By Holly Crocco
In his first budget proposal delivered as Putnam’s leader, County Executive Kevin Byrne recently presented a spending plan for 2024 that would keep the tax levy flat and reduce the tax rate in the county portion of homeowners’ tax bills.
His proposed $195 million spending plan uses a projected $77.5 million in sales tax revenue to balance the budget. After state and federal aid, departmental income and other various revenue streams, that leaves $46.6 million to be collected through taxes. This lowers the property tax rate to $2.87 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or 2.87 percent.
“It represents the lowest property tax rate for Putnam County in over 15 years,” Byrne said at the Oct. 5 meeting of the Putnam County Legislature, where he presented his proposed budget.
Despite the county’s Aa1 credit rating from Moody’s Investment Services, Byrne said borrowing money to complete capital projects has gotten extremely costly, and suggests the county instead use money in its capital reserves to move forward with some improvements.
“Gone are the days of 1 percent lending and low-cost financing projects,” he said. “While traditionally the county has borrowed to finance its large-scale capital projects, after consulting with our finance department and independent auditors, we have determined it instead makes much better fiscal sense to utilize $7.8 million from our general fund, to take advantage of our capital reserves to support our capital plan by committing resources to support important infrastructure projects across the county.”
Byrne noted that this year, the state has again reduced how much federal support it will pass down for Medicaid services, with the county losing $1.5 million this year.
“It’s lost funding to programs we absolutely cannot afford to cut at the county level because of how devastating it could be to those families that rely on the social safety net of services the county administers on a daily basis,” he said.
In addition, the New York State comptroller recently announced that counties will be required to increase their contributions rates to the state pension system, which will lead to Putnam having to contribute $1.3 million more than what was budgeted for this year.
Byrne is also proposing the county participate in the state’s program to eliminate the 4 percent sales tax on clothing and footwear purchases of less than $110, which he says will help modestly reduce the overall tax burden.
This includes purchases made online, in which the tax is based on the buyer’s residence. “That means this tax exemption will directly support Putnam residents who buy online,” he said. “Consumption-based taxation like sales tax is typically preferred, compared to income or property taxes because it’s driven by choice and market pricing. Sales tax also allows Putnam County to collect taxes from those who travel through our county. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not regressive and it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect our residents.”
In his quest to get creative with ways government can operate more efficiently, Byrne suggests implementing a new Savings Incentive Partnership program for employees, which encourages them to think “outside the box” and tap into their knowledge of county operations and expenditures to try and save taxpayers money.
“If you have an idea on how to save the county money, and that idea, in its execution, realizes actual cost savings, you’ll have an opportunity to get a share of that savings,” he explained.
While there is a budget line for this program, Byrne said it will only be tapped into once savings are realized. “Which means the financing for this program literally comes from its own success,” he said.
The proposed budget includes changes to the Department of Planning, Development and Transportation, in which the transportation manager and a vacant planning assistant position will be eliminated and longtime transportation manager Vincent Tamagna will be fill a new role of director of transportation.
In addition, current Senior Principal Planner Barbara Barosa will be named commissioner of the department, under the proposed budget.
The spending plan also proposes the creation of a new director of mental health, to be funded in part with moneys from the opioid settlement abatement funds coming through New York State.
Byrne’s proposed budget invests $7.8 million to support infrastructure with a renewed focus on sticking to the county’s six-year capital plan, as the county charter dictates. This includes continuing with projects to improve Fair Street in Carmel and Peekskill Hollow Road in Putnam Valley, protect water quality across the county, support “green” infrastructure, and more.
Byrne is also proposing the addition of two new initiatives to help outside agencies and local governments that are seeking support from the county.
The Community Assistance Initiative would help nonprofits seeking funding from the county to come up with goals and plans, to prevent the county from having to “arbitrarily pick winners and losers with taxpayer money.”
“I recognize that Putnam County budgets have not treated all nonprofits equally or fairly, but this initiative seeks to remedy that,” said Byrne.
Similarly, the Municipal Partnership Initiative would seek to delegate funds to towns and villages, as well as special districts – specifically incentivizing municipalities that work together to save money.
Lastly, the county executive said his office will continue the commitment from the previous administration to filter $5 million in additional American Recovery Plan Act funds to municipalities to help with various projects. However, it will not be sharing any sales tax, which the prior administration did for the first time in this year’s budget.
“I do suspect there will be those who undoubtedly disagree with our decision not to directly divert county taxpayer dollars from the general fund to local governments,” said Byrne. “But the fact is we are taking on more expenses, more responsibility to provide a better quality of life for the people who call Putnam home.”