St. Lawrence County tax levy to rise in 2024

Posted 12/3/23

BY JEFF CHUDZINSKI North Country This Week CANTON -- The tentative 2024 county budget has been released and though services will continue uninterrupted they will potentially come at a higher cost to …

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St. Lawrence County tax levy to rise in 2024



North Country This Week

CANTON -- The tentative 2024 county budget has been released and though services will continue uninterrupted they will potentially come at a higher cost to taxpayers despite a substantial drop in the  tax rate.

According to a presentation by County Administrator Ruth Doyle, the county tax levy will rise around $2.3 million if the budget is adopted as it sits.

A number of additional expenses may lead to that increase, she said.

According to Doyle, personnel expenses would rise by $2.726 million, or 5.52% in comparison to the 2023 adopted budget.

Contractual expenses would also see a sharp rise of $16.154 million or 10.27% under the tentative budget.

Equipment costs have been significantly lowered under the tentative budget due to the use of grants to offset those costs, Doyle says.

In total, equipment in the budget would cost $78,205.

Employee benefits would also rise by $3.473 million, an increase of 5.23% compared to 2023.

Total appropriations would rise by $22.276 million or 8.12%.

Under the tentative budget, expected revenue would rise $20.528 million or 9.25%, due in part to increased performance of sales tax revenue.

Doyle said the county is aware of the dangers of an over reliance on sales tax revenue, however for the last few years the county has exceeded expectations in sales tax collections.

One major project that the county is planning for with the $296 million tentative budget is the overhaul of the public safety complex, which will be funded through American Rescue Plan Act funds, a $5 million capital investment and money from the fund balance.

Doyle said that exact figure will be available in the next month or so.

When assessing figures over the last decade, Doyle noted the tax levy has increased moderately and at an even pace from $47 million in 2015 to just over $54 million in 2024.

"It remained relatively flat between 2015 to 2019," she told legislators.

At the same time, the county tax rate has seen a steady decline from $8.52 per $1,000 assessed value in 2015 to $7.15 per $1,000 in assessed value in 2024 potentially.

Doyle said that decline can be attributed to higher revenue for the county.

"We have been fortunate this year to benefit from increased performance in sales tax and increased assessed valuation," she said.

Assessed valuations have risen around 11% she said, leading to extra revenue for the county.

Doyle noted that every year three to four towns conduct town wide assessments, which can sometimes account for revenue increases for the county.

Throughout the same period, the tax levy has also increased steadily, at an average pace of $1.3 million per year, she said.

In total, levy equates to 18% of the overall $296 million tentative budget, including the tax cap override request which would exceed the cap by $500,000.

This will be the first time in the last decade that the county has exceeded the tax cap as legislators have taken. Financially conservative stance in budget planning, she said.

Tax levy increases have "remained modest and under 5%" each of the last five years, she said.

The levy itself has also been a relatively stable percentage of the budget over the last decade, ranging from 18.21% to 20.96%.

Doyle said the budgets have had "remarkable stability in the annual levy relative to our total appropriations, which as we talk about stick shock, has grown considerably."

Though inflation has been declining slowly this year, Doyle said the county will still feel it affects next year when planning the county budget.

"Our department heads have taken it (budgeting) seriously, bringing in new revenue sources, pitching new sources (to the legislature) and through responsible budgeting," she said.

Sales tax revenue also has played a large role in budgeting over the last decade, with the state previously intercepting funds that the county could have used for crucial projects and maintenance, Doyle said.

Ultimately, Doyle said it was her responsibility to bring the legislature a budget that can be adopted without significant cuts or reductions to services for taxpayers.

But a big challenge associated with budget development has been the desire to not exceed the tax cap while also growing fund balances, maintaining services and continuing to staff appropriately.

Doyle said had the county even met the tax cap each year over the last decade, the county would have $5.1 million more to work with.

The return to fiscal health, however, was the legislature's primary concern over that period.

"We are continuing to be creative with the use of forward looking and/or prescriptive reserves to help mitigate future budget increases being passed on directly to taxpayers," she said.

Doyle said it was also important to remember that reserve funds are restricted and can only be utilized in specific circumstances.

Further complicating matters is the state intercepting federal aid intended for counties to offset Medicaid expenses, she said.

According to Doyle, that shift in responsibility would cost the county over $3 million once fully implemented by the state.

Mitigating mandates like the MAT program at the county jail also costs the county significantly, she said.

"Before the county even buys a pencil, before we can heat our buildings we pay $4.88 million," she said.

The county also experiences foreclosure sales revenue loss due to state mandates, as well as a $1.225 million bill for New York State Retirement benefits, a $430,000 increase in rates for assigned council, a $500,000 increase for adoption subsidy funding and $125,000 for the MAT program, which the county is not reimbursed for by the state despite being mandated to have the program.

As part of the budget process, Doyle has recommended the county budget $3.5 million for Social Services, $7.4 million for the Highway Department, $1.2 million for the Sheriff's Office, $700,000 for the Office of the Aging, $600,000 for Indigent Defense and $600,000 for Public Health.

For personnel, the county will see an increase to 882.52 full-time equivalent positions.

Work is being completed to transition election inspectors hired as per diem employees to part-time county employees, along with wage changes for the positions.

Doyle is also recommending the count add fiscal and support positions in the County Clerk Office, Human Resources, Purchasing, Solid Waste, Public Health and Information Technology.

According to Doyle, some departments have already made adjustments for positions that have remained vacant for longer than six months, as has been noted through vacancy review throughout the course of the year.

County officials are also expected to add one position to the IT department to oversee security for all county facilities and to ensure equipment is maintained and upgraded for the safety of staff and the visiting public.

As part of the tentative budget, she also recommended maintaining staffing levels at the county jail to remain four correctional officers positions above state minimum staffing levels, as well as maintaining clinical roles that have been filled by the board.

Budget presentations will continue, with the next one planned for Nov. 20 to review departments that report to the legislature's services committee.