At least one county legislator resistant to significant property tax reductions

Allegany County District II legislators listen to comments from local government officials and the public during constituent meeting on Wednesday, June, 21, in Friendship. From left are Gretchen Hanchett and Dwight (Mike) Healy, both of Belmont, and John Ricci of Cuba. Listening by Healy ended, and the meeting was abruptly terminated, after lawmakers were questioned about what they intended to do about high property and sales tax rates in light of the burgeoning county surplus.

A Belmont county legislator apparently won’t be supporting any move to provide significant tax relief to property taxpayers, despite a bloated surplus which exceeds one-and-a-half times what the county already expects to collect from owners each year.

Legislator Dwight (Mike) Healy abruptly exited his chair and effectively adjourned a public meeting of District II legislators in Friendship recently when lawmakers were questioned about the large excess, saying “I don’t want to listen to it.”

Allegany Hope Executive Director Casey Jones, who also edits this Community News project, asked Healy and District Legislators Gretchen Hanchett of Belmont and John Ricci of Cuba, about the surplus, noting that some Friendship School District residents had become upset over a State Comptroller audit which reported that government entity retaining $1.5 million more in fund balance, when compared with a $9.8 million budget in 2021, than that allowed by law.

He also noted a similar report from the Olean School District, the same week as the county representatives’ meeting, in which the State Comptroller found some $8 million in reserves, with a $47.3 million operating budget, which couldn’t be demonstrated to be “reasonable or needed.”

County surplus jumps
In contrast, as we have reported previously, Allegany County ended last year with a surplus of nearly $48.8 million, or more than $16 million more than the year before.

It only budgeted $29.7 million to be raised by property taxes this year. The surplus would be equal to no property taxes for a year and still having more than $19 million left over for cash flow purposes.

Total county general fund appropriations in 2022 amounted to $95.38 million.

County taxes near highest in nation
Allegany County has one of the highest effective property tax rates in the nation for combined local government taxes, as we also reported last month.

A national data organization has calculated Allegany County to be at either second or third from the top for 2020 and 2021, appearing to decline slightly last year due to rising property values in the county. The effective tax rate is based on combined property taxes divided by assessment levels.

The State Tax Department reports, based on Comptroller calculations, that combined local government taxes have been the second highest of New York counties since 2019.

In other taxing categories, Allegany County lawmakers have levied the second highest true value property tax rate in the state, also since 2019, after being the highest for several years, and has the third highest general sales tax rate, at 8.5 percent, behind only Erie and Oneida counties which are at 8.75 percent, which includes a four percent state rate in each number.

Legislator reacts to significant property tax reductions
Healy responded at the meeting to Allegany Hope’s question about what the legislators would be doing about the county’s burgeoning surplus by saying the county board has determined previously, in regard to prior Allegany Hope testimonies at public budget hearings, that it wasn’t going to “do anything.”

When Jones attempted to note that the situation wasn’t even the same currently in that the surplus jumped $16 million more in one year, Healy exclaimed that he was “not going to sit here and listen to it,” and exited his chair, effectively ending the meeting. The other two lawmakers had no comment.

The legislator, on several recent occasions, has noted at county board meetings that there only are two primary revenue sources for the county, those being property tax and sales tax.

He also said during discussions on petitioning the State Legislature to keep the county’s sales tax at 8.5 percent through November of 2025, instead of having it reduced to the statutory limit of a seven percent state-county rate, that the higher level was necessary for lower property taxes.

Legislators not all in agreement
All board members didn’t agree with his assessment during three different votes, which occurred due to changes in the state petition, with Legislator Gary Barnes of Wellsville saying he feels the county should be weaning itself off the higher sales tax rate and Legislator James Rumfelt of Andover telling Allegany Hope Community News that some of his constituents have complained about the sales tax rate, with both having voted against retaining the higher tax level.

The current state legislation is listed by the State Legislature database as having passed the Assembly on May 24, after having been approved by the Senate in a 53-8 vote. However, it is showing that the legislation was referred back to the Senate on the same day as the Assembly vote and is on third reading for a floor vote. The State Legislature has since adjourned.

The sales tax measure was introduced by Assemblyman Joseph Giglio and Senator George Borrello, one of two Senate representatives for the county, as part of a home rule request, after the County Legislature declared the action to be a fiscal “necessity.”

Towns and village also need money
Both county lawmakers who voted against the special legislation request, along with Legislator Steven Havey of Wellsville, have indicated support at District IV meetings in Wellsville and Andover for some of the county’s sales tax to go to local governments. This occurs in most New York State counties, particularly those in which there is a city which can preempt on its own initiative up to 1.5 percent of sales tax.

The need for additional revenue by towns and villages also was brought up by local government officials at the Friendship meeting, with Cuba representatives noting that law enforcement costs are increasing due to incidents related to the county Department of Social Services “dumping” homeless individuals for housing in that area.

County legislators at one point had discussed allocating some of its $9 million in federal pandemic funds to local governments, providing $25,000 to $50,000 to each, regardless of population. No action has occurred since the initial discussions.

The county has started the process of developing its operating budget for next year.