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Taxes, spending up in proposed Jefferson County budget

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Jefferson County’s administration unveiled a budget proposal Monday that would raise property taxes and spend more money on outside agencies such as libraries and museums.

Before it takes effect, the proposed 2013 spending plan may undergo significant changes such as reductions in spending and the proposed tax hike.

“It’s a fairly tight budget,” said Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, casting the budget in fiscally conservative terms. “It’s getting tighter and tighter.”

Legislators will hold several more work sessions on the budget this week, then will start to vote on the budget at a Finance and Rules Committee meeting Nov. 7. A public hearing is set for Nov. 13. In total, the budget would spend $245 million, an increase of 3.4 percent.

County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III proposed increasing the tax levy — the amount to be raised by taxes — from $47 million to $49 million, or 4 percent. The tax rate would increase to $6.56 per $1,000 of assessed property value, 19 cents more than the rate in 2012. Homeowners with properties worth $100,000 would pay another $19 a year under the plan.

But Mr. Gray, the Finance and Rules Committee’s chairman, said the county Board of Legislators will likely reduce the proposed tax increase.

In 2011, the state imposed a cap on property taxes. Depending on certain costs and growth in the community, each local government can increase its taxes by a different amount. Jefferson County could have increased its taxes by 7.5 percent without violating the cap, Mr. Hagemann said.

Mr. Hagemann said a property tax jump was necessary in light of unfunded mandates — tasks the state requires the county to carry out but doesn’t fund.

For example, the cost of public defenders has increased by 31 percent, or $250,000, Mr. Hagemann said. Medicaid costs climbed by 3 percent. And the amount of money that the county has to give to the state to pay for retired employee benefits rose by 14 percent, or a total of $1 million.

Counties are constantly clamoring for relief from those state requirements, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said recently that help is not on the way. Mr. Hagemann described it as a “cold shoulder” from the state.

Mr. Hagemann’s proposal predicted the county would take in $34 million in sales tax revenue, roughly the same amount it will get by the end of the year. Mr. Hagemann said the conservative estimate was a result of soldiers being sent out of the area on deployments next year.

The tentative budget proposes creating new positions for an airport cleaner and secretary. County departments had requested 14 new positions.

If the budget passes as proposed, the county will increase payments to most outside agencies by 2 percent. The organizations received flat funding last year. In total, the county would spend $1.6 million more on outside groups.

The North Country Library System would receive $168,300, after receiving $165,000 last year. Funding was flat in 2011, and libraries have taken years of cuts from the state, federal and local governments.

“We really appreciate this, and if there’s anything more you can do it will be money well spent,” said system Director Stephen B. Bolton.

The Jefferson County Historical Society was the only agency to see more than a 2 percent boost. It would receive a 40 percent increase in funding, from $11,500 to $16,080. William G. Wood, the organization’s director, said for the first time in years, the organization is no longer running at a deficit, the result of strong fundraising efforts.

“We do appreciate being able to be in the black,” Mr. Wood said.

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