Allegany County blocks request for financial information

Allegany County alleges it has no records which show its financial condition beyond those it creates once a year.

The highly dubious claim comes in response to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request by Allegany Hope Community News to confirm that the county has been carrying unreasonable surpluses for at least five years, rather than lowering its second highest property and third highest general sales tax rates in New York State.

The county ignored four requests for documents last month, failing to respond within the five days required by law.

One of the requests was for “(p)ortions of Allegany County’s monthly financial reports, trial balances or the equivalent, which show the County’s General Fund balance by classifications or categories for each month from January 2018 through October 31, 2023.”

Upon formal Appeal of the county’s non-response, Board of Legislators Chairman W. Brooke Harris of Alfred says that “Allegany County has no records responsive to your request. Allegany County is required by law to provide its financial reports and all accompanying documentation to New York State on an annual, not monthly, basis.”

Law contradicts county claim
Section 86.4 of the FOIL, however, provides, by definition, that a ” ‘Record’ means any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes,” and not just formal reports.

The county has been carrying a surplus, known as its Unappropriated Fund Balance, of approximately the same amount that it taxes county residents each year.

The total, as we have been reporting, has even been escalating the past two to three years, according to financial reports to the state and from independent auditors, with legislators refusing to return unreasonable excesses to their constituents.

Instead, lawmakers have applied just enough surplus funds to budgets to be able to claim a true value property tax decrease of varying amounts.

Many property taxpayers, however, actually have seen their tax rates increase due to town equalization rates, with those closest to 100 percent assessments realizing the greatest savings and those at lesser rates receiving lower benefits, or none at all.

One-third to see higher taxes
Under the current 2024 budget proposal, 11 out of 29 towns, or more than one-third, will see property tax hikes, with only four realizing a reduction as high as county officials are promoting.

Auditors reported for 2021 that the county received nearly $6.6 million in revenues over expenses, while it showed a slight average tax decrease of only 24-cents per $1,000 last year, based on true valuation.

However, 14 of the 29 towns actually experienced tax rates higher than the championed decrease.

Surplus jumps by $16 million
The county ended last year, according to its report to the State Comptroller, with a surplus of nearly $48.8 million, some $16 million over 2021, or more than 60 percent higher than the entire county property tax levy.

The tentative budget for next year, as we also have reported, proposes holding onto the $16 million and diverting it to unnamed purposes.

In 2021, county lawmakers also diverted $7.5 million into an economic development fund, instead of returning it to taxpayers, again for unnamed purposes.

$10 million tax break proposed
Allegany Hope, a community advocacy organization and umbrella to Allegany Hope Community News, proposed last year that a minimum of $10 million in surplus funds be used for tax relief, which would reduce property taxes by approximately one-third.

Harris, however, has pushed back against this idea, alleging that if property taxes are reduced next year by that amount, they would have to go up again the following year.

Financial calculations, however, demonstrate that this only would occur if the county failed to stay within its budget.

We also have reported that higher sales tax revenues have continued to exceed those which have been budgeted, being part of the reason for the surplus increases.

The Board is expected to vote Wednesday on the tentative budget proposal for next year, including its property tax levy.