Empty desks save Bethlehem $1M

Leaving 17 jobs unfilled will likely shrink budget gap

The Bethlehem Town Board saw some rare black numbers Wednesday night when Comptroller Michael Cohen presented a mid-year fund balance analysis that showed the town has saved over $1 million in 2012 by leaving the equivalent of 17 full time jobs unfilled.

That could well put a dent in the $3.5 million budget gap expected at year’s end, which is due in no small part to the expiration of a property tax agreement with Selkirk Cogen.

Supervisor John Clarkson said at the Aug. 22 Town Board meeting keeping staffing levels low — but avoiding layoffs — has been successful and will likely be a central part of his 2013 budget that is set to be presented in late September.

“We can solve a great deal of our budget problem by keeping and taking advantage of attrition,” Clarkson said. “(Staffing) is going to be the big question we are going to face.”

The supervisor acknowledged having fewer staff has its downsides, including adding to the burden born by remaining employees. The town’s staffing level has dropped by 10 percent since 2008.

The attrition means the town is running about $1 million under its 2012 budget, and that money will be stashed in the town’s fund balance. Cohen warned about tapping those savings to deal with things like pension contributions, though.

“I want to emphasize that this increased fund balance is a one-time occurrence. Using this fund balance for recurring spending … shouldn’t happen,” he said.

Four of the positions that sit unfilled are in the police department. The town is considering scaling back or eliminating its police presence in the schools, including through the DARE program at Bethlehem Central, to keep a position vacant. BC Superintendent Thomas Douglas will be at the Sept. 12 Town Board meeting to address the board, Clarkson said.

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