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Lewis legislators adopt budget, narrowly retain economic development director

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County legislators on Tuesday adopted a 2013 budget that will raise the full-value tax rate by 2.6 percent and nearly didn’t include an economic development director.

Just before a 10-0 vote adopting the budget, lawmakers narrowly defeated a late proposal by Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, to cut $100,000 from the Department of Economic Development and Planning’s budget. That is essentially the amount needed to fund Director Eric J. Virkler’s salary and benefits.

The vote was split at 5-5, with Legislators John O. Boyd, D-New Bremen; Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen; Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrsville, and Paul M. Stanford, D-Watson, joining Mr. King in support of the resolution.

Six votes are needed for passage on the 10-member Board of Legislators.

Legislature Vice Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, suggested that lawmakers who have problems with department projects should direct them to the legislative Economic Development Committee, as it provides direction to staffers.

“I hate to see the economic development department be the scapegoat for the committee,” Mr. Tabolt said.

Committee Chairman Richard C. Lucas, R-Barnes Corners, expressed similar sentiments earlier in the meeting.

“I think this is a disaster,” Legislator William J. Burke, R-West Lowville, also a member of the three-person committee, said before the vote.

At Mr. King’s request, lawmakers also held an executive session to discuss Mr. Virkler’s job performance, given preliminary discussions about moving him under the auspices of the Lewis County Industrial Development Agency.

No lawmakers at Tuesday’s meeting publicly knocked Mr. Virkler, who has served in the post since mid-2009. However, some have privately complained that he has continued to work on projects such as rails-to-trails after legislators voted against them. The Lewis County Development Corp., of which Mr. Virkler is a board member, has decided to purchase unused rail lines connecting Lowville with West Carthage and Croghan for multiuse trail development if it is able to secure grant funding to cover the purchase.

During privilege of the floor Tuesday, Indian River resident Allen B. Merrill suggested that legislators be wary of a move to the IDA, consider the county department’s return on investment and determine whether it is really needed.

Lawrence L. Dolhof, LCDC’s president, said that expanding the tax base through economic development is the only way to offset rising costs without raising taxes. He said the county office assists many towns and villages with development projects, despite its small staff.

While Mr. Virkler’s position was spared, one of the two planner positions in the department has been cut for 2013, reducing it to a three-person office.

Legislators on Tuesday made several budget amendments, including:

n Set aside $100,000 for economic development projects by a 7-3 vote, with Mr. Boyd, Mr. Fanning and Mr. Stanford opposed.

n Added $4,480 to restore funding for all contractual agencies to 2012 levels by an 8-2 vote, with Mr. Fanning and Mr. King opposed.

n Restored $25,000 for the Arc of Oneida-Lewis work force program by a 10-0 vote. The county budgeted $30,727 for the program in 2012, but it was removed from this year’s tentative budget.

Fund balance use will increase from $1.4 million this year to $2.24 million in 2013.

The budget will include a 6.1 percent increase in the tax levy, from $12.76 million to $13.53 million, and a tax rate increase from $6.99 per $1,000 of true assessed value to $7.17, a 2.5 percent increase.

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