The Bethlehem Town Board will be meeting in another budget workshop tomorrow night.
The meeting was not planned as one of the set of discussions the board has been having on the 2012 budget. With a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 26, though, it was decided at a Monday, Oct. 17, workshop that more time was needed.
Members of the Town Board and Supervisor Sam Messina are continuing to grind out a budget plan, and issues including whether a tax increase should be part of the budget and what the thown’s policy on borrowing should be continue to rule the debate.
After a workshop last week when Town Board members made it clear they’d like to see the budget pared back, especially in the area of borrowing, town staff took recommendations and brought a revised proposal to the board.
This one cuts out a few initiatives, not the least of which was a $1.4 million bond to secure a new Department of Public Works garage. Another $350,000 of borrowing was shifted over to capital reserves and several vehicle purchases were sent from borrowing to the regular operations budget.
In addition, the overtime budget for several departments was trimmed, including in the Police Department and Highway Department, which use the most overtime.
Board members were still talking cuts on Monday, though, and when the subject was broached, a few department heads bristled, saying they’ve cut to the bone over the past few years.
“Every bit of overtime that is used is scrutinized,” Police Chief Louis Corsi said. “There are some things in that overtime line that are contractual, that I have no control over.”
He added that with a scaled-down workforce, the department sometimes has no choice but to turn to overtime.
Other departmnet heads bemoaned the skyrocketing cost of pension contributions and healthcare, and said employees are stretched to the brink.
Highway Superintendent Gregg Sagendorph said his department would try to meet a 10 percent reduction in overtime, but for his force that depends a lot on the weather. He said he’s going into the winter season shorthanded, as well, and can’t obtain reasonably-priced labor because it must be hired at prevailing wages (which Sagendorph refered to as the “elephant in the room”).
Several board members said they’d like to see the tax hike fall to zero, or even see taxes down, while Messina maintained a 1.27 percent increase is responsible in this environment. Again, there was talk of the possibility of the town’s bond rating taking a hit if it doesn’t levy taxes.
Councilman Mark Hennessey took issue with that argument, saying it shouldn’t play into the decision.
“It sounds like if you don’t raise tassxes, you’re over a barrell, and I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think that’s fair,” he said.
Deep into the meeting, Councilman Kyle Kotary laid out a plan to wean the town off of borrowing for road paving, a practice that was started in recent years.
By raising highway taxes every year, he said, the department could get back to paying for the paving out of its operational budget. There is $700,000 worth of paving in the proposed 2012 budget (down from $760,000). Kotary described this solution as a reversal of past policy, as the highway tax was cut when paving went to being bonded.
He also noted that in addition to the tax hike, the proposed budget contains rate increases in the water and sewer funds, and he called for those to be reduced.
The Town Board will meet Thursday, Oct. 20, at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.