Bethlehem Town Hall. Spotlight file photo
BETHLEHEM — Town Board members easily approved the proposed 2018 town budget during their bi-monthly meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8.
The 2018 budget will raise the tax levy by 2.88 percent, remaining below the state property tax cap for the seventh consecutive year. This means that homeowners will see an increase of approximately $30 on a home valued at $260,000.
The $41.8 million budget represents a 1.8 percent spending increase over this year, or $741,000. Fifty-nine percent of that, $435,000, will cover debt service on capital expenditures such as water and sewer upgrades, sidewalks and public safety. Some of those projects are already underway, such as the Adams Street garage and Delaware Avenue Streetscape Project, while others have already been completed, such as the purchase of new highway equipment and the sidewalk on Krumkill Road.
The 2018 budget also includes a two percent cost of living increase for all town employees, adds two new full-time police officers and eliminates a mechanic position.
When developing annual budgets, the town refers to its five-year capital plan, which is updated each year, to identify capital projects that are considered high priority and establish timelines and funding sources. While the plan is not officially adopted by the town or in any way binding, Town Comptroller Michael Cohen said it “provides a vehicle for mapping out our needs and expectations.”
The $55.2 million capital expenditure plan expects to invest a total $44.3 million in water and sewer infrastructure, sidewalk projects and public safety improvements over the next five years, including: $14 million for the Clapper Road Water Treatment Plant; $4 million for the renovation of the Adams Street garage; and $2.25 million for alterations to the Town Court and police station.
Generally, Cohen noted, about a dozen or so projects comprise the bulk, currently more than 85 percent, of the spending plan. Other large projects envisioned for the coming five years include: construction of a roundabout at Feura Bush and Glenmont roads; street paving; sewer pump and water main replacement; improvements to water storage tanks and the New Salem Water Treatment Plant; and the replacement of highway equipment.
Approximately $6.75 million will be spent on capital improvements in the 2018 budget — $2.28 million from budgeted operating costs and $4.47 million in debt service payments. The additional $12.9 million in capital spending planned for the year will be financed independent of the adopted budget. Almost $2.78 million will be paid through Capital Reserve and Parkland Set Aside funds, which fall outside the budget and require board approval on a project-by-project basis, according to Cohen. Slightly more than $1 million is expected in grant financing. And the remaining $9.02 million represents incurred debt that will be paid off in future operating budgets.
The five-year evolving plan includes a component aimed at moving the town away from borrowing money to pay for recurring costs, a habit that began during harder fiscal times. While debt usage is by no means out of hand, say officials, the town feels that it is better fiscal management to cover those costs out of the town’s general operating fund.
“Every time we fund a project through debt service we provide ourselves less financial flexibility in the future,” said Cohen. “That being said, we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and the town has been good at adapting to challenges. Over the last several years, we’ve saved money by refinancing older debt, restructuring and/or combining departments, leasing out the golf course, modifying the justice court hours, taking attrition, building/contracting a solar farm, among other changes.”
Cohen pointed out that Bethlehem now holds an AA+ credit rating, the best in the county, and that responsible fiscal planning has afforded the town good rates on loans that it has taken out — 2.86 percent on a recent 25-year bond. Current projections also indicate that the town will maintain a general fund balance equal to more than 15 percent of overall expenditures, even with an expected shortfall in 2020 due to increasing capital expenses.
“Capital needs,” said Cohen, “will continue to be the primary concern with the budget.”
The budget was unanimously approved by the Town Board.