November 1, 2005

Looking across county budgets

I always find it strange that local politics is frequently so, well, local. At least when it's convenient for someone's argument, they don't look beyond the borders of their own municipal unit to see if anyone else is sharing the same pain they are. In county races this year, the Republican message is frequently that Democrats raised your taxes, and any complaining about state mandates, pensions, or Medicare is just a lot of excuses.

Unfortunately for them, even a quick glance at numbers from across the state demonstrates that 2000-2005 was an incredibly difficult for pretty much every county. County Legislator Mike Lane asked the County Administrator's office for some charts showing how taxes have looked in similar and adjacent counties, and presented it to the Town Board at their September meeting.

What do we find? Tompkins County's recent budget struggles are very ordinary, hardly different from surrounding and similar counties.

Per capita taxes in lots of counties
Per capita taxes in lots of counties. (Tompkins on right.)

If that chart's too small to see, click on it for a PDF version (105KB) with more numbers, or you can explore the original spreadsheet (100KB Excel file). I've even added a % change column to the tax levy per capita data, which shows Tompkins County to be boringly average.

There are some counties that held on better than others, sure. Oswego County seems to have started this cycle with a big tax break I don't know how to explain, leaving them with a 6% increase. Otherwise, the best performers had 28% increases and the worst 99%. Tompkins increased 55%, while Cortland climbed 56%.

The absolute figures for 2005 per capita taxation have some surprises, too. Tompkins County's $611 per capita taxes look tiny next to Cortland County's $724! Chemung County, although it did well in holding off increases, started with higher taxes per capita than Tompkins did, and wound up at $603 per capita. (Chemung County is run quite completely by Republicans and has an immensely powerful county executive, at that.)

These aren't numbers that you're going to hear in the Republican (or the Coalition for Change) ads or on the radio from Republican candidates. They'd really prefer voters to think that Tompkins County has a government unique for its tax increases.

You now know different.

Update: Eric Lerner also takes a look at Republican vs. Democratic performance over time, in a letter to the editor and on his website. His conclusion:

Under the Democrats, the county property tax levy has grown from $16,722,397 to $33,103,414, 98 percent in 12 years. Under Republican leadership, the tax levy grew almost three times as fast: from $4,476,257 to $16,722,397, 273 percent in 12 years. Moreover, if increases in sales tax and solid waste fees in 1992-93 had been put on the property tax, the story gets even more lopsided, with the Republicans' total increase rising to an appalling 463 percent.


Posted by simon at November 1, 2005 5:26 PM in ,
Note on photos