Legislators also create new countywide fire advisory board
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Seeking to hold the line on property taxes, the Putnam County Legislature last week decided — tentatively anyway — to retain the current sales tax level, rather than allow the expiration in November of what, several years ago, had been a potentially short-term 1 percent increase.
That means the current sales tax of 8.37 percent continues, unless the legislators change their minds. They have ample opportunity to do so: In presenting the proposal to keep the present tax level, Legislator Joseph Castellano assured his colleagues that “this is not the final vote tonight. In the next couple of months you can have the debate all you like” about whether to continue their course. Already, two legislators object: Dini LoBue, of District 8, and Kevin Wright, of District 9, voted against perpetuating the tax status quo.
The discussion occurred at the legislature’s Wednesday (Feb. 4) formal monthly meeting in Carmel, on an evening on which legislators also took a step toward possibly greater cohesion among county officials and Putnam’s volunteer fire departments by creating a new, centralized fire protection advisory board.
Castellano advocated retention of the 1 percent extra tacked on in 2007 to what had been a 3 percent county sales tax. The 2007 decision, reiterated by legislative votes in 2011 and 2013, made the county portion of sales tax 4 percent. New York State also takes 4 percent and another .37 percent (or 3/8 percent, expressed as a fraction) goes to the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District, to make a total of 8.37 percent (or 8-3/8 percent) paid in Putnam County.
According to Castellano, that 1 percent “does equate to $12 to $14 million a year” for county coffers. Permitting the old extension to continue “at the present time is the best way to come up with this $14 million.” Sales tax “affects everybody equally,” county residents as well as visitors, property owners and renters, and others, he said.
Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown, said that other county “taxes would probably have to go up to make up for this shortfall” if the 1 percent add-on were scrapped. Putnam County keeps a tight fist on sales tax, relying on it to round out county budgets. Unlike most New York counties, Putnam does not return any part of sales tax to the municipality in which it originates — so Cold Spring and Philipstown merchants collect sales tax, but none of it comes back to assist with village and town government projects and help minimize local taxes. Putnam County’s 2015 budget anticipates $54,739,000 in sales-tax income.
Opposing the extension of the 1 percent add-on for another two years, LoBue said that “it’s a matter of principle. We have the distinction of having the highest sales tax and property taxes around. Sales tax is an impediment to economic development. You can’t have almost 9 percent sales tax and expect to have economic development.” She expressed hopes the debate “opens up a very spirited dialogue among the public and the legislature, so the public understands what’s happening here.”
“The sales tax many years ago was increased as a temporary measure,” Wright observed. He proposed the 1 percent be shaved to ¾ percent and that the county embark on a rigorous overhaul of its finances to emphasize sales tax less. “If we’re not going share with the municipalities on an ongoing basis, I concur that it’s a very bad statement to the business community” to make proprietors collect hefty sales tax from customers. Historically, he said, “when you lower tax rates, you increase revenue.”
Fire advisory board
The legislators voted to establish the fire advisory board after amending the requisite paperwork — a resolution — to change the way the panel’s members are selected from direct appointment by a county official to inclusion of each fire department’s chief (or alternate) as a delegate. In essence, the revision altered the selection method from a top-down to a grassroots-up approach; it likewise eliminated a call for each delegate to serve a three-year term. Although called the Putnam County Fire Advisory Board, the new panel will include representatives of volunteer ambulance services.
Along with the delegates from Putnam’s 13 fire departments and four ambulance corps, the board will include a member of the county legislature and the commissioner of the Putnam County Bureau of Emergency Services — whose office is vacant, following the unexpected decision in January by Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell to not reappoint the incumbent, Adam Stiebeling. In part, the legislature moved quickly on establishing the advisory board so one of its members could join the county committee charged with finding Stiebeling’s successor.
According to the legislature’s resolution, Putnam County needs a countywide fire advisory board “to develop, promote and administer a plan for mobilization of fire department equipment and personnel and to train fire department members in order to ensure the greatest protection to the communities.” The board is to work with the county Bureau of Emergency Services to support New York State “in carrying out training and mutual aid programs” and to make recommendations annually to the county on Putnam County’s mutual aid plan; to advise the county legislature; to assist in efforts “to project the best possible image of fire and EMS services,” and to undertake related tasks.