Home energy tax balances the county budget

There are times when I question why I’m in politics. I distress when the votes go contrary to my conception of common sense and justice. The Dec. 5, 2013, decision of the Dutchess County Legislature to repeal the tax exemption on home energy use including heating fuel is one of those times.

Perhaps I am too philosophically driven? Perhaps my inclination to do well by the people I represent is out-of-place in world mindsets that preach the tax and spend doctrine of big government? Whatever the reason, I left the Legislative meeting that adopted the $439.3 million 2014 county spending plan feeling disheartened and disillusioned.

I was among three Republican and all seven Democratic legislators to reject the proposal to tax energy sources (oil, propane, gas, steam and wood). This tax, which will go into effect March 1, 2014, is alleged to bring in $7.5 million in 2014 to close our budget gap. My calculations are that it will bring in much more than that, perhaps double, to be used as re-occurring revenue to build up county reserves and ultimately to settle expired union contracts by bolstering county employee pay.

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The county needs increased revenue to maintain its current level of services which includes core government functions like snow plowing and sheriff road patrols, but it doesn’t need as much revenue as this tax will generate. To this end the 3.75 percent tax rate was too high. County officials could have lowered the percentage to as little as half a percent, but chose not to.

My abhorrence with the energy tax is not so much that it is a tax — I actually proposed we implement a mortgage recording tax, and I was one of three legislators to vote to consider exceeding the property tax cap as a means of avoiding the need to tax home energy use. [As it stands now county property taxes will rise next year by 1.97 percent]. My disdain is that home heating is a necessity (and one that comes with a high price tag). Just like food, government should not be taxing necessities. I argue the energy tax will hit taxpayers on a fixed income the worst, amid the winter months when many of us already struggle to pay fuel costs.

My colleagues who voted for this tax are not bad people; they just felt we had no other choice. To be fair, the same budget increases funding to heating assistance programs to help those most affected by high energy costs during the winter months. Legislators also added a sunset clause so that this tax will automatically expire on the last day of February 2017. We could repeal or reduce it sooner as I will be advocating.

I recognize that beneath the weight of burdensome state mandates, a declining tax base, a huge increase in demand for county services — notably social services and the criminal justice system — additional revenue is needed. I just do not believe that taxing home energy is the solution.

With the balanced budget of 2014 adopted, Dutchess County is again on the path to economic vitality and prosperity. Regretfully it will be accomplished not just by taxing our properties but the energy we use to heat and light them. This is not just an injustice, it is sacrilege.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and the Village of Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.