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July 19, 2019

6/8/2019 7:30:00 AM
New taxes still on table as panel looks for money
But bundling and borrowing, selling county forestland on back burner

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter


Oneida County's funding opportunities committee, tasked with coming up with a ballpark $800,000 in sustainable revenues to fund wage increases, continued to work through a multitude of revenue and cost-savings ideas this week, putting some concepts, such as selling county forestland, on hold, while leaving other possibilities, such as new taxes, on the active table.

Subcommittees will now take the list and work through it in more detail.

While committee chairman Dave Hintz said he was not in favor of new taxes, and other members of the committee, which is composed of both county board supervisors and selected staff, said they were reluctant, the committee let new taxes live on as a consideration.

Land information director and committee member Mike Romportl explained why he thought new taxes should remain an option.

"Frankly, I don't think it should be taken off the table, as a whole," Romportl said. "If you've read these responses from the departments (department heads answered a funding opportunities committee questionnaire about cost savings and revenue possibilities), you can sense how they have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. Programs have been cut, and, again, going back with my years of experience here, quite frankly Oneida County is being run quite efficiently and you don't see a lot of fat on anybody's budget. It's been trimmed."

There is going to be a time of reckoning, Romportl said.

"I don't like new taxes, either, but the reality of it is, there may be a time when this county is going to have to take a look at that," he said.

A $15 wheel tax in Oneida County would generate a half-million dollars, he said: "That's something maybe public works should be looking at for highways."

Supervisor Alan VanRaalte agreed.

"I'm not wild about the idea of new taxes, either, but if it's an alternative to cutting some of the programs that some of our constituents believe to be important - are they willing to pay for them, and we don't know unless we ask," VanRaalte said.

To cite just one example why new taxes might be needed at some point, VanRaalte said the cost of child protective services has risen by $30 million since about 2011, while revenues to counties have increased by only in the neighborhood of $7 million.

"And that's just one example," Romportl added. "There are a number of examples over the last 10 years when you see budget cuts at the federal and state levels, (those obligations) got transferred to the counties, or to school districts or towns, and you can just see the effects of that. How many communities have had to put PRAT (Premier Resort Area Tax) taxes, wheel taxes in place. It's just a shifting of that obligation where people no longer rely on the state but on their local communities, so it's something that has to be looked at in the big picture."



Not right now

The idea of bundling projects and borrowing for them did not fare so well, ending up as an idea the committee decided not to pursue at the moment. Because debt service is not subject to levy limits, borrowing for projects that are now on the levy could free up those levy dollars.

"We could bundle $800,000 in capital improvement projects, borrow for that, and put the $800,000 toward salaries, and avoid the tax levy limit because they don't include debt service," Hintz said.

However, while it was on the list, Hintz stressed that he didn't like the idea.

"In concept, I don't like it because once you start it, it's only going to increase," he said. "I would like to see the county do this only as a last resort."

Romportl raised the issue of borrowing for some capital improvements projects for which the county has an immediate need, but Hintz noted that was in a broader sense rather than just bundling and borrowing for wages.

Finance director Darcy Smith also pointed out that to free up levy dollars, the county would have to borrow for things that are currently funded by the levy.

"The majority of our capital improvement projects are funded by the general fund," Smith said. "They are not funded by the levy. You'd have find something like road construction to borrow for. Roads would probably be one of the very few alternatives you would have."

Another proposal tabled for the foreseeable future is the idea of selling some county forestland.

For one thing, as supervisor Billy Fried pointed out, selling land is a one-time deal and so it is not sustainable.

In addition, VanRaalte observed that, over the past five years, county forestland has generated an average of $1.7 million in annual income - $1.5 million after required severance payments. So if some of that was sold, the county would have to figure out how to generate income to replace those lost revenues.

The current revenue breaks down to a net income per acre of $18.43 cents, VanRaalte said.

"It was suggested that the land in the western part of the county be sold, which would be Lynne and Little Rice, and that accounts for 56 percent of all county forestland," he said. "If the county was to divest itself of that land - there's a lot of wetlands out there and it's miles away from utilities - it's not especially the kind of land that is going to attract developers."

More likely, VanRaalte said, the land would be purchased by someone who would enroll it in the Managed Forest Law program. The taxes on that for open land is $2.04 an acre.

"Right now we're realizing $18.43 an acre, but we would get $2.04 an acre, " he said.

Combined with other factors, such as the cost of appraisals, VanRaalte said the proposal didn't make much sense.

"Plus we're selling an asset," he said. "Somebody would have to come up with how do we make up the nearly million dollars in lost timber sales revenue if we sell 56 percent of the county forestland. Personally, I think it would be a dumb business decision."

The committee also decided to put aside the outsourcing of janitorial, landscaping, and maintenance services, except perhaps for a specific project that might come along.

Despite putting those items on hold, the committee and the four subcommittees will still be diving into a number of possibilities to either raise revenue or cut spending. Among those items are the potential reorganization of departments, eliminating certain programs based on the county's efficiency study, various health insurance adjustments, increasing pay for difficult to fill positions, a review of legal costs, and other ideas.

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.







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