October 25, 2006

County Propositions in Plain English

At The Independent's request, Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino explained the two county propositions that will be on the ballot next month.

Proposition One: The proposal seeks voter approval to use more of amassed reserve funds than is currently permitted under the County Charter. By law, each year, when there is money left over in any given budget line, 75% of it must be returned to the voters. Another 25% of fund balances must be put into what's known as a Tax Stabilization Fund. There's some $100 million in the tax stabilization fund, but it can't be accessed unless the county raises taxes by at least 2.5 %.

County Executive Steve Levy hasn't done that since taking office, nor does he plan to. So the fund just keeps growing.

If voters say yes to Proposition One, lawmakers could access up to 100% of the surplus funds for certain special expenditures, like snow removal or road repair, as long as the tax stabilization fund is at least $120 million. The fund would have to hit that figure before the proposal would kick in. It's anticipated to do so by next year.

Sponsored by the legislature's Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D. Holbrook) last spring, the measure received unanimous approval. Lawmakers supported the notion. Access to the money would mean increased flexibility in budgeting, they said. Critics, however, believe another pool of money to dip into could lead to undisciplined spending.

Proposition Two: Back in the mid 80s, county lawmakers enacted legislation to ensure that when a new and unexpected capital project came along, funding for it would not simply be added to what could have become an ever-growing capital budget. The law required sponsors to offset the new spending by not spending money on something else already included in the capital budget.

Proposition Two builds on the concept. If approved, lawmakers will be further restricted in finding offsets to the same capital area the project falls under. If a new project relates to a county sewer district, the offset must as well. Sewer district capital projects could not be used to pay for police district projects, general fund projects or community college projects or vice versa, Sabatino explained.

Beyond tightening up the earlier law, the proposal is also fairer. Residents who live in sewer districts are taxed for sewer-related costs, but sometimes lawmakers raid the sewer district lines in the capital budget to offset projects that are countywide.

A "yes" vote on Proposition Two would have the overall effect of ensuring that the county capital budget cannot be easily increased after it is adopted. It received bi-partisan support in the legislature.

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