One week after a sales tax revenue-sharing agreement between Kingston and Ulster County expired, county legislative leaders say they will not ratify a proposed five-year extension of the pre-existing split. A resolution calling for the 85.5 percent for the county/11.5 percent for the city/3 percent for the towns to continue until 2021 was approved by the Common Council late last month and sent to county leaders for their ratification.
“Right now we’re kind of in a holding pattern,” said Legislator Richard Gerentine (R-Marlboro), chairman of the legislature’s Ways & Means committee. “I’m a little disappointed that the city hasn’t sat down with us and opened a line of communication.”
The revenue-sharing agreement governs the distribution of the county’s 4 percent sales tax. Under the expired agreement, the county received 85.5 percent of the total. The City of Kingston got 11.5 percent. The remaining 3 percent is divided among Ulster County’s 20 towns based on assessed value. Last month, as the five-year old agreement was set to expire, Gerentine proposed cutting the city’s share to 10 percent and the towns to 2. The county’s share of the tax revenue, which totals about $109 million annually, would then increase to 88 percent. Gerentine has said the county getting more of the money is justified by the county’s assumption of Safety Net welfare costs and election expenses that were previously borne by municipalities. If Gerentine’s plan became reality, Kingston would stand to lose about $1.6 million annually; towns would collectively lose about $300,000 each year.
Mayor Steve Noble responded to the challenge from Gerentine by rallying town supervisors to support the status quo and lobby their county lawmakers to do the same. In Kingston, meanwhile, Noble signed and got Common Council approval for a new agreement which would maintain current funding levels for another five years. That agreement has been forwarded to the county legislature for an up-or-down vote. But Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk (R-Shawangunk) said that he saw little inclination among members for a no-strings-attached continuation of the status quo.
“I’m not interested in putting forward the Kingston plan,” said Ronk. “Essentially what they want is five years of the status quo, then another five years after that and another five years after that.”
Ronk and Gerentine both said that they felt blindsided by Noble’s pre-emptive strike. Gerentine said that the council vote came after a handful of discussions between city and county officials about altering the formula. The public debate, which included County Executive Mike Hein, included allegations that county municipalities, and Kingston in particular, had failed to follow the county’s lead in aggressive consolidation and restructuring of services. At a speech to the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce, Hein accused Kingston of failing to pass on savings from the county’s assumption of Safety Net costs to taxpayers. Noble responded by pointing a series of layoffs, job cuts, efficiency initiatives and other actions undertaken over the past eight years that had significantly reduced operating costs. City officials also argued that slashing money from the city’s budget would ultimately be counterproductive to the goal of helping taxpayers.
“Why should we be penalized with a cut when it’s already very clear that Kingston has some burdens to bear,” said Jennifer Schwartz Berky, one of three Democratic legislators who represent Kingston.
Hein has declined to take a public stance on sales tax agreement except to say that he could support a short-term extension of the current formula, but only if it was linked to substantive changes in how the city and towns deliver services. Last week Hein and Noble exchanged letters calling for intermunicipal talks to discuss shared services and other potential cost-saving measures.
This week Ronk echoed Hein’s sentiments. “It’s not all about straight percentages, to me it’s all about consolidation and collaboration,” said Ronk. “I feel very strongly that the city needs to come back to the table and negotiate.”
Noble did not return calls seeking comment.