The Bethlehem 2012 budget is slowly taking shape, but with the release of a tentative budget on Wednesday, Sept. 26, it became even more clear that it will be tough to meet all the town’s goals, especially if leaders want to limit tax increases.
In the three-act drama that is the budgeting process, this tentative budget is the second big step. A draft budget was presented at the end of August before several budget workshops, and now Supervisor Sam Messina has presented the tentative plan to the Town Board and residents.
“This may be called the supervisor’s budget, but it’s really the town’s budget,” Messina said, alluding to two budget workshops that have already been held.
“In the Town of Bethlehem, the budget is put out earlier, more complete and in more detail than anywhere I can think of,” he continued.
On the whole, the plan is similar to what was proposed several weeks ago, though there are notable differences. The budget calls for $38.7 million in straight appropriations, plus another $7 million in capital projects and borrowing.
What’s changed in the last few weeks is that the town now has a definite figure on what it will have to pay into the pension system next year, and it’s $337,000 more than expected. That makes pension costs weigh in at a $1 million year-to-year increase.
Messina noted that the portion of the town budget spent on pensions has doubled 15 times over since 2002, while the number of employees has decreased slightly.
The budget also includes about $200,000 in what were described as “limited merit increases and incentives.” These will essentially be “step” increases in pay meted out by the Town Board and department heads to worthy employees.
At a past budget workshop, Superintendent of Highways Gregg Sagendorph posited that a proposal of holding all salaries flat had already impacted employee morale.
On Wednesday, Messina described the merit-based raises as an effective management tool to reward deserving staff without putting a strain on the town. Exactly how the money will be distributed is to be a topic discussed at coming workshops.
Dipping into fund reserves and holding off on various expenses that had been previously budgeted will largely cover the new expenses. New cuts appeared in each of the town’s four funds, and consist of several five-figure reductions to things like engineering services, road materials, equipment purchases and other line items.
The tax levy increase being proposed is holding at 1.27 percent, which Messina said is a responsible figure.
“We need those resources. It’s not easy to propose any tax rate increase … but I would argue we need those funds,” he said.
In addition to the tax hike, 3 percent rate increases would be applied to water and sewer services. Those charges result in much more revenue for those funds that tax receipts.
But it remains to be seen if there is support on the board for a tax hike.
Commenting after the meeting, Councilman Mark Hennessey panned the idea.
“Proposing a tax increase right now is like praying for rain in the middle of a flood. People are tightening their belts and we should, too,” he said.
Hennessey said he thinks more cuts could be made to the budget.
“While it’s a solid starting point on several levels, I’m not in favor of the proposed tax increase and strongly believe we can cut more spending, do less borrowing, and still make smart long-term investments in our town,” said Councilman Kyle Kotary.
If a 1.27 percent tax hike were passed, the owner of a $100,000 house would pay $3.81 more, for a total of $282.70 in town taxes.
The next meeting on the budget is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 13, when there will be a workshop. Another is set for Oct. 17 and a public hearing is scheduled for the Town Board meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Another workshop will take place on Nov. 2, sandwiched between the hearing and the targeted budget adoption date of Nov. 9.
All meetings start at 6 p.m. at Bethlehem Town Hall and are open to the public. Budget documents are available for review at the town’s website, at www.townofbethlehem.org.