HERKIMER — The elimination of $5,000 for the Herkimer County Fair from the tentative 2014 Herkimer County budget dominated the discussion at Wednesday's budget hearing.
The $101,503,470 tentative budget is up 5.3 percent from the 2013 spending plan and carries a tax levy increase of $200,957 or .8 percent.
Gerry Elthorp, of the Herkimer County Fair Association, pointed out the fair is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers.
“All the money raised goes back into the county fair,” she said and pointed out many improvements have been made to the fairgrounds since 1992.
Restoring that $5,000 contribution to the county fair to the budget would make virtually no difference to the county, Elthorp said, but the loss of $5,000 makes a great deal of difference to the fair, especially when the reduction comes in addition to cuts that have reduced state funding from $12,000 to $6,000 over the last several years.
The fair has been responsive to the county's needs, according to Elthorp. She pointed out the sheriff's boat is stored at the fairgrounds during the winter. “That's a $500 loss for us; we store it for nothing,” she said.
When the county's senior citizen picnic is held at the fairgrounds, the fair charges about a third its usual rates. “For the kids' safety fair, we only charge enough to cover toilet paper and the garbage,” she said.
“According to the New York State Fair Association, the economic value of the fair is more than $5 million,” said Elthorp. “The county receives $250,000 in sales tax revenue from the fair.”
Legislator John Brezinski, D-Frankfort, said farming has always been considered the county's biggest industry. “The fair supports that,” he said. “I can't see taking that money and deleting it from the budget.”
He added if there is a problem between the county and the fair association, “we should be grown-ups and call them in, iron it out and get it over with. We should put the money back in the budget.”
Herkimer County Legislative Chairman Vincent Bono, R-Schuyler, said putting the $5,000 back into the budget now would be complicated because it would mean changing formulas. He recommended the matter be considered again after the first of the year. “We can probably make adjustments,” he said.
Legislator Gary Hartman, D-Herkimer, pointed out the issue had been raised earlier and the change could have been made.
“I hope it's not because they spoke out against putting a meat packing plant in the Pumpkin Patch that the money was taken away,” he said.
Elthorp had expressed opposition to a proposal to locate a meat processing plant at the Frankfort 5S South Business Park, saying it would have a negative impact on the fair. The town of Frankfort rejected the proposal and the developers decided to seek another location.
Legislator Helen Rose, D-Herkimer, said a presentation on the budget would have been helpful during the hearing. She noted the flood had impacted the budget and had forced the county to postpone work on some projects. A $300,000 cut from the initial projections for the Country Manor budget helped keep the tax increase below the 1.66 percent tax cap. The budget shows an increase of $498,000 for health insurance costs, she said, adding she would be interested in knowing the findings of a contractor hired to look into insurance costs and requirements under the new Affordable Care Act.
Page 2 of 2 - A summary sheet also shows an increase of $400,000 for boarding out prisoners, an increase of $3,203,446 in highway appropriations and a $131,728 rise in retirement costs.
“Our bond rating has increased,” said Rose, “but I wonder why there should be any tax increase considering the fund balance we have.”
Bono called the tentative budget “prudent and fiscally responsible to the property taxpayer.” He said the county is in a strong position financially and the bond ratings reflect that.
“A .8 percent tax increase is palatable,” he said.
As to the question of using the fund balance, he said, “It's because of our fund balance that we have strong bond ratings.” He said many municipalities have dipped into their fund balances and have had to make serious cuts.
“We continue to fund programs,” said Bono. “I've been here 12 years and we continue to offer the same services.”
He added in some cases these services are being offered through private enterprise groups rather than taxpayer dollars.
“I've been here two years and I've seen some services go away,” said Hartman. “The municipalities may be in rough shape, but they're providing virtually all of the services they've been providing and they're still without the one percent sales tax that used to be shared with them.”