The costs included in Niskayuna’s budget for next year are clear, but exact fee increases have yet to be solidified.
Niskayuna Supervisor Joe Landry’s initial 2012 budget is remaining unchanged after the Town Board approved a nearly $13.3 million spending plan in a Thursday, Nov. 17, special meeting by a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Jonathan McKinney dissenting. Spending is increasing by $235,455 in 2012 compared to 2011, but the town isn’t using any money from its fund balance or reserves. The adopted budget holds a 3.4 percent tax levy increase.
To achieve cost savings, four full-time positions are being eliminated through attrition, which includes one police department employee, two parks department employees and one highway employee. Three positions are planned to have reduced hours, too. Also, fee increases are included in the budget through recreation programs and camps among other services, along with $150,000 in new revenue from a lawn debris pick up fee.
“There are in this budget opportunities for various fee increases, which will end up being local laws,” said Landry. “As far as the lawn and leaf debris, we are looking at coming up with a fee, we don’t know the exact number, and we are going to estimate how many houses will be taking advantage of this user fee.”
After the meeting, Landry said not all fee increases will require local laws, such as those in the recreation programs, but he said the lawn debris fee, transfer station fees and a home alarm system fee tied to the police department would most likely require local laws to be passed. Before adopting a local law, the board is required to hold a public hearing.
“Not every fee is done the same way. You have to look at how the fee is implemented and what are its appropriating authorities,” said Landry.
Exactly how the lawn debris pick up is going to be collected to reach the $150,000 isn’t completely clear. Landry said the fee would be a one-time annual fee. Landry said users of the service would be billed early in the year before service starts in late spring.
When Landry was questioned if the fee would require residents to sign up ahead of time or how the residents would be chosen to pay the fee, he restated it is a user fee and the town is not looking at a registration process.
“We are looking at trying to impose it upon the residents that do use it,” said Landry.
Landry said the average number of stops per week for lawn debris pick up is about 2,600, at which around 3,600 bags and 4,100 cans are picked up.
Landry also said “a large part of this program will still be paid by general taxes.”
McKinney said he didn’t approve of charging a fee for lawn debris pick up and questioned how the increased revenue will be raised.
“They’ve created a big spot in the budget assuming they are going to get $150,000 and at this point and time they have no idea how they are going to implement the program, track it and bill it,” said McKinney. “They are betting a lot of this budget on a lot of unknowns. It would have been nice to have a lot of this worked out before they passed this budget.”
Councilwoman Liz Orzel Kasper also expressed concerns about the fee increases.
“I think that when you put a budget out there with fees that are unknown it is very disheartening,” she said. “I think a lot of citizens … are concerned because they don’t know what it is.”
Kasper asked Landry if the lawn debris pick up fee included the pick up of loose leaves, but Landry said the town is not looking to include that in the fee.
Kasper later expressed concern over confusion on what the fee covered.
“I think that has been very confusing, because people really don’t know and I didn’t know, that’s why I had been asking and asking,” Kasper said. “A lot of people, including me, thought it would be loose leaf pick-up.”
McKinney said he thought the loose-leaf pick up was excluded from the proposed lawn debris fee after residents expressed concerns.
“I think when people called they decided they can’t go forward with their original proposal, so this is a backpedal, which is fine. I think this is how democracy works,” he said.
Landry said after the meeting the fee might not have been as clear as it should have been.
Kasper said fee increases worry her, but she was more comfortable with fee increases coming through resolutions. She added the board should be “transparent” when increasing fees, so residents know what is coming.
She said she knows the town needs money, but she thought there were better ways to get it.
Resident Lorene Zabin said she was concerned about the “lack of transparency” with the budget process. She said people don’t know when there are budget workshops or hearings.
“We’ve gotten so far away from a community of knowing what is going on in Town Hall without having to FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) or search the web 99 times before we leave to come to a meeting to be sure it’s what’s happening there,” said Zabin. “I think it is very important that people care where they are spending $13 million.”
She said she thought there was room for cutting in the budget without “jeopardizing police and things like that.”
No alternate proposal offered
Kasper said she presented the board members with an alternative proposal that would have increased fees for recreational programs to make up the $150,000 proposed to be raised from lawn debris pick up.
“I did present all of you an alternative, but nobody replied,” said Kasper. “No one liked my solution I guess, because I didn’t hear from anybody … you asked for an alternate solution and I tried.”
Kasper supplied The Spotlight with the correspondence she sent to the board, in which she said the recreational program costs are not fully represented.
“To be realistic about the costs for any of our recreational programs, we need to include the park use and the salaries and benefits of the employees not now included in (our) rec program costs,” said Kasper in a letter to board members.
According to Kasper’s estimates, the additional costs associated with recreational programs results in a shortfall of $182,850. This includes the salaries and maintenance costs to maintain parks used. She said making up the shortfall would result in a cost-per-participant increase of $32.34 per year.
“As you can see, if we charge those who use these recreational activities on a more realistic breakdown, we would have enough for leaf pick up,” Kasper said in her letter. “I have only done this for recreation. However, it should be done for all of our programs so that we know exactly what we are spending.”
Landry didn’t comment on the alternative proposal, because he said Kasper “never offered them up,” adding, “they were never considered by the body.”
In her letter, Kasper said she would offer the changes as an amendment to the budget, but she ended up voting in support of the budget without any amendments. She said there were some aspects of the budget she didn’t agree to, but overall she liked it.
“I’m going to vote yes to show you that I am willing to work if you will be willing to work with me,” said Kasper.