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Tompkins County Legislature Holds 2022 Budget Retreat

Tompkins County Legislators heard an outline of the economic, fiscal, and budgetary situation from Administrator Jason Molino heading into the drafting of the 2022 County budget. The 2022 budget process will take place over the next five months and will be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s economic toll and the economic recovery.

Economic and fiscal indicators were discussed, including unemployment, inflation, and local indicators of need (SNAP cases, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF benefits), and State Safety Net benefits). The local indicators of need have seemed to decrease as benefits like enhanced unemployment were offered by the state and federal governments. Molino outlined that the decline may also be related also to the New York State eviction moratorium issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, which “freed up buying power for individual families, helping with living expenses thus reducing other safety net needs.” He continued “The thinking is that as enhanced public assistance continues to go down, the economy will grow out of this ‘post-COVID recession’, hopefully lessoning the need for greater public assistance in the future.”

Other fiscal drivers that impact the budget were discussed, including sales tax. Sales tax is the second biggest revenue driver for the County, after property taxes. 2020 showed a decrease of 12.3%, following years of consistent growth. As the January through March 2021 numbers were compared to the same period in 2020 and 2019, it showed that revenues are around 4% less than 2020 and .63% less than that span in 2019. In 2020 no NYS County fared worse than Tompkins in sales tax revenues, reflecting a significant decrease in local spending related to the Colleges being remote and travel restrictions.

Major budget drivers related to local costs showed several calculated and anticipated increases that will be considered throughout the budget process. Molino outlined a series of mandated and discretionary costs and projections for revenue increases over 2020 and 2021 as a result of the pandemic. Sales tax projections assumed at least a 4.5% increase as the economy recovers. A maintenance of current County government efforts would require about a $1 million tax levy increase (or 1.89% growth). Molino shared that beyond maintenance of effort activities there may be a growth for sponsored local non-governmental agencies – in addition to the anticipated restoration of some departmental target funding.

Sponsored agencies and tourism were discussed, and Molino recommended an approach that would provide relief to the sponsored agencies by growing target funding over time while leveraging some one-time or stimulus funding to make up the difference. This would leave 2028 as the year where the target funding would return to 100% of funding levels pre-COVID-19. Molino suggested a similar approach for the Tourism Program, using one time funding and annual growth to bring the program back to pre-COVID funding by 2024. These suggestions were shared to help lessen the economic hit on key local programs and not-for-profit agencies.

Molino’s ultimate initial recommendation was to increase the tax levy by 1.89% to support a maintenance of effort, to use $1.34 million of fund balance or stimulus funding to provide additional non-target funding to sponsored agencies and the tourism program, and to monitor sales tax and adjust accordingly. He also suggested that American Rescue Plan funding be prioritized for one time, County-specific needs. Infrastructure needs and other factors impacting the County’s future were also discussed.

Following the presentation from Molino, Legislators discussed potential impacts on local taxpayers. Chair of the Budget, Capital, and Personnel Committee, Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) added, “Under all the circumstances the 1.89% recommendation is a good one, we may revisit based on where we sit in August.” The conversation included local development and the growth of the real estate market. Legislature Chairwoman Leslyn McBean-Clairborne thanked Molino for his thoughts and the strategies he presented. A straw poll of Legislators reflected that they were also generally supportive of the suggestions and recommendations outlined during the retreat and plan to continue to assess the situation and adapt planning as 2021 progresses. Some perspectives differed related to the tax levy as three legislators recommended a higher levy increase be considered. The budget will be discussed again at the next Legislature meeting.