Editor, The Spotlight:
The 2014 Town Budget proposed by Supervisor Clarkson is a good one. It is balanced, affordable and built on a long-term plan that means we’ll be able to maintain services while staying within the property tax cap. This is a relatively “easy” budget year, and that’s a good thing. But it’s important to understand that we got to this easier place after making some very hard choices last year. We must not return to the same practices that got us into trouble in the first place: practices like spending our reserves, borrowing for everyday expenses or failing to understand that today’s budget actions will have consequences in the future. I’m concerned because there have been recent calls to do just that.
My professional background is in public budgeting and finance, and I’ve served on Bethlehem’s Budget Advisory Committee for two years now. This gave me a close-up view of the hard decisions made last year. From the first days of his term, John Clarkson drew a hard line on expenses. Almost every position that fell vacant was not refilled, ultimately reducing the workforce by 7 percent through attrition. The need to cut back so dramatically in a single year was driven by a failure to plan and the use of fiscally damaging policies. Those practices have ended, and Bethlehem now has a strong multiyear and capital planning process.
A letter to the editor last week argued that this year’s budget proposal is bad because last year’s budget (Supervisor Clarkson’s first) should have had lower property taxes. But the only argument offered was that there were lower average increases in some preceding years. Well, that argument misses the point that during those years a number of bad practices began, including bonding out pension enrichments, borrowing for routine road repaving, imposing a hidden dispatch fee and totally ignoring the looming loss of a $1.7 million annual payment from Selkirk Cogen. Far from being examples of good management, those years are the root cause of the huge budget gap faced last year.
Leadership and fiscal responsibility are about making sure we are as efficient as possible, but also that we can meet our community’s needs going forward. Anyone who watched the budget process last year knows that every town service was put on the table, examined and cut back where possible. They also know that town residents like the services they are receiving.
Last year Bethlehem made do with $442,000 less in property taxes (including the Cogen loss). Cuts were made, spending went down, and this year’s budget is easier because of it. Bethlehem has a responsible long- term plan that protects our reserves and supports needed water and sewer projects. We accomplished all this working together under John Clarkson’s leadership. It’s easy to say that spending and taxes should be even lower, but harder to make happen. John Clarkson found a way to make it happen.
Member, Bethlehem Budget Advisory Committee