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Lewis lawmakers seek 4 to 6 percent tax hike, cuts needed

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County legislators are looking to wind up with a 4 to 6 percent tax levy increase in their 2013 budget.

However, that would require at least $2.5 million in cuts from the new worst-case scenario of a 26 percent hike, based on departmental requests, expected cost increases and projected revenue decreases.

“We all know that’s not where we want to be. Or where we should be,” said County Manager David H. Pendergast during a budget work session Wednesday.

Several legislators near the end of the session suggested they would like to limit any tax increase to around 4 percent but were not sure how realistic that would be.

Legislature Chairman Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham, asked Mr. Pendergast if he could work out projected spending plans with both 4 percent and 6 percent hikes, allowing lawmakers to contrast the impacts on county services.

However, he acknowledged that, in either scenario, “we’re going to have to bring the budget ax down heavy.”

The 6 percent figure — amounting to a $772,724 hike from the 2012 levy of $12.76 million — represents the maximum increase under the state tax cap. While the state tax cap law allows an increase of only 2 percent annually, the legislation allows municipalities to exclude some debt service and growth in pension costs from their calculations.

County lawmakers last month passed a law letting them override the tax cap, but they seemed very hesitant Wednesday ultimately to do so.

Mr. Pendergast typically unveils his tentative budget in early November. Lawmakers suggested holding at least one more work session before then for an update on his progress, but no dates were established.

The county manager said he will first need to go back to all department heads “to talk about more cuts.”

Legislators in early August directed Mr. Pendergast to ask most department heads to cut an additional 10 percent in their respective budgets, but only a few did so. A few more also submitted budgets showing 10 percent decreases, but some funding had to be restored to make for “realistic” spending plans, the county manager said.

Legislators at Wednesday’s meeting publicly discussed few specific cuts, although Legislator Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen, suggested reviewing contractual agencies on an individual basis — rather than just implementing a 10 percent, across-the-board reduction — to seek out larger savings.

At Mr. Pendergast’s request, lawmakers did hold a lengthy closed-door session in the middle of the meeting to discuss “specific personnel” before considering what level of tax increase to shoot for.

It is likely the executive session violated the state open meetings law. Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, has said budget discussions about eliminating positions do not in themselves provide a legal basis for moving debate behind closed doors, since the topic is positions rather than specific employees.

Mr. Pendergast in early August opened 2013 budget discussions with a handout to legislators showing projected cost increases and revenue losses at $2.4 million. After receiving departmental submissions, that figure has ballooned to about $3.3 million.

Projected increases include $400,000 for state retirement and $264,120 in employee salaries and benefits stemming from contractual raises. County officials also anticipate a $323,214 drop in funding from the Maple Ridge Wind Farm because of the way the 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement was configured.

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