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THE DREAM OF A SPENDING CAP

April 18, 2010 - Ray Hall (Archive)

Democrats on the County Legislature want to place a cap on county spending. Good luck with that idea. Republicans are in total control of county government and that begs the question. Democrats could have capped spending during the theThomas years when Democrats controlled county government, but they didn’t.

Instead,Democrats used an $18 million surplus accumulated during the Goodell Administration to reduce the county property tax rate from more than $12 per thousand to something below seven dollars per thousand without once reducing the county budget in real dollars. They argued that a large cash surplus for the county amounted to overtaxation and insisted that using the surplus to lower the rates had the same effect.

Candidates for the office and elected legislators are well intentioned about reducing government spending in Mayville but once they are sworn in it doesn’t take long to learn how little local control a legislature has over spending.

Despite howls of protest from our two cities, fifteen villages and twenty-seven towns it is much easier for those entities to reduce actual spending in real dollars than it is for Chautauqua County for one compelling reason: County governments in New York are not entirely local creations; more by design than default county governments act as extensions of state government.

Nearly every transaction between local residents and Chautauqua County is a matter of state government. Register your new car in the local DMV or file a deed on piece of property and you will use the office of our local County Clerk which acts as an arm of the state and is one of only three constitutionally created elective offices in county government. The District Attorney and the Sheriff are the other two locally elected county offices created by our state constitution and even the DA’s annual salary is tied to those of state judges.

While it appears the state has permitted counties sufficient autonomy for self governance some Chautauqua County officials claim that as much as 80 percent of the county budget is mandated by the state. That leaves little for a county legislature to maneuver. The two departments where the legislature exerts financial influence is Public Works, roads and bridges and snow plowing and the Sheriff’s Department; arguably the two most costly but essential agencies to the good order and welfare of a taxpaying public.

Republicans have long scolded Democrats for not cutting taxes. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Republicans control all the levers of county government, except the Sheriff’s Department. The Republican majority could repeal the mortgage tax or lower the sales tax but I suspect they will try to force Sheriff Gerace into deeper cuts. We’ll see what happens, but I suspect the Republicans, like the Democrats before them, will find the county budget a difficult challenge.

 
 

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