BY MICHAEL RICONDA
SUFFERN – Suffern’s Village Board effectively blocked movement on the village’s controversial 2015-2016 budget on Monday when it opted to reject laws which would have tentatively set water and sewer rates and approved taxes in excess of the state-recommended cap.
In spite of arguments by Mayor Patricia Abato that the budget was well-made and proposed tax hikes were largely unavoidable, the Republican-dominated board voted down a proposed 12.2 percent increase to water rates and tabled a vote for a 14.4 percent increase to sewer rates. The board also voted against a resolution which would have permitted property tax increases beyond the state’s two percent tax cap, a temporary block to a drastic 22.8 percent increase.
The tax proposal and water rates were blocked by “no” votes by Trustees Matt Byrne, Bob Morris and Ed Markunas. The sewer proposal was tabled with “yes” votes by the same three trustees.
Both Abato and members of the board have pledged to scour the tentative budget for areas to cut expenses. However, according to Abato, years of excessive borrowing required a budget that addresses longstanding problems.
“In order to achieve a clear picture of these finances, I felt it was imperative to present a tentative budget that reflects our true state of affairs before any reductions, as this gives not only the Board but the residents a better understanding of the budget process,” Abato stated at the meeting.
In her defense of the attempts to permit a tax cap bypass and increased water rates, Abato’s argument relied more on the State Comptroller’s review of municipal finances. Claiming that the figures were not set in stone and the tax levy permission did not necessarily mean a tax hike, Abato stated a timely comptroller’s report relied on estimates prior to the May 1 budget deadline.
“Without this information, that is not going to be completed.” Abato said.
The new budget, according to Village Treasurer Michael Genito, was exacting but “structurally sound,” addressing shrinking assets, growing expenses, employee benefits and the burden from years of revenue anticipation borrowing and maintenance. Genito echoed Abato in stating the fixed nature of most of these expenses made tax increases unavoidable.
At the same time, Abato left options on the table for additional cuts and new revenue streams, including the cancellation of new and replacement hiring, the sale of surplus village equipment, use of a state procurement policy for supplies and ongoing negotiations with unions for wage decreases.
The door was also left open for the sale of surplus water to United Water or other municipalities and consolidations which would not impact village services, though it is uncertain whether such a deal could be finalized by May 1. Infrastructure updates are also being pursued for the purposes of efficiency and more long-term reductions.
Outside of the budget, the village plans to pursue a 10-year deficit financing plan to eliminate the cumulative impact of years of RAN borrowing and other obligations, including a proposed $1.5 million round of cash flow borrowing floated in February.