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No simple solutions in Bethlehem budget discussion

Officials say 2011 planning process most difficult in years

After several weeks of deliberations on the 2011 budget, the one thing that's clear in the Town of Bethlehem is that there are no easy decisions to be made in the coming weeks.

Town leaders have been meeting several times a week with department heads to go over projections for next year, and that work has resulted in a tentative 2011 budget that was discussed at a Thursday, Sept. 2, workshop. Supervisor Sam Messina will present the final version of his budget to the Town Board in a few weeks.

He was quick to acknowledge the difficult times ahead.

I don't think Bethlehem has ever faced such a challenging year, and I'm trying to deal with a really difficult revenue reduction, and in some cases uncontrollable expenditure increases, he said in a recent interview.

Those increases are chiefly in pension contribution and health insurance costs. For 2011, the town's contribution to the state retirement system is slated to rise 28 percent to nearly $1.9 million, and health-care costs are expected to rise more than 10 percent. This is on the heels of similar jumps in this year.

Additionally, the contract with the police union calls for a 2 percent raise for police officers (they received none last year). That contract is up in 2012.

These factors, combined with an economy that shows few signs of revival, as well as disarray in state government, makes for a perfect storm of sorts, said Councilman Kyle Kotary.

"It's probably the most dire financial situation the town's been in in 30 years or more, certainly in recent memory," he said.

The tentative budget calls for an increase in spending of about $2.2 million, a tax hike of 2 percent, a 1 percent "cost of living adjustment" for town employees and the "step" pay increases normally offered for years on the job.

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