Legislature could ease property taxes if it attracts more sales tax
Orleans County officials have done a marvelous job reducing the cost of government in recent years, cutting about 40 positions, combining some departments, making some leadership positions part-time and even pushing to sell off assets.
If you believe less government should be the goal, then our County Legislature deserves to be commended.
But I wouldn’t confuse less government with less taxes. Our property taxes still have gone up with the downsizing of the county government. This year they will go up 5 percent.
Orleans County ranks high on a national list with the highest property taxes as a percent of home values. We led the country a few years back and still are near the top.
The county, local towns and villages have two ways to cover the costs of government services, outside of the state and federal aid. The government collects property taxes and it also can use the local share of the sales tax to pay for services. (In Orleans, the local shares tax share is about $15 million a year with the county keeping 92 percent.)
The county has put a lot of energy into reducing the costs of government, but it hasn’t done much to drive up our sales tax. More sales tax would take pressure off the property taxes.
The sales tax barely budged in 2012, compared to 2011. In 2013, our numbers lagged from 2012. If the sales tax had been robust, the property taxes wouldn’t have gone up by 5 percent.
The Legislature will meet this afternoon at 4:30 for an organizational meeting. I would expect there will be a speech about running the county government “like a business” with more pressure to reduce staff.
I would encourage the seven-member Legislature to make growing the sales tax a top priority, rather than more downsizing. A growing sales tax also represents a growing business community. It means businesses are selling more products.
If I were at the controls, here are some things I would do to grow our sales tax:
Make the Cobblestone Museum director full-time
Work with the Cobblestone Society Museum to hire a full-time director. This would be my first action step to boost our sales tax. The museum has been without a director for months and it wants to add a part-time director. That’s what the museum can afford.
The county should work with the museum to get a full-time presence at the museum, which has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Interior as a National Historic Landmark, the only site in the county with this designation and one of the few in all of WNY with such status.
The county currently doesn’t include the museum in its budget. It gave them $1,000 at the end of the year from contingency funds.
The county should do more to promote our historical resources, especially a museum that is a one-of-kind site that draws people from the region, and could draw more with a dedicated full-time leader.
Genesee County, our rural neighbor to the south, provides the Holland Land Office Museum with $37,282 a year, and that site doesn’t provide nearly the variety and sense of wonder like we have with the Cobblestone Museum.
The county’s share of a full-time director would be about $20,000. The county would get that money back easily with added sales tax.
This director would not only help manage the six-building complex at the museum, but I would task that person with helping to develop a Cobblestone Trail along Route 104 that would include Niagara, Orleans and Monroe counties.
Improve access to the Medina Waterfalls
I would immediately call a meeting with the state Canal Corporation and the power company and work to have public access to the Medina Waterfalls.
I discovered this site for the first time in November. It may be the most awesome real estate in Orleans County. But it is very difficult and dangerous to access. It’s just west of the Horan Road Bridge by the Erie Canal.
You have to descend from a concrete ledge on the canal towpath and then work your way through the woods to get there.
The county and local government could negotiate easements and public access improvements, such as a ladder and railings. There are well-worn paths by the waterfalls now that proves some daredevils go there. More people would come to see this, and they would spend money in Medina.
Create a Sandstone Trail
There are trails in other parts of the state that link similar attractions, everything from wine, beer, cheese and historical sites. New York State likes trails and helps pay for the roadside signs and marketing.
The newly expanded Niagara Wine Trail now stretches into Orleans County, giving us a trail that should bring folks to our wineries. Some day we may be known as a wine county. That’s years away.
We’ve been the Medina sandstone capitol of the world for more than 150 years. We have a world-renown brand and we’ve done little to get the word out.
The county should help to create a Sandstone Trail along Route 31 that would link the canal communities and highlight our great architecture, the many buildings made from our local stone. This trail could begin at the Medina City Hall, which is the home to the new Sandstone Hall of Fame.
Devote more staff to tourism
The county has four retirees continuing to serve as part-time department heads. One of them is the tourism director, who also juggles the duties of planning director and Marine Park manager. That’s a lot to ask of anybody, especially someone in a part-time role.
A full-time tourism director, without the other added duties, may be able to better package the different resources in the county. We push the fishing industry, but there may be other markets for heritage tourism, stained-glass, pipe organs, and wildlife (look at the phenomenon with the Snowy Owls and the folks lined up on the side roads with binoculars.)
We may be able to get more out of the fishing as well. Our fishing industry has a $12 million annual economic impact in the county. In Oswego County, it has a $100 million impact.
Bring back the original canal bed in Holley
The City of Buffalo has come back from the brink and it is using its canal legacy as part of the renewal. Several projects are under way at the waterfront, and restoration of the original canal slip at the western terminus of the canal has been part of the comeback and rebirth of the city.
An original canal bed remains in Holley near the waterfalls, but it’s hard to get at. The county should team with the village to clean up that site and showcase some history. It would bring people into town, who would spend money, boosting our sales tax – and ease pressure on our property taxes.