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Bethlehem's draft budget calls for tax hike

— The draft 2012 budget for the Town of Bethlehem calls for a 1.27 percent tax hike and a number of austerity measures in an effort to brace for what officials say are dark times ahead.

The budget was unveiled this evening to the Town Board, town staff and a few onlookers at the first of many budget workshops. The comptroller and Supervisor Sam Messina’s office have been working with individual departments to draft the plan that calls for $38.6 million in spending—almost exactly the same amount as in this year’s budget.

Messina described the budget as “a very, very, very good first step.” Unveiling a complete plan at the first budget workshop is a reversal from the process used in past years.

“We’re not starting going through reams and reams of data, we’re starting with the big picture,” Messina said.

That big picture also calls for no raises whatsoever for town employees in the coming year, and assumes none will be built into a new contract with the police union that expires this year. Five positions that sat unfilled this year would be struck from the budget.

These measures were influenced by many factors, said Comptroller Suzanne Traylor, not the least of which is soaring pension contributions. The impending loss of $1.75 million in PILOT receipts in 2013 and the state’s 2 percent yearly tax cap also played in coming up with the tax hike, she said.

There was also an effort to spend less out of reserves in this budget. Indeed, the draft calls for about half of the amount of fund balance spending this year, at a proposed $1 million.

It’s possible the budget will see shifts in the coming months. There’s an adoption target of Nov. 9. Compounding budgetary issues is the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene. The town’s still cataloguing the destruction to its infrastructure; a price tag on repairs could take some time.

A presidential order declaring Albany County a disaster area means the town will likely see some federal relief, but just how much remains to be seen. Even with federal aid, local municipalities generally end up paying some recovery costs.

For more on the draft budget, read next week’s Spotlight.

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