Would increase taxes $24 annually for average Putnam homeowner
By Holly Crocco
Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell presented her proposed 2019 budget to the County Legislature on Oct. 3 at the Putnam County Golf Course in Mahopac.
The $159.8 million spending plan represents a net increase of $4.4 million over the 2018 budget. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at the median assessment of $277,000 an additional $24 for the year, she said.
Odell touted the fact that each of the seven years she has been in office she has never proposed a budget that exceeds the state-mandated property tax cap, which this year is 2 percent.
According to the county executive, a 2 percent increase in real property tax amounts to $1 million in revenue for the county. However, state mandates have increased more than $1.9 million, she said, requiring an increase in spending.
Since 1980, the tax levy has only been frozen twice – in 1997 and 2011, before Odell took office.
“Zeros don’t work,” she said. “County governments can’t fund rising mandated costs without increasing revenues to fund them and/or eliminating essential services, or we have to discontinue our partnerships with the towns.”
To balance the budget, Odell is proposing using $3.2 million from the county’s savings, or $1.5 million less than what was used this year. This would leave the county with $14.6 million in its reserves.
Odell said the county’s portion of a homeowner’s tax bill is 9.1 percent, which she said was the lowest percentage that any county in the state takes from its residents. The average county tax portion is 21.5 percent, she said.
The biggest portion of a homeowner’s tax bill — 71 percent — goes to school districts, she said. The remainder goes to towns, villages and fire districts.
The proposed 2019 budget shows a $976,000 increase in employee and retiree health insurance costs, and a $1.5 million hike in contractual obligations.
Retiree health benefits are expected to cost the county $5.4 million next year. “The number just keeps growing exponentially,” said Odell.
Debt services costs show a “modest” increase of $267,000, she said. “That’s because we pay down our debts.”
Odell said debt management remains a focus for her administration. She said long-term debt has decreased 15 percent since she took office, shrinking from $88 million in 2011 to $75 million in 2017. Short-term debt, which was at $17.2 million in 2011, has been eliminated.
In addition, the budget includes a $629,000 decrease in New York State pension expenses due to the county having paid off its pension amortization, she said.
Odell explained that in 2012 and 2013, the county borrowed $8.6 million to cover mandated pension expenses due to a stock market loss. In 2014, the county began repaying that money, upping the payments in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“We realized the more we hit it, the more it was going to save us in interest, and in 2017 we paid it off,” she said. “That saved the taxpayers $773,000 in interest.”
The county’s major operating expenses include $7.3 million for the sheriff’s department, which includes nine school resource officers and 13 special patrol officers at five school districts; as well as $6.8 million for the Office for Senior Resources, which is having its Carmel Friendship Center renovated by the county highway department and awaiting the opening of the Philipstown Friendship Center at the Butterfield development in Cold Spring.
Another big-ticket expense is emergency services, which is budgeted for 2019 at $4.5 million. According to Odell, the two major winter storms that hit the county in March cost $194,000 in overtime, and the tornadoes and microbursts that swept through Putnam in May cost $324,000 in overtime.
“Catastrophic storms equal a catastrophic financial impact,” she said.
About $4.7 million has been budgeted for parks and recreation, which includes Tilly Foster Farm and Educational Center in Brewster.
Odell corrected what she “fake news” that her administration bought Tilly Foster. In fact, she said, the county inherited the property and had to make a decision about its future. By investing nearly $2.5 million in the property and partnering with Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES to host classes, she said the farm is now a destination.
Tilly Foster Farm was expected to generate $385,000 in revenue in 2018, a figure that was increased in August to $680,000. In 2019, Odell budgeted $771,000 in projected revenue.
The proposed budget also includes $53 million for capital projects that Odell said will support business and leisure in Putnam, including work on the bikeway and projects in Brewster, Carmel and Putnam Valley.
The budget also sets aside money for the county’s “war on addiction,” including “the first staffing increase for the district attorney’s Office in 14 years,” with a new assistant D.A. position devoted to narcotics prosecution and formation of a narcotics task force.
In Odell’s proposed budget, Art Hanley will become a full-time employee of the Putnam County Veterans’ Service Agency (he is now the part-time deputy director) to fill a hole that Odell said the state created when it reduced the state VSA officer from two to 1/2 day per week.
Odell said the remaining $109.5 million of the county’s spending goes to unfunded state and federal mandates, such as a Metropolitan Transportation Authority subsidy, and costs related to the Early Intervention Program, child support services, Medicaid, the Workforce Investment Act, mental health services, unemployment services, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, the Help America Vote Act, and more than 200 other requirements.
Odell said all of these items are services her administration feels are important and should be funded but would like more control over.
Proposed revenue for 2019 includes $60.5 million in anticipated sales tax, which is a 3 percent increase over 2018. According to Odell, this number is “conservatively projected,” since sales tax is the most volatile revenue stream.
She pointed out that taxable internet sales jumped from $5.2 million in 2013-14, to $45.6 million in 2017-18. “This was the sixth-highest taxable sales category in Putnam County, which is the highest rank in all the counties of New York,” she said.
Automobiles, gasoline, building materials, restaurant and grocery sales generate the most sales tax.
The budget projects about $43.4 million in property taxes, plus $26.9 million will come from various agency revenues.
The federal government will provide the county with $9.1 million in reimbursements, and the state will provide $19.9 million, Odell said.