2016 Bethlehem Town Board / File photo
BETHLEHEM — There were few surprises in the budget presentation put together by Town Supervisor John Clarkson and Town Comptroller Michael Cohen and presented to the town board by Cohen during the Sept. 28 board meeting. The bulk of the budget is based on a $52.5 million capital plan to invest in town infrastructure upkeep and improvement over the next five years, a plan that has been brought before the town and its residents several times over recent months.
In terms of the town’s financial situation, Bethlehem is in good shape, especially in comparison to the rest of the Capital District, according to fiscal stress assessments recently released by the state comptroller’s office. The assessments, which monitor the financial health of every municipality in New York state, look at financial indicators such as budgetary solvency, revenue versus expenditures, fixed costs and the use of short-term debt to finance municipal projects. They also consider “environmental indicators,” trends that influence revenue-raising capabilities and demand for services. For the second consecutive year, the Town of Bethlehem was given a perfect score, which Town Supervisor John Clarkson attributes to the adoption of new fiscal policies adopted during his first term in 2012.
“The town was facing an enormous budget gap of $3.5 million dollars,” said Clarkson. “So that year we had a huge citizens budget committee effort. We made a lot of reductions, both mid-year and in the budget, and we also adopted the fiscal policies.” The policies adopted by the town were threefold: a fund balance policy directing the town to maintain a “contingency reserve” balance in the town’s general fund equal to 15 percent of budgeted expenditures; the annual generation of a five-year capital plan; and the annual generation of a multi-year financial plan. “These are all best practices recommended by the state comptroller’s office,” said Clarkson. “Despite that, they’re not widely followed. Bethlehem is the only municipality in the Capital Region that follows these practices.” In the projected capital plan, he said, the town not only identifies potential projects and estimates cost, but also where the money will come from.
The proposed 2017 budget would increase property taxes 2.5 percent over the current fiscal year, an increase of $16 for residents who own a $260K home. Almost two thirds of the increase will go toward projects outlined in the town’s capital plan, the most recent version of which was presented by Cohen at the previous town board meeting on Sept. 14. The budget would keep the town under the state tax cap for the sixth consecutive year and includes a 2 percent cost of living increase for town employees.
Following the five-year capital plan, the budget proposal includes disbursements of approximately $17.6 million for water and sewer projects, $2.8 million for sidewalks and other community “enhancements,” and $3.7 million for public safety projects, including the renovation of a grade on Adams St. to provide a home for the town’s emergency response services and alterations to the town court and police station.
“Things have gotten a lot more focused,” said Cohen, who also credited the policies adopted in 2012. “It’s because the policies and the ideas we had really allowed us to identify important areas and then work towards certain goals.”