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Essex County adopts budget; Palmer wins fund balance debate

ELIZABETHTOWN - The Essex County Board of Supervisors cut another 1.3 percent from the projected 2011 tax hike during a special meeting Tuesday - but like their colleagues in Franklin County, supervisors decided not to use additional fund balance to buy down the tax levy.

The board unanimously adopted the $99 million county budget, which features an 8.62 percent tax increase in 2010 and boasts one of the lowest tax rates in the state at just $2.15 per thousand dollars of assessed value.

The budget will apply $7 million in excess cash to buy down the $22 million tax levy. But Finance Committee Chairman Tom Scozzafava wanted to apply an additional $500,000 of fund balance - a move that would have dropped the hike to about 5 percent.

And County Chairman Randy Douglas - who has sat on the fence about the controversial policy issue - thought it wasn't a bad idea.

"It was a hard decision to make, but I felt cutting it down from 8.6 to around 4.5 was something I thought was in the best interest of the taxpayers," he said.

But 11 of the 16 supervisors present sided with County Manager Dan Palmer, who has repeatedly argued that draining the fund balance any further could have devastating results in 2012.

Elizabethtown Supervisor Noel Merrihew expressed the sentiments of the vast majority of his peers.

"By looking at the contiguous counties around us - we're all in the same business, we provide the same services - our tax rate is artificially low," he said. "I just think that a little bit of an increase in that tax rate will make our lives easier next year."

The Essex County tax rate is half that of its neighbors. If the additional fund balance were applied, only seven cents per thousand would have been carved from the tax rate.

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