The public will be giving Bethlehem leaders comments on a 2012 budget that includes the same tax hike as originally proposed nearly two months ago, but has changed considerably in other areas.
There will be a public hearing on the tentative budget at the Town Board meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 26. The board has met in five budget workshops this season, including an extra one called for Thursday, Oct. 20, to hammer out outstanding disagreements.
The resulting product, which carries a 1.27 percent tax hike in addition to increases in sewer and water user fees, was deemed to be a reasonable compromise to most board members, though there will be time to make changes before a scheduled Nov. 9 budget adoption.
“I’m very pleased we are where we’re at right now,” said Councilman Kyle Kotary on Thursday. “At this point we’re getting closer and closer to a budget that meets the needs of everybody.”
The tax hike could still be an issue, though. Throughout the process, board members have expressed opposition to any increase in taxes, while Supervisor Sam Messina has maintained the proposed hike is a fair one along with the reductions in operation expenses (he said there’ve been $1.4 million) and reduction on the use of the fund balances.
“We’ve done our job. We’ve done it professionally, and we’ve reduced expenses,” he said.
Since the budget was first presented, a number of proposed projects that would have been borrowed for have been taken out, the most significant being a $1.4 million bond to secure a new Department of Public Works garage. Another $350,000 of borrowing was shifted over to capital reserves and several vehicle purchases were sent from borrowing to the regular operations budget.
Even with cuts, the town would end up spending over $38 million, or around what was budgeted for this year. Some costs, not the least of which the town’s mandatory retirement contributions, have skyrocketed year-to-year.
One thing that has changed in recent weeks is the town’s approach to road paving. The town has recently been borrowing for its yearly paving projects, and after the issue was broached in workshops, the new tentative budget includes a measure to draw down borrowing for that purpose.
Under the plan, the highway fund tax would increase by 3 percent and other monies would be shifted to bring just over $100,000 worth of paving back into the operational budget of the Highway Department. About $700,000 worth of paving is budgeted for.
Changes in the taxes to be levied in other funds would bring the blended tax levy hike to the same 1.27 percent.
This plan seemed to sit well with members of the Town Board, who still prodded department heads for more cuts on Thursday in hopes of achieving a flat tax rate.
Acting Commissioner of Public Works Erik Deyoe said his budget was trimmed by $600,000 in this budget proposal and the effects of years of cuts are being felt.
“From my perspective, morale is kind of at an all-time low in our department. … I’m incredibly concerned about retention,” he said.
There are no across-the-board raises in the tentative budget. About $210,000 is budgeted to give “limited merit increases and incentives,” to be distributed to employees who haven’t seen a raise in recent years or took on additional duties without a pay hike. The town has 236 employees.
Councilman Mark Jordan said he has concerns about the feasibility of the tentative budget even with the tax hike, which accounts for about $121,000 worth of revenue. He said a 10 percent reduction in the overtime budget for the Police Department would likely backfire.
“We’re not even at where we can’t cut anything, we’re below,” Jordan said. “We’re going to have to make a budget modification [next year].”
Highway Superintendent Gregg Sagendorph said his department would try to meet a 10 percent reduction in overtime, but for his job that depends a lot on the weather. He said he’s going into the winter season shorthanded, as well, and can’t afford more labor because it must be hired at prevailing wages (which Sagendorph referred to as the “elephant in the room”).
Councilwoman Joann Dawson, who admitted she’s often sought to squeeze pennies from the budget, said getting to a 0 percent tax change is a “laudable” goal, but also irresponsible from a services perspective.
The public hearing on the budget will begin at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Town Hall.