Essex County’s current course will see it utilizing that fund balance money to the tune of about $7 million to balance the county budget and meet the tax cap. The $2.8 million that went toward post-Irene repairs is eventually supposed to be repaid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it should be put back where it belongs — in the fund balance. The same can be said for the other $4 million or so of fund balance money that is being used to keep the tax levy down. As Irene taught us, the fund balance can come in handy, but the current budget proposal would only leave about $1 million in there if FEMA doesn’t come through, and that’s a scary thought considering the damage that has been incurred by storms in recent years.
The kicker here is that the county tabled one of the more solid proposals — raising the occupancy tax to 5 percent, a 2 percent increase. The increase might not be popular among hoteliers, particularly the small scale operations, who fear that the extra charge would result in a decrease in tourism. But would a 2-percent increase, which amounts to $3 more for a $150-a-night room, really deter people that much? It might be worth including something like that in the budget, considering County Treasurer Mike Diskin projects it will bring in $1.2 million.
The occupancy tax certainly wouldn’t solve all of Essex County’s problems, but it would exhibit a modicum of foresight on the part of Essex County supervisors. The time to patch holes and wait until next year to see if they’ve sprung a leak is long gone — now is the time for action and making decisions that will have positive and expected long-term consequences. Dan Palmer knows it, which is refreshing until you realize that is also why he’s retiring — he doesn’t have faith that the current board can accomplish this, and he doesn’t want to be standing next to that dam when it bursts.
At a recent meeting, Town of Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava said that personnel is the elephant in the room, and that the county needs to consider consolidating some of its staff, which is probably true, but the real elephant in the room isn’t the pachyderm — it’s the people feeding it.