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Voting on tax increase

The Washington County Finance Committee votes down a proposed reduction in the tax rate for next year as Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff, right front, reacts by pointing at Supervisor Richard Moore. 'I told you! I knew you'd vote no!' he said. Moore had urged Haff to make a motion reducing the tax rate a moment earlier, saying, 'I think you have it this time,' and saying he might vote for it.

For a few hours this week, it looked like Washington County might lower its proposed county tax increase.

Sales tax revenue is up — really up — this year. On Thursday, the county Finance Committee learned the county is on track to get $20.2 million this year. The supervisors had only budgeted $19.45 million, and for next year has budgeted $19.85 million. It’s a big part of the county budget, which has a general fund of $87.65 million.

If the county is going to get a lot more revenue, there are two choices: budget for more, thus reducing the tax levy, or leave the budget alone and put any extra money into savings. The tax levy is currently proposed to increase 2.02 percent.

Supervisors held a robust debate on the topic before deciding to go with the second option.

“There’s no other way to increase fund balance. You can’t tax for fund balance,” said Hebron Supervisor Brian Campbell.

Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien added that he was worried this year’s revenue might be a fluke.

“We’ve never hit $20 million. We want to budget something we’ve never hit before?” he said.

But Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff told them they were too willing to tax.

“That’s because you’re taking other people’s money,” he said. “If sales tax doesn’t come in, spend less money. That’s what I’d do.”

They might not have enough warning, said Budget Officer and Easton Supervisor Dan Shaw.

“By June, July, the only option we’d have is to not do roads,” he said.

Haff scoffed. Their philosophy, he said, was, “Let’s tax more, just in case!”

But if the supervisors are wrong, Cambridge Supervisor Cassie Fedler said, it would hurt the taxpayers in 2020.

“If you don’t have the money, it ricochets onto the taxpayer and taxes have to go up,” she said.

Haff then tried to get the supervisors to lower the tax rate by spending $658,000 more of the county’s savings, on the grounds that the county will end up not spending it because revenue like sales tax will come in higher than expected. For example, this year the county is on track to spend just $500,000 in savings despite budgeting that it would spend $5 million of the fund balance.

If the county budgeted to spend another $658,000 of savings, there would be no tax rate increase.

County Administrator Chris DeBolt agreed that the county could go without a tax increase for one year.

“I can tell you we would not go bankrupt,” he said. “We have done this at the county before, where we have held it to zero (increase). We do zero, zero, zero, and inevitably we end up with a 20 (percent increase). You’re right, 2019 would be OK. But 2021 or 2022, it’s going to be a crisis.”

Haff accepted this, saying, “Meet me halfway.”

He proposed cutting the tax increase in half, which would require spending $330,000 in savings.

Chairman and Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke objected, saying that the 2019 budget is much tighter than in years past, when department heads would try to budget for the “worst-case scenario.” For next year, they used their average of five years of expenses.

“If there’s no huge things, we’re fine,” Henke said. “It doesn’t take much. One murder case.”

So Haff tried one last time, proposing that the county take $166,000 from elsewhere to reduce the tax increase from 2 percent to 1.5 percent.

Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks seconded the motion, which was the first time any supervisor had supported Haff’s efforts.

Haff argued that the small amount of money could be pulled from the fund balance, but that the supervisors could watch the budget closely next year and find savings to balance out the cost.

Shaw argued that the supervisors should find $166,000 in cuts to the budget right away instead.

“If there’s stomach to cut appropriations, let’s do it,” he said enthusiastically.

But no one else wanted that.

“It’s my opinion it would hurt the taxpayers to not raise (the tax rate) 2 percent,” Campbell said.

Only Haff and Hicks voted to reduce the tax levy. The effort failed.

The supervisors will hold a public hearing on the budget at 10 a.m. Nov. 16 at the county Municipal Center.

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You can reach Kathleen Moore at 742-3247 or kmoore@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByKathleenMoore or at her blog on www.poststar.com.

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