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Wendel Proposes County Budget With Slight Tax Rate Decrease

The Chautauqua County Legislature held its first hybrid virtual meeting Wednesday night. The public was not permitted to attend, but county lawmakers could attend in person or virtually through Zoom.

Recognizing we are in challenging times, Interim Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel is proposing a slight tax rate decrease in his proposed budget for 2021, saying it will “make our 2021 comeback greater than our 2020 setback.”

On Wednesday, Wendel presented his proposed county budget to the full legislature. He is calling for a budget tax levy of $66,425,552, which is up 3% from 2020. His proposed budget has a tax rate of $8.41 per $1,000 assessed valuation. “This is 5 cents below last year’s rate but still 12 cents above the tax rate needed to stay under the tax cap. Lowering the tax rate while remaining over the tax cap is very unique situation, however, you can see that the proposed tax rate is significantly below the $10.11 adjusted for inflation since 2011,” said Wendel.

The budget does not rely on any of the county’s fund balance, leaving a projected fund balance of 5.3% by the end of 2021. The state requires a fund balance between 5 and 15%. Wendel said there may be a need to add to the fund balance from 2022-2025.

While preparing the budget, Wendel admitted this year is more challenging than past years because of COVID-19. “Our current financial situation is fluid and we are not certain what will happen with our economy so we had to plan for the worst and make changes from that starting point,” he said.

In terms of sales tax, Wendel is predicting the same amount originally adopted for 2020, which was $42,066,707.

For expenses, personal services is up 5.1%, due to contractual changes, however Wendel added that all bargaining units are now under contact for 2021.

Equipment cost dropped 43.1% and contractual costs dropped 2.4%.

The budget calls for 1,214 full time equivalent positions, a drop of 4.5 positions from 2020. Wendel said this staffing level is the minimum needed to maintain public services. “New funded positions include five positions in the public defenders office and five for mental hygiene which are all grant funded,” he said. There’s also 11 CARTS bus positions transitioning from substitute to full time employees.

Some of the items Wendel highlighted in his first budget presentation included:

¯ No reduction in services;

¯ Return to normal road maintenance schedule;

¯ Addition of a fourth Fly Car for emergency services;

¯ The addition of a safety coordinator;

¯ Conservative sales tax budget;

¯ Conservative occupancy tax budget;

¯ An $11 million investment in capital projects and heavy equipment.

“We’re able to accomplish this tentative budget without reducing services for any of the services our county residents rely on,” he said.

The budget is not without its challenges, but Wendel said he believes his proposed budget can weather the storm. “I am very confident that the 2021 budget provides a plan for continued success in Chautauqua County,” he said.

The county legislature will begin budget reviews the week of Oct. 5.

Legislator Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan said he was impressed by Wendel’s budget. “Four months ago I thought we were looking at a significant increase in the tax rate. But thanks to the work of the county executive, department heads, especially finance, the county employees, the 150 of them who took the voluntary furloughs, the legislature’s subcommittee … you were able to cut the legislature budget by over $4 million. On the face of it, a 5 cent per thousand decrease in the tax rate looks like a remarkable budget,” he said.

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