Fact Check: Criticism of safety net budgeting mostly unfounded

Kelly Myers and Greg Helsmoortel

Kelly Myers and Greg Helsmoortel

Kelly Myers has been blamed for not including social service charges in the first version of the 2012 budget. Her predecessor, Greg Helsmoortel, has been accused of removing the cost from the town budget line in order to advertise a lower tax rate. But after speaking with county officials and other town supervisors, it seems that such criticism is unwarranted: Myers was not the only supervisor unaware of a change to the payment system last year, and Helsmoortel’s budgets were by the book when it came to safety net.

The confusion is understandable: it stems from a taxing process called “relevying” that few people outside government have ever heard of. In previous years, the county allowed towns to pay their safety net charges separately from the regular town budget – “relevying” the charges and including them on the final property tax bill. But this year, due to concerns that relevying would imperil the county’s need to stay under the two percent tax cap, it decided not to allow relevying anymore. It also decided, after decades as the only county that required individual towns to pay for the residents who lived there, to gradually shift to the standard method of equal distribution of payments over the entire county.

Critics of current Supervisor Myers say she mishandled the budget process last year. County officials say all town supervisors were informed months before their budget deadlines that relevying was no longer an option. Myers said she was informed just days before the budget had to be passed – not enough time to make any changes. Later, $400,000 (the full cost plus an estimate of next year’s cost) was added to the budget. Critics charged the incident was evidence Saugerties was failing to do its budget correctly, and adjustments could have been made to bring down this year’s $700,000 tax levy increase.

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But in Woodstock, Supervisor Jeremy Wilber had the same problem. He didn’t find out about the charges until after the budget had been passed. But the Woodstock charges were quite small, and could be added to the budget without much impact.

Helsmoortel was criticized by Saugerties Republican Committee Chair Joe Roberti Jr. for using the relevying practice “to manipulate the budget to falsely show a lower property tax increase,” a charge he denies.

At the time of Hein’s announcement, Helsmoortel was out of office. When he relevied the tax in the prior year, this was still an accepted practice. The decision to relevy the safety net cost was not an attempt to provide a lower budget to look good in an election year, but rather a response to the newly announced cap, as well as a practice the town had followed in previous years, says Helsmoortel.

Like both Myers and Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley, Helsmoortel had complained to the county about the unfairness of taxing the towns with the most low-income residents for county services. “I told the county that if I have to collect this tax, at least let me put it on a separate line (in the tax bill),” he said. “They refused, and then we started to relevy the expense. There was never any attempt to deceive anyone. There was no hiding it or any shell game.”

The practice of relevying social safety net costs is not uncommon or unusual, said Quigley. He rattled off about half a dozen towns, including Woodstock, Rochester, Denning and New Paltz, that have relevied county taxes over the past ten years or so.

Regardless of whether other supervisors knew about the 2012 changes, Councilman Fred Costello believes Myers should have. He said it was reported in the press and he questioned the process prior to the budget’s passage. Myers believes now, as she did then, that it was illegal for the county to refuse to allow relevying, though town attorney John Greco advised her that if the town challenged it in court it would lose.

The county said it ended the practice because it was concerned that it would count against its tax cap requirements. That happened because the state reduced its share of the cost, from 50 percent to 29 percent.

Ulster County will begin a three-year phased takeover of the safety net costs starting this year. The county will pay one third of the safety net costs for 2013, two thirds in 2014 and the full amount in 2015. According to county estimates, the town will save nearly $128,000 in safety net costs in 2015.

According to the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, safety net aid is available to adults, including childless couples, children living apart from any adult relative, families of persons found to be abusing drugs or alcohol, persons who have exceeded the 60-month limit on assistance and aliens who are eligible for temporary assistance but not eligible for federal reimbursement. Recipients of safety net assistance who are determined to be able to work must also comply with work requirements to receive benefits. In general, eligibility for safety net benefits is limited to 60 months during a recipient’s lifetime, though certain non-cash benefits may be provided beyond this limit, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance website.

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