Given the economic downturn resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic, the trend for many counties last year was a loss of sales taxes.
State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released a report Feb. 2 showing how the health care crisis affected different areas. It showed that 27 of the 57 counties outside New York City had less sales tax revenue in 2020 than they did in 2019.
“This report shows how deeply the [coronavirus] pandemic cut into municipal finances,” DiNapoli said in a news release that accompanied the report. “Local governments depend heavily on sales taxes as a major source of revenue. But as New Yorkers stayed home and bought less in their communities during the pandemic, it created shortfalls. New York’s localities need federal aid to help get through this crisis.”
Yet in the GLOW region, three of the four counties bucked the statewide trend.
Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming counties all recorded sales tax revenue increases above the state and even the regional average for the Finger Lakes – some significantly higher. Only Genesee County saw a year-to-year decrease, said an article published Friday in The Daily News.
According to DiNapoli’s report, Orleans County saw a 9.2% increase in sales tax revenue – the highest in the region and sixth highest percent increase in the entire state. Orleans County collected $19.4 million in sales tax revenue in 2020, compared to $17.7 million in 2020, an increase of $1.7 million.
Wyoming County also saw a significant increase, 5.2%, or $1 million. Sales tax revenue was $20 million in 2020, compared to $19 million the year before.
Livingston County saw its sales tax revenue increase by 2.3%, or $800,000 to $36.3 million compared to $35.5 million in 2019. County Administrator Ian Coyle said the sales tax revenue was unusual only in how ordinary it was.
Genesee County, however, saw its sales tax revenue decrease by 2.5%, or $1.1 million, to $41.4 million, compared to $42.5 million in 2019.
All four counties got off to a strong start – before the pandemic – with Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties seeing sales tax revenue increase of 11.5% or more in the first quarter. Livingston County was up 7.2%, more than the Finger Lakes’ regional average of 7 percent.
The counties took a significant hit in the second quarter – falling below the previous year’s revenue – when the most restrictive coronavirus restrictions were in place from April to June of last year. Genesee County’s sales tax revenue plummeted 16.2% compared to the year before, while Livingston County was down 10.4%, Wyoming County dropped 9.8% and Orleans decreased by 4.7% compared to 2019.
But Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming counties were able to rebound and show year-over-year growth in sales tax revenue during the third and fourth quarter.
“I was surprised as anybody,” said Coyle. “Coming into that third quarter, fourth quarter, I was very surprised as well. I didn’t expect it to end up like that.”
Genesee County sales tax revenue, meanwhile, remained down in the third quarter at 4%, before inching up by 1.7% in the fourth quarter.
The comptroller’s report cited gains in the internet commerce space as one of the primary drivers of sales tax revenues across the state.
County officials also pointed to a shift in buying habits to online purchasing – and changes in state law that meant sales tax on those purchases were credited to the counties from where they were purchased – and a renewed emphasis on shopping local.
“If you really think about it, prior to the pandemic Orleans County people would go out of county to purchase things. They’d go to malls in adjacent counties to do their stuff,” said Orleans County Budget Office Jack Welch said. “It looks like people transitioned into online purchases.”
Said Wyoming County Treasurer Cheryl Mayer: “I am pleased that in a county that is the size of Wyoming that does not have a lot of retail options, we do stay at home and shop.”
Whether consumers will continue these shopping habits post-pandemic remains to be seen. Many businesses have adapted business models to serve these new habits. It is a move that allowed them to continuing operating during the pandemic, and will also give them new avenues when life returns to what we were accustomed to before the virus.
That virus remains a concern, even as infection rates decrease and vaccinations are being distributed.
Rebuilding our local economies will require us all to adhere to safety guidelines: Wear a mask. Stay at least 6 feet away from others. Wash your hands often. Disinfect surfaces.
Let’s keep up the effort to remain healthy so the state doesn’t need to impose tighter restrictions. Until vaccinations become widely available, it’s up to us as individuals to hold the virus at bay – and keeping our economy going.
“We just feel very fortunate and blessed to end 2020 in a positive state” said Orleans County’s Welch, “which is a true blessing for us.”