presented his tentative budget Tuesday night.Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart gave the rest of the town council and residents their first real look at what a 2014 Orangetown financial might look like when he
That budget calls for an average tax increase of 2.6 percent for Orangetown residents and when the state's calculations for the tax cap are applied, it comes in under the cap, but it took cuts and some creative financing to get there. There are links to the full tentative budget and to a statement by Stewart on the Orangetown website here.
"We can beat the tax cap, and I propose how to do it in this budget," Stewart said. "Through aggressive cost-cutting, use of reserve funds, bonding capital costs and amortizing pension costs, this tentative budget proposes a tax increase of about 1.91 percent as calculated using the NYS Tax Cap formula."
The state calculations take the exceptions built into the tax cap law into account, so it will be lower than the actual increases taxpayers see. For example, the actual tax increase in the 2013 budget was 4.66 percent, but it came in at 1.66 by the state tax cap calculations.
Orangetown Finance Director Jeff Bencik explained that Orangetown has a little more room in the 2014 budget because it came in under the cap last year. That is why a 1.91 percent increase would be considered under the cap even though this year's tax levy increase cap in New York State is 1.66 percent, not 2.0.
"Personally, I do see the tax cap as a worthy goal," Stewart said. "I don't see it as sacred. I think we should be in control of our own destiny. The decisions we make we live and die by them.
"Our 2014 budget will be very modest even if the town board ultimately decides to exceed the cap."
During previous budget discussions, Bencik had recommended bonding for capital improvements in the town. Stewart's proposed budget includes nearly $4 million in capital improvements, but it shows up as $435,000 in debt service on the 2014 operating budget. Stewart pointed out that the town would be retiring approximately $4 million in bonds in 2014, so taking on the new ones would keep the town at the same level.
"Capital projects are a moving target," Stewart said. "Jeff and I and Ann (Maestri) and the department heads figured out what we think is absolutely necessary."
Stewart said he would give the rest of the council a full list of the capital projects to be bonded this week and expected to work with them to make further decisions. One example of items on the list are vehicle purchases for the Orangetown Highway Department that were deferred in 2012 and 2013.
The tentative budget also calls for the town to amortize pension cost increases for both the CSEA and PBA, which would spread that cost out over 10 years with interest. New York State raised the town's pension contributions by 28 percent for police officers and 20 percent for members of the CSEA in 2014, which would cost the town $6.2 million, a cost that could be decreased to $1.2 million by amortization. Though this only defers the expense, the town did this for the CSEA in 2013 and both unions in 2012.
"The State Comptroller has indicated that he expects 2014 to be the last year of the large increases in pension costs," Stewart said. "It's a bet we made before and I think we should make it again."
Among the cuts Stewart proposed is the funding of a building inspector position that is currently vacant. That drew criticism from Councilman Tom Diviny.
"This does not include another building inspector for the building department, which is actually making the town money," Diviny said "I am dumbfounded by that answer."
Diviny also asked if Orangetown Executive Assistant Suzanne Barclay's position would be funded as full-time or part-time. The position, which is appointed by the supervisor, has been a point of contention since before Stewart took office. The position had been full time when Stewart's predecessor, Paul Whalen, was in office, but the council voted to make it part time during the 2012 budget process. Stewart proposed making it full-time again in 2013, but was outvoted. He brought it up again when he presented the budget for his department this year, but left the position as part time in the 2014 tentative budget.
In another change from the 2013 budget discussions, Stewart is proposing the use of $3.5 million in reserve funds in 2014. In the final stages of planning the 2013 budget, Stewart fought against increasing the town's use of reserve funds from $1.5 million to $1.75 million, though that decision did pass. The town used $3.5 million in reserves in 2012 and $2.5 million in 2011.
"That's a lot of money," Stewart said. "It decreases the tax levy by eight percent, allowing us to get under the tax cap. The word 'tentative' is real in this case. The proposed use of reserve funds is aggressive. We can do it. We may not want to and we certainly won't be able to do it again and again. We need to confront this question early in the budget process, not make it as a last-minute decision."
The full town council will submit a preliminary budget and hold a hearing regarding giving itself the ability to override the tax cap Oct. 22. There will be a public hearing on the entire budget Nov. 12. The final budget must be adopted by Nov. 19.
The other four members of the town council did not see the tentative budget until Tuesday night, which limited their responses and questions. Councilman Paul Valentine characterized it as deferring expenses rather than cutting the budget.
"If we didn't use fund balance, it would be 13 percent (increase)," Valentine said. "If it didn't amortize pensions, it would be 16 perent. We didn't cut the budget. We shifted costs and kicked the can down the road."
Bencik said with all the requests from the town's departments, the budget would have come in at an increase of 18 percent.
"There comes a point where the board has a choice to increase taxes, use fund balance or cut services," Bencik said. "We are literally at that point."
"It's about as lean as you can possibly get," Stewart said. "Maybe there is a magic bullet out there. It is my belief, anyway, to get the operational budget lower, you have to cut a program or cut staff."
Bencik said there were no increases in head count among town employees and the budget calls for keeping the Orangetown Police Department at 83 officers.