COMPARING TAXES, OR “APPLES AND ORANGES”

Several weeks ago I wrote about the County Budget. I noted that the County tax rate had once again been reduced for the 7th consecutive year. Since then I have had conversations with several taxpayers who disputed that claim. While I know what the tax rate is, I also know that what each taxpayer actually pays depends on several factors besides that “tax rate” set by the County Legislature. I decided to check our tax history. Fortunately, my wife keeps excellent records of our household expenses (including taxes). She was able to provide me with copies of tax bills on our personal residence. Here is our personal “taxing” experience. You may find it interesting.

My review covers 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. We have not made any changes in our residence over those years that should have resulted in a change in assessment. However, for those years our assessment was $74,200 (2014), $74,400 (2015), $76,900 (2016), and $76,900 (2017). From my personal perspective the property was exactly the same, but for assessment purposes it changed in 3 out of 4 years.

According to my tax receipts the “Equalization Rate” for my property changed from year to year. The Equalization Rates were as follows: 95% (2014), 100% (2015), 98% (2016), and 96% (2017). The County Legislature, Town Board and local Assessor have no control over the Equalization Rate. That is done by the State Office of Real Property Tax Services using certain formulae it has developed in accordance with State statutes.

The full value County Tax Rate for real estate taxes for those years were as follows: 2014= $16.70, 2015= $16.46, 2016= $16.29, and 2017= $16.05. It went down every year. However, for my residence the tax rates for those 4 years were as follows: 2014= 16.734174, 2015= 15.939593, 2016= 15.935622, and 2017= 15.755141. In 2014 my “equalized tax rate” was higher than the full value County tax rate, but in all other years it was lower than the County rate. However, the County has absolutely no control over the Equalized Tax Rate.

For most taxpayers the bottom line is how much they paid in County real property taxes. This amount is impacted by the factors referred to in the 3 preceding paragraphs: the property assessment, County tax rate, Equalization Rate, and equalized County tax rate. For those 4 years I paid the following amounts: 2014= $1,241.68, 2015= $1,217.78, 2016= $1,225.45, and 2017= $1,211.57. That means my county taxes went up in one year, and down in 2 years.

There is one other important factor that needs to be noted. My January tax bill covers several tax bills, besides the County taxes. My bills includes charges for the Town of Caneadea, Caneadea Fire District, Houghton Light District, Houghton Sewer District, and Houghton Water District. The total amount that I paid each year included much more than my County taxes. My total payments to the Tax Collector

were as follows: 2014= $2,367.99, 2015= $2,316.53, 2016= $2,251.44, and 2017= $2,240.70. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my total bill has gone done slightly each year. Unfortunately, that has not been the experience for all other taxpayers.

Several years ago I was involved in a conversation regarding food prices. Several individuals complained about paying higher prices for milk. A dairy farmer participating in the conversation took exception, and noted that he was getting paid less for the milk he produced than he had the year before. Everyone wondered why the price was going up when the farmer was being paid less for the primary ingredient in the product. There were obviously factors beyond the farmer’s control. The same is true about real property taxes. When the Legislature lowers the County tax rate, it should show up as lower taxes on your bill. The bottom line is that taxes are lower than they would have been if the Legislature had increased the tax rate, or left it unchanged. I hope this review helps clarify this complex topic.

Posted in Allegany County Government, Local Government, taxes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ANALYZING THE 2017 COUNTY BUDGET

The County Legislature approved the 2017 Allegany County Budget at its November 28th session. We have come a long way since I first joined the Board in January 2006. The County was then facing a Budget deficit of $5 million. Two years earlier the Legislature had increased taxes by more than 20%. Things were bad, and likely to get worse. Seven new county legislators had been elected in the 2005 general election. Things didn’t change overnight, but we can now point to some dramatic improvements.

We paid off the $5 million deficit, and have built up a fund balance (surplus) of more than $20 million. My first several years on the Board we were forced to approve tax rate increases. The additional revenue was used to balance the budget and start building our surplus. Seven years ago we approved our first reduction in the real property tax rate. This year we approved our 7th consecutive real property tax rate reduction. Since paying off the original $5 million deficit we have ended every year in the black. Most years we have managed to add to the surplus, in addition to reducing the tax rate.

I have become familiar with “Budget Realities.” One reality is that operating costs always increase. Another reality is that state and federal mandates sprout like weeds. The Legislature is always under pressure to contain costs. Besides regular operating expenses, we are periodically hit with major mandated capital projects. One project involved building a new Jail. Many predicted that its cost ($23 million) would bankrupt the County. Sheriff Ricky Whitney and his capable leadership team have worked with the Legislature to contain the financial damage. We stopped “housing out” our prisoners in other jails, thereby saving thousands of dollars annually. In addition we started “housing in” federal prisoners. Most years this has generated enough revenue to make the bond payments on the Jail. The Jail doesn’t actually “make money” for the County, but it hasn’t been the financial “disaster” that some predicted. I could share other similar examples.

The County Budget is our best estimate of next year’s expenses and revenue. Here are some details of the 2017 County Budget. The total Budget is $117,187,874, an increase of $2,125,402. Real property taxes will generate $30,373,335, or $5,333 less than in 2016. Other taxes are estimated to generate $19,133,000. State Aid will generate an estimated $13,141,737. Federal Aid should generate an additional $14,781,878. We estimate that the 8 larges State mandated programs cost Allegany County a net $17.46 million, above and beyond State Aid that is received.

Some of the more prominent or visible programs funded by the County Budget include the following:

o Court and Judicial programs including District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Assigned Counsel, Medical Examiners & Coroners and Grand Jury – $1,720,418.

o Finance including Auditor, County Treasurer’s Office, Assessments and Tax Sales – $1,150,070.

o Various staffed positions including County Clerk’s Office, County Attorney’s Office, Human Resources, Board of Elections, Public Works Administration – $2,253,942.

o Shared Services for County Government – $1,787,947.

o Education including Community College Tuition & Special Education – $2,595,451.

o Public Safety including Sheriff’s Department, Public Safety Radio Program, Drug Programs, E-911 Dispatch, Probation Department, Stop-DWI, Jail operations, Traffic Control, Emergency Services, Homeland Security – $10,747,581.

o Public Health including County Health Department, Family Planning, Rabies Clinics, Water Quality Management, Tobacco Awareness, Early Intervention Program, Cancer Services Program, Bio-Terrorism Preparedness, WIC Program – $2,840,906.

o Mental Health Programs – $1,958,865.

o Bus Transportation Programs – $1,098,469.

o Social Services Programs – $31,980,830.

o Office of Development – $288,646.

o Office For Aging Programs – $2,152,565.

o Tourism and Culture – $236,625.

o Youth Bureau and Youth Programs – $98,106.

o Solid Waste Program – $1,914,827.

o Workforce Investment Act (W.I.A. Grant Fund) – $1,055,577.

o Risk Retention Fund for Health Insurance – $8,422,000.

o County Road Fund and Programs – $9,144,266.

o County Road Machinery Fund – $1,268,207.

I trust this review has helped you understand some of the complexity of the County Budget. It is a major responsibility of the County Board of Legislators.

Posted in Allegany County Government, economy, Local Government | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS – SECOND CHANCES

As I write this article it is just a few days before Christmas, though it won’t be published and read until a few days after Christmas. This has caused me to reflect on how timing impacts perception and perspective. Our perceptions and perspectives change with events, developments, anticipation and fears. The “facts” are important, but frequently are not fully understood until many months or years after the fact. In some respects this is completely commonplace and ordinary. However, in some other senses, this might be considered profound.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. In this age of skepticism and secularism not everyone believes this any more. Regardless of your beliefs, it is incontrovertible that the life of the child born in that stable two millennia ago has had immense impact on almost everyone who has lived since then. Millions of individuals have lived and died because of their faith in and beliefs about Jesus. Some believers (and unbelievers) have killed (or been killed) by others who agreed (or disagreed) with them about who Jesus was (or was not), and what he represented. Great acts of love and mercy have also been done in His name, just as great atrocities and hatred have been done in His name. The one thing that most of us can agree upon is that Jesus has had an extraordinarily great impact upon history.

Could any of that impact have been predicted at the time of his birth in Bethlehem? Judea was a poor conquered province. (In some ways very similar to Allegany County today.) It was an unimportant backwater. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register so that the Roman Empire could impose more taxes upon them. (Some things never change.) The circumstances of his birth were somewhat scandalous, as Joseph and Mary were not officially married when Jesus was conceived. What could a child born into those circumstances possibly accomplish in life? The odds favored him living and dying in anonymous obscurity. Instead he became the focal point of much of civilization and history.

The central teaching of Christianity is that Jesus was sent by God from Heaven to save us from our fallen (sinful) condition. When I look around it seems obvious that humanity is pretty messed up. Much of the time, it’s clear that most of us are in desperate need of some serious help. Christianity claims that Jesus’s birth represents that help. In essence it is God giving us a second chance. As a very imperfect individual I am deeply thankful that God has given me not just a “second chance” but innumerable additional chances. I am also very thankful for all of the others who have shown patience and mercy to me during my life.

My faith in God and Jesus has significantly impacted every aspect of my life. I have been shown love and mercy, and have been challenged to show that same love and mercy to others. I believe we reflect the nature of God to the extent we offer second chances and mercy to others. We don’t have to be perfect to be Christians

(thankfully). We just have to acknowledge our weakness, seek forgiveness, and then allow God to show His mercy to us, and to others through us.

What does any of this have to do with my being a County Legislator? For me there is a significant connection. I find encouragement in the fact that God gave Judea, and the entire world, a second chance. We are still in need of second chances. God can still use people from humble and obscure places to accomplish amazing things, perhaps even miracles. Our County, nation and world seem to be in need of help. Especially at Christmas I am encouraged to believe that God is giving us a “second chance,” and wants to change things for the better. What do you believe?

Posted in Christianity, Christmas, Faith, Local Government | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ELECTION 2016 – WHAT HAPPENED, AND WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

It has been about 3 weeks since the 2016 election concluded. Donald Trump is currently the President-Elect, though Clinton and Stein have filed for recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It appears that they will have to achieve reversals in all three states in order to alter the Electoral College outcome. That is highly unlikely, so I will assume that the outcome will not change, and Trump will be sworn in come January.

American voters have rejected “establishment” candidates the past several elections. Obama was an inexperienced outsider. There were numerous mainstream candidates among the large Republican field. None of them came close to defeating Trump, an outsider. Bernie Sanders almost defeated Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider. The election result does not represent a choice of Republicans over Democrats. Rather, it reflects the choice of an outsider, over an insider. Republicans need to ask if that outcome would have been different if Sanders had been the Democratic candidate.

Based upon what has happened since the election, it appears that Donald Trump isn’t going to change much from what we saw during the campaign. He is unorthodox, and outspoken. Some of that goes with coming from New York City. Some of it indicates impatience with how both major parties have betrayed their heritage. Trump is a pragmatist, rather than an idealogue. He promised to bring jobs back to America, and to give us back our pride as Americans. Clinton and Obama have preached “inclusiveness” while ignoring the fact that most mainstream Americans feel neglected and betrayed by our government. If Trump can deliver on his promises to restore America to its greatness, then he could transform American politics.

The Democratic Party has to figure out why it lost this election, and what to do about it. It appears that many in that party are claiming that they need to become more liberal and activist. I believe that is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw from the outcome. They need to go back to their roots and reclaim the traditional middle class values that made them the majority party in American politics for almost 50 years. Pursuing their extreme “activist” agenda could destroy that heritage and marginalize that party.

The Republican Party also needs to figure out how they won this election. Speaker Paul Ryan correctly noted that Donald Trump heard a message from American voters that most other Republicans missed. By appealing to the frustrated and disenfranchised middle class, Trump managed to win states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) that Republicans have not won in several decades. Republicans need to become the party of the middle class, not the party of Big Business. They also need to learn to work together. They need to get along with each other better than they got along with Democrats over the past 8 years. If they fail to do so they will have a very short honeymoon in Washington.

Americans want change. However, it isn’t something new and different that they want. It appears they want an America that their parents or grandparents would be comfortable with. That may be troublesome to some with activist agendas. However, that vision has the advantage of having proved that it works. It succeeded in making America the envy of the world. President Obama has spent much of the past 8 years apologizing for America’s success and prosperity. Ironically we have less success and prosperity than in several generations. There is room in America for immigrants, minorities and non-mainstream viewpoints. However, for a democracy to work, it must appeal to a majority of the population.

I am cautiously optimistic that Donald Trump will pull off this political upset. However, success isn’t guaranteed. There are many ways that the politicians and media can get this wrong. Hopefully they will recognize that politics is ultimately about the people, and not about the leaders. If they figure that out, then there is hope for our nation’s future.

Posted in Federal Government, National Issues, Political, presidential election | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE “OTHER THINGS” THE COUNTY DOES.

There are some things that County government does that almost everyone knows about. However, there are some “other things” the County does that aren’t as obvious or well known. Some of those responsibilities were covered at the November 14th session of the County Legislature. They will be described later in this article.

The session began with the Pledge of Allegiance. Former Army Sergeant John Plummer, of Belmont, led us in reciting the Pledge. John served from October 1966 to October 1969. He served in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969, including participating in the Tet Offensive. I commend him for his service to our nation, and his contributions to our community.

Nine resolutions were considered and 7 of them approved during this session. Resolution #259-16 established a full-time position of Third Assistant District Attorney, while retaining a part-time position of Fourth Assistant District Attorney. District Attorney Keith Slep proposed the changes as a way of saving money. By having one person fill two part-time positions the fringe benefits for an additional assistant District Attorney can be saved. If (at a later date) a person cannot be found to fill the full-time position, the additional part-time position would need to be filled. The next three resolutions represent some little known duties performed by the County. Resolution #260-16 involved the re-levy of returned school taxes. School taxes that are not paid are sent to the County to be “re-levied” on the January tax bills. School districts then receive their tax payments from the County. If property owners pay the re-levied school taxes early next year everything is settled. However, if the January taxes are not paid the County has footed the bill, and must go through a tax foreclosure to recover the money. Resolution #261 re-levied the returned Village Taxes and Resolution #262-16 re-levied the returned (unpaid) sewer district and water district bills. This procedure guarantees that schools, villages, towns and water/sewer districts receive the full amount of their tax warrants. The County assumes the risk for all of the other municipalities.

Resolution #263-16 authorized acceptance of maintenance jurisdiction for a parcel of land along NYS Route 205 in Cuba, for quitclaim to an adjacent landowner.

Resolution #264-16 involved a memorandum of agreement between the County and Sheriff’s Deputies Union. That resolution was tabled to allow further negotiation and analysis. Some legislators weren’t sure that its provisions were in the County’s best interests. Resolution #265-16 would have created five (5) new part-time Deputy Sheriff positions within the Sheriff’s Department. It was also tabled. Resolution #266-16 approved an agreement between the County and Greater Allegany County Chamber of Commerce for $80,000. This is to fund the County Tourism Promotion program. Resolution #267-16 approved an agreement between Allegany County and Allegany Rehabilitation Associates for a “forensic crisis counselor” to serve the County Jail. This agreement will save the Sheriff’s

Department and County thousands of dollars over other ways of providing these mandated services.

County government has become the preferred destination for many different federal and state mandated programs. There are some good reasons for this. The State doesn’t want to run all of its own programs on a local level. There are too many towns and villages to make it efficient to push those programs down to them. That leaves the counties as the intermediate level where most programs land. There are more than 4,000 towns and villages, and only 57 counties. Unfortunately, New York State only partially funds those programs. It makes counties pick up the balance of the cost. This places an enormous financial burden on counties throughout the State. This includes operating jails, landfills, prosecuting criminal conduct (District Attorney’s Office), E-911 Program, Public Health Department, some Public Welfare Programs (Department of Social Services), and most Mental Health programs. Remember these “non-traditional” programs, as well as the traditional county programs (such as Sheriff’s Department, Department of Social Services, County Roads) the next time you wonder why your county taxes are so high.

Posted in Allegany County Government, Local Government, NY State Government, Veterans | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

WHAT DOES THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION REALLY MEAN?

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was a total surprise to me. Judging by the reactions of those who are protesting, I am not alone in my surprise. There are many different theories and opinions about what happened, and what it means. After listening and reading a great deal about the voting, here are my own thoughts about the election of Donald Trump.

One perspective on the vote is that Hilary Clinton “lost” the election, more than Donald Trump “won” it. As of November 13th it appears that Clinton received almost 61 million votes compared to Trumps 60.4 million votes. However, the popular vote isn’t critical because the outcome is determined by the electoral college. Trump has an overwhelming lead in that vote (290-228). Clinton won big in New York, California and Illinois, while losing close in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump has actually received fewer votes than either McCain or Romney in the two prior elections. Clinton significantly under-performed Obama’s vote totals of 68 million (2008) and 65 million (2012). Clinton lost because she received more than 7 million (2008) and 4 million (2012) fewer votes than Obama.

In several key cities African-American voter turn-out was much smaller than in recent elections. More than 1.5 million fewer African-Americans voted in 2016, than in 2012. Lower turnout in Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Detroit (Michigan), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) and Charlotte (North Carolina) probably allowed Trump to win those states. Lower turn-out was crucial to the outcome of this election.

Nevertheless, Trump achieved a remarkable victory. Although it appears that fewer Republican voters turned out for Trump than voted for either John McCain or Mitt Romney, he still won. Many Democratic voters crossed party lines to vote for Trump. Why did traditional voting patterns change? Here are some of the answers that are being put forward:

* Clinton didn’t have a focus for her campaign, other than that she wasn’t Trump;

* Clinton didn’t generate significant enthusiasm for her candidacy, while having some major negatives related to the e-mail scandal and Clinton Foundation corruption;

* Many voters from both parties were frustrated that their “party” had abandoned them and was dedicated to “special interests” rather than to the traditional values of their party;

* Trump’s central message was the same as Obama’s message in 2008 and 2012. His call for fundamental “change” in American government resonated with many working class Americans;

* The past three Presidential elections have been won by candidates running as “outsiders.” Unfortunately for her, Hilary Clinton was viewed as the quintessential “insider.”

* It appears that “economic” issues, including Obamacare, foreign trade deals, poor paying jobs, illegal immigration, etc., were more important than the “social” issues that Clinton emphasized.

I believe that there are some important messages here for both political parties. Consider the following:

A. The Democratic Party neglected its historic base of “blue-collar” workers, and focused on special interest groups. Those “blue-collar” workers punished their party by voting for Trump in large numbers. However, Trump was not a traditional Republican conservative candidate. He had already defeated those candidates in the Republican primaries. The key message is that both major political parties need to re-evaluate their values and focus. In that sense Donald Trump may have established a new political movement. His coalition is more focused on traditional values and economic policies than on ideology. The political party that recognizes and embraces that reality may become the dominant party of the next several decades.

B. America is not as liberal as either major party, or the main-stream media, believed. The liberal elite does not have the mandate it thought it did. Traditional values focused on families, jobs and community are still important to a majority of Americans.

C. The Americans that I know that voted for Donald Trump are not racists, religious bigots, homo-phobs, or anti-immigrants. They are loyal traditional Americans who want to “Make America Great Again.”

D. By giving Trump a Republican Congress, they voted to end gridlock. They want Constitutional government again.

Posted in Federal Government, National Issues, Political | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WHEN IS THE “NEWS” NOT THE “NEWS”?

The dictionary defines “news” as “a report of recent events.” Based on that definition most of what is reported on television, radio, cable and internet doesn’t qualify as “news.” This is especially true of political reporting, but is also true of almost every other topic. The short answer to this question is that “predictions” are not news, and “commentaries” are not news.

About a week ago I visited my brother on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. We were shocked to find extensive damage that resulted from Hurricane Matthew. As that hurricane developed we followed the news reports because of concern for loved ones. That “news” reports would spend a brief time telling us where the hurricane had hit, and where it was located. Much more time was spent predicting where it was likely to go next, how severe it was likely to be, and what potential damage was expected. Most of those predictions turned out to be wrong. Hurricane Matthew ultimately veered to the east, and the “eye” of the hurricane missed Cape Hatteras. The media reported that the crisis had been averted, and moved on to the next crisis. In reality there was extensive damage to thousands of houses and businesses resulting from the “storm surge.” Two weeks after the storm debris from thousands of houses and business was piled along the roads. Local residents said it was the worst hurricane damage in more than 20 years. Those residents also complained that the national media ignored this catastrophe.

We had some lengthy discussions with local residents about why there was so little “news” coverage. Some said that it was because the media is obsessed with the election campaign. Others thought that it was because the damage was caused by flooding, and not by the hurricane itself. Still others thought it was because they are located in a remote area, and not in a high population area. Others said it was because storm surge damage isn’t as “video-friendly” as hurricane winds. The bottom line is that there was extensive coverage about what “might happen” and no coverage about what actually “did happen.” Unfortunately, this is fairly typical of most newsworthy incidents.

This is most evident when dealing with political campaigns. What has actually happened? There have been speeches, allegations, leaked e-mails, and debates. It wouldn’t take very long to report on those matters. However, there has been “wall-to-wall coverage” with lots of predictions, commentaries, and polls. None of that is actually “news” under the traditional definition. My own analysis is that less than 20% of what is reported actually qualifies as factual reporting. It is mostly prediction and commentary.

This is very troubling and has several significant impacts. First, it has enabled the mainstream news outlets to insert their own bias into the reports. Second, it allows them to avoid dealing with “facts” they don’t want to report, or that doesn’t fit with that outlet’s perspectives. Thirdly, it diverts our attention from what is “fact” to what is “opinion.” Finally, it has brought us to a point where there is little

attention to, or discussion of, the real issues that should be the focus of the campaigns.

I am very disappointed that there has been so little discussion about the major problems and issues facing our nation. We have focused on beauty pageants and e-mail leaks, rather than on national security and fundamental economic policy. We would have been better served if we had engaged in serious debate about policies and issues. Instead the media has focused on personalities. Much of this is the result of something that is frequently overlooked or forgotten. The news media is a “for-profit” business, and those engaged in it are celebrities. They get big money primarily for being popular. These businesses are accountable to owners and shareholders to keep ratings, and profits, high. The media has its own agenda, which apparently has little to do with what is good for the country. Keep this in mind the next time you watch the “news.”

Posted in National Issues, News Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment