OWEGO — The Tioga County Legislature is poised to vote this week on whether to repeal a local law that requires curb-side pickup of recyclable materials as part of the county budget.
Following the recent public hearing on the matter, legislators said the majority of public input was based on the misunderstanding that a recycling service will be completely going away.
However, the issue revolves around a multi-faceted circumstance — the expiration of the county’s recycling service contract at year’s end, rising recycling costs, and property tax rates alongside a very difficult budget process due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
County officials said the lowest bid for another five-year contract was $12.4 million higher than the current contract pending expiration.
Bearing in mind the state has a mandated 2 percent property tax cap, the above increase would translate to a 5.1 percent increase in county property taxes, in order to balance that budget line.
To retain the service as-is, and remain under the tax cap, would require heavily drawing on the county’s general fund, which legislators said is not sustainable — especially during the current budget climate with falling revenue.
Instead, the legislature is considering repealing the law in order to completely remove the recycling tax line from residents’ property tax bills and allow individuals to contract for those services as they see fit.
If residents do not wish to contract with a company for curb-side pickup, recyclables could still be taken to a transfer station. Legislators noted that companies may charge a fee for drop-off, as well.
Legislators noted that if a given municipality collects garbage, they would provide recycling collection also.
Legislative Chairwoman Marte Sauerbrey noted that Tioga County is currently experiencing a 20 percent cut in funding from New York State and is anticipated to continue through 2021.
“We also have a 9 percent reduction in sales tax to date,” she said. “Income from Tioga Downs is non-existent at this time.”
“The legislature is working on our budget for 2021, and we have estimated that it will take three to five years to recover from the Covid-19 experience and the states’ financials difficulties,” Sauerbrey explained. “It is unfortunate, but we have to tighten our belts and do more with less for the next few years.”
Regarding budget struggles in general, legislators this week discussed the above-noted 20 percent cut in state funding.
Legislators agreed that it’s not responsible or sustainable to supplement the loss with money from the county’s reserves.
“Not only is it not sustainable, we’ve already cut the capital budget ... the first place we go to look for money is the capital budget and we can’t keep doing that either,” said Legislator Loretta Sullivan. “We’ve got to start reducing services to save some money.”
Legislators discussed at length various ways to reduce the severity of the funding shortfall while retaining services and personnel, but eventually it was agreed that some cuts have to happen.
“If you’re going to cut 20 percent of a budget, you’re going to have to cut services — there’s no way — that’s all there is to it,” said Legislator Tracy Monell. “You’re going to have to lose people, or something is going to have to give.”
“You can’t just take 20 percent off the top and not make any cuts anywhere,” Monell continued. “It’s not possible.”
Legislator Dale Weston recommended looking at cutting outside the state-mandated programs so they could be retained, because state aid is withheld when a county is out of compliance.
“If they’re going to cut our monies for a mandated program, then we’re going to cut that mandated program service by whatever (percent),” Monell said. “I don’t know how else you could do it. If you don’t have money to do a job, you can do the job.”
“At some point, we gotta stop being bullied by (Gov. Andrew Cuomo), stand up and do what we think is the right thing we need to do,” Monell added.
State-mandated programs account for over 90 percent of the county’s budget.
The legislature will vote on the recycling law on Tuesday, Oct. 13 at noon.