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Changes to property tax proposal lauded by north country representatives

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North country representatives largely were satisfied with the budget agreement reached by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ahead of today’s deadline.

Among the late changes to the budget was an amendment to the governor’s plan to reduce property taxes that would give credit to school districts and local governments that already have made efforts to reduce costs.

Gov. Cuomo’s initial plan was criticized by local government officials in the north country who were afraid that their previous efforts would not be credited.

New York State Association of Counties spokesman Mark A. LaVigne said the amendment would allow for a “lookback” to efforts made in previous years to share services and bring down costs.

Many of the details of the new plan have yet to be sorted out, according to Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III, who was pleased that state lawmakers seemed to be listening to requests from local government officials.

“That’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Mr. Hagemann said. “But how that gets measured is another question.”

“This implementation is going to be interesting to watch,” Mr. LaVigne said.

The new plan was unveiled at the end of last week, according to Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “The provisions were tweaked and they were tweaked to make the proposal better,” she said.

The original five-year plan required school districts and local governments to stay within the state’s 2 percent property tax cap and to develop plans in the second year to share or consolidate services so that homeowners in those areas could receive a rebate check that essentially would keep property taxes flat.

According to a preliminary understanding of the plan, proposals still would have to be submitted to the state Division of the Budget, but districts and municipalities could receive credit for past efforts and consolidations that continue to save money.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, also was supportive of the change to the governor’s proposal.

Mr. LaVigne, however, stressed that counties still face numerous costs imposed at the state level and raised questions about the efficacy of shared services and consolidations.

Despite unresolved questions about the property tax initiative, north country representatives also were reasonably pleased with funding for education and agricultural programs in the budget.

Sen. Ritchie said she was happy that her number-one priority — securing more money for local school districts — was met with $20 million in funding for schools in her district.

She added, however, that additional funds are needed for area schools and that she would continue to work to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which cuts education aid to offset the state’s deficit.

Sen. Ritchie was not enthusiastic about a pilot program to test the idea of public campaign finance in the race for the state comptroller. “I don’t think we should be funding campaigns when we can’t fund school districts,” she said.

Sen. Ritchie said she also would have favored an increase in the Environmental Protection Fund, but that a $9 million increase was the best the Legislature could do under the circumstances.

After asking for a $200 million Environmental Protection Fund for the 2014-15 fiscal year, lawmakers included $162 million for the fund, an increase of $9 million from the previous year but still less than what the Adirondack Council sought.

Members of the council were disappointed that more funding was not made available. “Essentially, I think what we’re saying is that we’re grateful for the $9 million increase but we’re hopeful for more funding in the future,” council spokesman John F. Sheehan said.

Money for the fund, which is used for capital projects meant to benefit the environment, has declined since the economic recession began in 2008, Mr. Sheehan said.

With the state working toward a projected $2 billion budget surplus in coming years, members of the council are hoping there will be a renewed emphasis on the fund.

“We felt that, with the surplus, there is room for an increase in the EPF,” Mr. Sheehan said.

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