After the tax levy went up by 8 percent this year, officials in the Town of Bethlehem are painting a much rosier picture for the coming budget cycle.
Town Comptroller Michael Cohen and Supervisor John Clarkson presented the 2014 budget outlook to the Town Board at a Wednesday, May 22, meeting. That outlook projects no budget gap for 2014. In comparison, the town moved to close a $3.5 million gap last year by raising taxes sharply, cutting services and shedding unfilled positions.
“I knew it would be OK, but frankly it’s better than I thought it would be,” Supervisor John Clarkson said. “It looks like we’re heading towards a budget well below the property tax cap and well below 2 percent.”
The supervisor also said it is likely raises for town employees will be worked into the 2014 budget. A contract with the police union has already been reached that includes cost-of-living increases.
“You cannot expect your workforce to last forever in a situation where no one is getting raises,” Clarkson said.
He also said the town is jettisoning plans to levy a leaf collection fee. The $30 per household charge had been floated for the 2013 budget but the town held off on it. With a brighter outlook, Clarkson said there should be no need for the fee that would raise about $230,000 for the town.
“Looking ahead, we were worried we wouldn’t be able to balance the budget without it. … At this point in time, I’d like to take it off the table. We shouldn’t need it,” he said.
Clarkson cautioned any number of unexpected developments could have an impact on the budget outlook. Those include the possibility of the county passing college chargebacks down to towns or adjusting the sales tax distribution ratios, topics that have been raised in the past.
For 2013, things are proceeding slightly off of budget projections. Current projections show the town falling about $60,000 under budget for revenues and running more than $300,000 over budget when it comes to expenditures. The lion’s share of the difference in expenditures is due to contractual charges related to the town’s reassessment project.
Included in the variance in revenue projections are “refuse and garbage” revenues, which are coming in $79,000 below projections. Councilman Bill Reinhardt wondered if that could be connected to the town’s transfer station and compost facilities, where hours were trimmed back this year.
“I’m kind of curious whether perhaps, by reducing the transfer station hours to reduce cost, we’ve also reduced revenue,” he said.
Cohen said that possibility has been noted, but more homework will have to be done to pinpoint the issue.
Following the presentation on budget projections, Co-Chairman of the town’s citizen Budget Advisory Committee Tom Clash updated the board on the group’s work. The advisory team was formed last year in part in deference to the fiscal challenges of that year.
Clash said the group has been looking primarily in the areas of shared services in the Highway Department, town energy costs and the town’s court security services. He also said an on-demand brush pickup system could potentially make that service more efficient.
“I think the focus is going to be looking at some areas that may have some longer term savings and efficiencies,” Clash said.