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Editorial: To lower taxes and strengthen economy in Orleans, local officials should grow sales tax

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 31 October 2016 at 8:02 am

$17 million in 2017 is an attainable goal

This washed-out sign declaring Orleans County as "Home of the King" with a faint outline of a salmon greets motorists on Route 98 near the Elba-Barre townline. The county could do much better with gateway signage highlighting local attractions.

This washed-out sign declaring Orleans County as “Home of the King” with a faint outline of a salmon greets motorists on Route 98 near the Elba-Barre townline. The county could do much better with gateway signage highlighting local attractions.

Orleans County and the local school and village governments have all been in shrink mode in recent years, making big reductions in staff.

The county sold the nursing home, and many of its departments have fewer employees than a decade ago. Villages have fewer police officers and DPW staff.

In some cases, the municipalities are sharing staff to bring down costs. Orleans and Genesee counties have teamed up to have Public Health employees working in both counties. Holley has contracted with Albion for police chief services and for expertise running its sewer plant.

The officials have found ways to reduce the overall government overhead.

But there is another way to bring down property taxes, a way that would lift up local businesses.

The local governments should look to boost sales tax revenues in the county. There should be a push to have Orleans residents spend more within our county, and there should be a concerted effort to bring in more visitors.

Right now, Orleans County ranks as the fourth worse out of 62 counties in sales tax per capita, despite ranking 25th from the bottom in median household income.

Orleans gets $358 per person in sales tax. We are one of only six counties below $400 per person, according to the Office of the State Comptroller. Wyoming County, which is similar in size to Orleans at about 40,000 people, gets $394 per capita in sales tax.

Orleans County, population 42,235 in 2013, took in $15,469,950 in sales tax in 2015. There was $15,703,363 in 2014.

Wyoming County, population 41,531 in 2013, took in $16,591,138 in 2015 and $16,853,447 in 2014.

A hot air balloon takes off at Letchworth State Park in this photo from May 2015. Wyoming County has numerous signs in many towns pointing people to the park.

A hot air balloon takes off at Letchworth State Park in this photo from May 2015. Wyoming County has numerous signs in many towns pointing people to the park.

I often hear people say Orleans is the poorest county in the state. That isn’t true. Our median household income is $48,502. There are 62 counties in New York and Orleans ranks 25th worst (or 37th highest) in median household income, according to the Census Bureau. The Census compiled the data in household income from 2009-2013 in the American Community Survey.

In Western New York, Orleans tops Niagara County ($47,955), Allegany ($42,429) and Cattaraugus at $42,603.

Wyoming has a higher household income than Orleans. Wyoming is 34th out of 62 counties at $51,100.

A reasonable goal with sales tax for Orleans would be to match Wyoming. Orleans would need to bring in about $1.1 million more a year.

Although Wyoming has a higher median household income, Orleans has slightly more people.

I would like to see our elected officials launch a campaign to boost sales tax to $17 million in 2017 and to $20 million by 2020.

Every $1 million in sales tax represents $25 million in taxable spending.

Here are some ideas (little and big projects) to reach that goal:

Sell more gas (and other stuff) locally

We lose a lot of sales tax because our gas prices are higher than neighboring counties. Meeting with gas providers, explaining how their prices hurt us and drive up taxes, may get some relief.

Educating the consumer may be best bet to capture more sales tax from gas sales. Consumers may not realize when they buy gas in Elba, Brockport or Lockport, they are depriving their own municipality of that revenue. If they buy 15 gallons a week outside Orleans (with the county losing about 8 cents in sales tax per gallon) that’s $1.20 lost each week or $60 for the year. Multiply that by thousands of people.

The Chamber of Commerce and local governments should develop a “Buy in Orleans” campaign and promote it heavily. “Shop locally and lower your taxes.”

Develop heritage trails

  • It was a big deal about two years ago when the state allowed the Niagara Wine Trail to extend past Niagara County through Orleans, all the way to near Rochester. The state even provided money for road signs. But the local wineries and Niagara Wine Trail have struggled with getting permits and approvals for the signs. This photo shows the sign on Route 104 near the Niagara-Orleans border.

    It was a big deal about two years ago when the state allowed the Niagara Wine Trail to extend past Niagara County through Orleans, all the way to near Rochester. The state even provided money for road signs. But the local wineries and Niagara Wine Trail have struggled with getting permits and approvals for the signs. This photo shows the sign on Route 104 near the Niagara-Orleans border.

    A Sandstone Trail on Route 31 – Sandstone signs for municipalities and roadside signs for attractions. (The Sandstone Trail should include a quarrymen memorial in either Medina, Holley or Albion, or perhaps a quarrymen tribute in each community. The sandstone quarries were one of the community’s most dominant industries for about a century, and attracted thousands of immigrants to Orleans. Many of their descendants continue to live among us.)

  • Route 98 corridor from Batavia to Point Breeze (several museums on this stretch). Add bronze statues/memorial sites in Batavia (for horsemen at Batavia Downs) in Elba (for muck farmers) and in Albion (for Santa and/or quarrymen).
  • Promote and better develop an Albion Heritage Trail that ties together the historic sites at Mount Albion Cemetery, Courthouse Square, downtown, Erie Canal, and Cobblestone Museum as well as many grand old homes.
  • Partner with Niagara and Monroe counties to establish and promote Cobblestone Trail on Route 104 with Cobblestone Museum the centerpiece.
  • Work with wineries to get Niagara Wine Trail signs up. (They were approved more than two years ago but bureaucracy has stymied the sign efforts.)
  • As the county nears its 200th anniversary in 2026, the local officials should be mulling ways to celebrate that milestone. Perhaps the quarrymen memorial and other tributes would be attractions while paying homage to our heritage.

Historic assets

  • Holley has the only original section of the Erie Canal remaining from between Buffalo and Rochester. A humble sign nailed to a tree notes that distinction.

    Holley has the only original section of the Erie Canal remaining from between Buffalo and Rochester. A humble sign nailed to a tree notes that distinction.

    Holley has the only remaining original loop of Erie Canal. It is currently filled with wild brush and vegetation. If it was cleared out, with interpretive signage, it could be an attraction.

  • There are many other historic assets, from cemeteries, stately homes and historic districts. A package could be developed to capitalize on the interest in history and heritage. Orleans County has many stories to tell from the war of 1812, Erie Canal, Underground Railroad, industrial revolution (Medina sandstone quarries) and much more. Some of these sites could be connected through hitching posts and carriage steps, especially if someone provided carriage rides to see the historic trail.
  • Work to obtain a Pullman Sleeping Car that would be parked in Albion and rented out to coffee shop/bakery.
  • As part of the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal construction, Orleans County and the canal towns should try each year to introduce a painted fiberglass mule and oxen. They could be gradually introduced over the eight-year bicentennial which starts next year and ends in 2025. The county may want to work with GO Art! and contribute some funds to the effort. Numerous communities have done these type of public art projects, including Batavia, Buffalo, Rochester and Olean, just to name a few.

Natural wonders

The Medina Waterfalls is an awesome site, but it's largely inaccessible to the public.

The Medina Waterfalls is an awesome site, but it’s largely inaccessible to the public.

  • Medina has one of the most impressive waterfalls along the canal, but it is largely inaccessible to public. Having an elevated platform from canal leading back to waterfalls would put an attraction in play, drawing more people to Medina.
  • There is also a nice waterfall in Shelby. If pubic access was secured, it would be a nice spot for families and others to enjoy.
  • Holley has a second waterfalls by the water plant that would be popular with a viewing platform. (This one is actually in Clarendon, but is close to the waterfall near the canal off Frisbee Terrace.)

Bronze Statues

  • Provide some funding for bronze statues for Company F Memorial in Medina and Charles Howard in Albion. Both would provide an iconic character for their communities. The Howard statue of a Santa would promote Albion’s Santa history and could spur the downtown to become home to Santa-themed businesses (The Santa Café and Bake Shop, for example).

Support existing community events

  • Set aside $50,000 annually from the $200K-plus in gambling money (as part of the state settlement with the Senecas) and use it to make local festivals better and to support projects, such as bronze statues, better gateway signage, etc.

Get more out of fishing

Fishermen try to catch salmon and trout along the Oak Orchard River last October.

Fishermen try to catch salmon and trout along the Oak Orchard River last October.

  • Orleans gets about $12 million in spending from fishing. That’s a far cry from the $100 million up in the Oswego area with the Salmon River. We could do more. I would start with better gateway signs at the county borders. The current ones that say, “Home of the King” with a salmon are washed out and unnoticeable. Dramatic signs that say, “Catch me if you can,” might reel in more fishing cash.

Conclusion

The county should form a sales tax commission or task force that would work with the town and village governments, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and business associations to have an action plan for putting more assets in play that would bring more visitors to the county and also encourage Orleans residents to spend more locally.

That would grow the sales tax, reduce pressure on property taxes, and stimulate local businesses.

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