ‘24

“I would ask my colleagues not to spend every dime that we have.” Legislature Chair Shawna Black (with clerks) Oct. 17.

by Robert Lynch; October 20, 2023

For the first time in three years, the amount of money Tompkins County will likely take from its property owners is going up. But the perilous political path county legislators walked this week and last to impose that increase demonstrated the deepest of divides between a group of doomsday predictors who fear the next recession looms just around the corner and those defenders of the taxpayer who argue Tompkins County Government keeps too much money and should do whatever it can to give some of it back.

“The people who pay our taxes, they don’t have a lot of understanding of what we do here for good reason,” Newfield-Enfield representative Randy Brown told the Legislature this past Tuesday night, “because they have their lives to live.”

“People are changing their habits; buying less, but paying more,” Brown continued.  By tapping a bloated Fund Balance—government’s “piggy bank” of sorts—and keeping the tax levy unchanged, “this is an opportunity for the Legislature to tell people we hear you; we see you.”

Randy Brown: A zero tax increase is a way, “to tell people, we hear you; we see you.”

Brown held firm to his convictions.  He even voted against the nearly Quarter-Billion Dollar 2024 Budget the Legislature advanced to Public Hearing that night.  But his vote proved insufficient.  After several rounds of wrangling, first in a committee-of-the whole the week before, and then on the Legislature’s floor Tuesday night, lawmakers pushed through a compromise that would increase the property tax levy by an even two per cent.  It was neither the zero per cent rise that Brown and six of his colleagues had wanted.  But neither was it the higher 2.64 per cent levy hike which hardline Fund Balance defenders would have preferred.

Figures County Administration staff shared before the Legislature’s vote predicted the two per cent levy increase would add about $53 to the average homeowner’s bill, or impose a county tax of about $1,325.

Wherever that “median-priced home” is, it’s probably not in Enfield.  Tompkins County claims the assessment on a “median” home is up to $249,000 now.  At a meeting Thursday, the Chair of Enfield’s Board of Fire Commissioners claimed that the average assessment for an Enfield parcel is just $153,000. So calculate accordingly.

Call her “Doomsday Debbie.”  Deborah Dawson chairs the County Legislature’s Budget, Capital and Personnel Committee. That role accords the Lansing Democrat disproportionate influence in crafting budget numbers.  She also, most conspicuously, holds the ear of Legislature Chair Shawna Black.  And in a chaotic final hour of the final meeting that capped three consecutive days of budget deliberations October 12th, Dawson let loose:

“You keep talking about what a great fiscal position we’re in,” Dawson orated from the committee’s podium, aiming her words at tax-cutting mavericks like Brown.  “We’re in a good fiscal position because people in the past have been careful.”

“We may be in a great position now, but we are one bad decision away from being up the creek,” Dawson went on.  “And bad decisions are not decisions that are made with bad intent.  They are decisions that can be made with really good intentions, because we want to meet the needs of our residents and we want to minimize their tax burden.” 

Dawson: “We are one bad decision away from being up the creek.”

“But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” Dawson insisted.  “When is it enough for you people?  The people that always want to take it out of Fund Balance are the people who always want to spend it.  That’s irresponsible.”

But the Fund Balance is something Tompkins County Government has plenty of.  Totals vary depending on whose ledger you’re viewing.  But the numbers safely stand in the mid-eight figures.  Randy Brown predicts the balance will grow by seven or eight Million Dollars this year all by itself without anyone’s help.

“We spent $24 Million of Fund Balance this year, Chair Shawna Black cautioned legislators Tuesday.  “I feel like I need to see where the dust settles.”  Black opposed cutting the levy’s increase to zero.

Yes, legislators did tap the Fund Balance this year; but often out of discretion, not necessity.  Case in point:  Nine Million Dollars, Dawson told her committee, was earmarked for the “Capital Plan.”  And a good portion of that Capital Plan will take first steps toward a $40 Million downtown office building, the Center of Government.  Legislators have no problem putting public money toward projects they like.

And Shawna Black shares Deborah Dawson’s doomsday logic.  “There’s a very true reality that in the next six months to a year we could have an emergency project come up,” she said.   Black did not reveal what that “emergency” might be.  But she sounded like legislators knew what it was.  Black suggested it could cost $1.5 – 5 Million.  And her admonition followed:  “I would ask my colleagues not to spend every dime that we have.”    

After three long hours of agonizing line-by-line budget review in that final committee meeting October 12th, it looked like things were set.  This year, unlike last, the so-called “Expanded Budget Committee” would let the tax levy float upward by the 2.6 per cent figure that all their tinkering had elevated it to.  County Administrator Lisa Holmes had initially submitted a budget that kept the increase at two per cent even.  But legislators grew it higher.  With a levy hike assumed, legislator Rich John left for an academic task at Cornell.  He shouldn’t have.  His vote could have made the difference.

After John left, an hour-long free-for-all began.  Dryden’s Greg Mezey moved to tap nearly $1.4 Million of the Fund Balance to keep the tax levy unchanged from the current year.  Randy Brown seconded Mezey’s motion.  The unplanned debate was off and running.  It included Dawson’s scolding of fellow members for their “irresponsible” actions.  And it brought Dan Klein’s rebuttal.

“Every year we have the same conversation,” legislator Klein observed.  “And yet where is the disaster?  Every single year we are told we are one bad decision away from disaster, but where’s the evidence of disaster?”

“The reason that we’re not in disaster, and the reason we can do this every year and not get in disaster is because we always end up with more in Fund Balance than the year before,” the Danby legislator asserted.  “When that doesn’t happen, then we’re going to be in a little bit of trouble.”  And when the Fund Balance actually falls, Klein reasoned, “That’s when we raise the tax rate.”

With Rich John out of the room, but with every other legislator voting, the Budget Committee split 7-6 in favor of cutting the levy’s increase to zero.  That kind of plurality would have proven insufficient to pass in the Legislature, but it worked in committee. 

Yet when the committee’s recommendation headed to the Legislature five days later, Dawson quickly moved to reverse the earlier action and to re-insert the 2.6 per cent increase.  Rich John, as it turned out, supported the higher levy.  His presence could have altered the committee’s decision.  And John made no secret why he has fear of the future and where he places the blame.

“I feel pretty confident that we’re going to see the same activity from New York State next year that we saw this year,” the Ithaca Democrat warned, John alluding to the Hochul Administration’s decision to retain for itself millions in supplemental Medicaid assistance that Congress had arguably intended for New York’s counties to receive.

Legislator John: The Hochul Administration brazenly stole money from us. It’s likely to happen again.

“New York State does not seem to have its fiscal house in order,” Rich John asserted.  “And the Governor was, I felt, very brazen in taking the action she took to just basically steal money from us.  I will use that word.  And I think she’s going to do it again.”

So with Rich John aligning himself with Dawson’s caution-conscious faction, legislators lined up Tuesday to tie—and hence, defeat—the committee chair’s effort to restore the full 2.6 per cent tax increase.  In an almost anticlimactic move thereafter, Mike Lane proposed the two per cent levy hike in the spirit of compromise.  Two Ithaca City legislators (Travis Brooks and Veronica Pillar) flipped their votes, and Lane’s compromise passed, nine-to-five.

Randy Brown would go on to oppose forwarding the full budget document to an October 30th Public Hearing.  Enfield’s other legislator, Anne Koreman, supported both the budget and its higher tax levy.  Legislators could still amend the spending package before its scheduled final adoption in early-November.

Dryden’s Mike Lane has always put himself on the Dawson side of fiscal restraint. Tuesday, he described as “scary” the economic prospects that lie ahead.  He may sense storm clouds that elude the rest of us.  And Lane pointed out that with property values spiraling in the the eyes of the assessor, a zero-increase tax levy has its logical limits.

“Randy, it’s nice to say to people that we haven’t raised your taxes three years in a row,” Lane said, directing his words to Brown sitting down the table a ways.  “But I bet there’s Newfielders; I’m sure there’s Drydenites who will be out there saying, ‘My taxes went up because my assessment went up.  Please say it ain’t so.’”