Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kudos as warranted ...

Typically, my column is a rant. I'm upset or complaining about something. Frankly, people seem to like it that way. I mean, who wants to read a column about how awesome everything is?

Fortunately, there is a lot that goes wrong in the world and I never seem to lack for a rant-worthy topic.

But sometimes things go right. Okay, things go right a lot. But sometimes things go really right … and I feel compelled to offer some kudos. For example, kudos to Niagara County Manager Greg Lewis for holding the line on the county's property tax levy. This year, the county collected $67.5 million in taxes from county residents. He's proposing to collect exactly the same amount next year.

A lot of people get confused about the difference between a tax rate and a tax levy. And I can't blame most of them. It's confusing. Put as simply as I can, the tax rate is the percentage of your home's value you have to pay in taxes each year. The tax levy is the total amount the county collects. You want to watch the tax levy. If it goes up, your taxes are most likely going up. Sometimes legislators like to tout that the tax rate is decreasing, but that's usually due to revaluation. If your $100,000 home is now allegedly worth $110,000 according to your town, you could – in theory – pay a lower tax rate … but still pay more in taxes.

Even Lewis seems confused about the issue, saying “Most people living in Niagara County will experience a reduction in taxes on their bill.”

This can only possibly be true if the minority of residents pick up the tab for that reduction. Unlikely. I'd say odds are most people's tax bills will be about the same, with a few going up and a few going down.

Mr. Lewis, be proud enough for holding the line. Don't try to make it sound like you're lowering people's taxes. No one likes a braggart. Especially when the claim is false.

Despite my kudos, there are some things to be concerned about. One of the ways in which the county was able to hold the line is because the state will be asking for $5 million less for the county’s share of the cost for Medicaid programs. Had the state not asked for less, the tax levy would be $5 million higher. As it is, county officials expect the state to ask for a more than $7 million increase next year. If everything else remains flat, that's a 10 percent increase in the levy … or to reiterate, a 10 percent increase in the average homeowners tax bill.

Another area of concern is that the county workforce is growing. The 2010 budget calls for 1,714 employees, up from a total of 1,671 in 2009. That's 43 more jobs that taxpayers are footing the bill for. Which might sound more reasonable if Niagara County were growing, but it's not. The population continues to shrink. Unemployment continues to rise. That means less people paying, but more people receiving.

Legislators are expected to meet individually to go over the spending plan. They have the final say and could, of course, increase it, but I don't see that as likely, to be honest.

I know I threw in some negative things there at the end, but all-in-all holding the line should be appreciated. Call your legislator and tell them you appreciate Mr. Lewis holding the line. And would appreciate it if they kept that line held … or better yet, do a little cutting.