Progress continues to be made
This past Wednesday, I delivered my 2018 tentative budget for Chautauqua County.
When I first began my term as county executive in 2014, we were faced with uncertainty. We had job losses from businesses owned by corporations outside of the county and like most of the nation, we were struggling with the drug epidemic. We needed regional infrastructure development projects to better serve our residents, we were faced with the uncertainty of the NRG plant in Dunkirk, and we were proposing the privatization of the Chautauqua County Home. We were also faced with critical financial decisions.
In 2014, Chautauqua County had a tax levy of $64.2 million and a full valuation of $6.8 billion. We also had 1,351 government employees, a property tax rate of $9.17 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, and a stagnant sales tax rate of 7.5 percent. We also had a depleting fund balance as the county’s structural deficit for the prior eight years was plugged with budget cuts and the use of reserves.
This left us with difficult options when it came time to develop my 2015 budget. We didn’t have enough reserves to plug future gaps and making deeper cuts to our delivery of services would be extremely difficult. At that time, we could have raised our property taxes to plug the $7.5 million deficit, but that would have only driven more businesses and property owners away. We also had the option of returning our sales tax rate to 8 percent to help bridge the gap, but an increase was not supported by our New York state legislators for 2015.
Despite these adversities our county faced, today we are experiencing a county that is on the move and thriving. We have businesses expanding and bringing more jobs to the area and we are ensuring treatment services are available for those struggling with addiction. We are creating economic development opportunities through regional infrastructure projects such as the establishment of the North Chautauqua County Water District, which will soon be breaking ground. We are ecstatic that NRG will be repowering its facility and we are growing our tourism sector with waterfront development and more hotels, national attractions and best-in-class destination events.
In late 2014, I established a Deficit Reduction Commission, which gave us short term and long term options for tackling our structural deficit and moving our county to a solid fiscal foundation with a five-year plan. We privatized the Chautauqua County Home and we raised our sales tax rate to 8 percent so county visitors would be contributing more to our tax base. I also established a Regional Solutions Commission in 2016. This commission has been crucial in assisting our local municipalities in exploring merger, consolidation or shared services options; helping us meet the state’s shared services initiatives; and moving the county forward as we are now in the running for a $20 million Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition grant to help finance our county-wide consolidation and shared services projects.
So where does this leave us for next year? In 2018, Chautauqua County will have a full valuation of $7.2 billion. In my 2018 tentative budget, we would have a tax levy of $62 million, 1,246 government employees, and a property tax rate of $8.58 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Even though my proposed property tax rate is a 10 cents per thousand increase from last year, over the past four years that I have been your county executive, we have successfully driven down the county’s property tax rate to a point where we are now 23 cents less than the average of all 14 counties in Western New York. What is even more important is that our fiscal discipline and careful planning enables us to look out to the year 2022 and see stable low property tax rates with a solid unobligated fund balance sufficient to maintain our A+ credit rating.
Our investment priorities for 2018 are built on the four tenets of public safety, infrastructure, environment, and health care. We strengthened our countywide paramedic emergency medical response team and we are enhancing staffing at our countywide 911 dispatch center. We will maintain strong funding for our highways, bridges, and heavy equipment. In addition, we are working to complete the sewer system around the lake and boosting funding for the management of in-lake vegetation to address Chautauqua Lake’s weed problem. We also added staff to ensure same day access to our mental hygiene outpatient clinics and we will ensure our veterans receive access to PTSD peer support and transportation to area veteran health care facilities.
It is now clear the incredible work of our economic development team is delivering job growth across all sectors of our economy from tourism and hospitality to manufacturing and agriculture. During my final three months as your county executive, I will continue to work hard promoting economic development, job creation, and regional solutions.
Chautauqua County is on the move and this is a great time to be at the wheel. Hear the buzz; spread the word; Chautauqua County is the place to be!
You can view my full tentative budget presentation at: www.co.chautauqua.ny.us/186/County-Executive
Vince Horrigan is the Chautauqua County executive.