Supervisor proposes cuts in totals, taxes
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown Supervisor Andrew Stewart has proposed a $68.1 million 2016 budget that is slightly lower than this year’s total, and which would reduce property taxes to the average homeowner next year by an estimated $54.
The 102-page “Supervisor’s tentative Budget” was presented to members of the Town Board last Tuesday, just prior to a council meeting that evening. It is now being reviewed by the five council members before they make adjustments to the document and come up with a “Preliminary” budget of their own.
That document will be the subject of a public hearing on November 4. Following any additional changes made as a result of that hearing, the board must vote to adopt a “Final” 2016 budget no later than November 17.
In his presentation to the board and the public Tuesday, Stewart thanked all town department heads for their input into creating next years budget, along with his Finance Director Jeff Bencik, Supervisor of Fiscal Services Janice Ganley, Deputy Supervisor Allan Ryff and his executive assistant Elijah Reichlin-Melnick.
Stewart began by noting that “One of the most important duties of the town supervisor is to initiate and coordinate the budget process and make sure that the residents of Orangetown are getting the services they need…while paying as little as possible in taxes.”
He also noted that while school taxes, paid in September, are far higher than town taxes, “We in town government must hold the line on spending and taxes for the budget we control,” adding that he believes his 2016 proposal “is a lean, efficient and fiscally conservative document. Spending is down, taxes are down, and we are under the New York State tax cap for the fourth year in a row.”
According to Stewart and Bencik next year’s tentative budget is $68,098,215, down nearly $100,000 from this year’s total of $68,197,288.
That reduces the amount to be raised by the real property tax next year to $50,431.027 from this year’s total of $50,472.695, a decrease of 2.2 percent, which will be seen by homeowners directly in their Dec. 31 tax bills, which will drop by an average of $54 for the “typical” home assessed at $200,000.
In a rebuttal, Stewart’s electoral opponent Michael Moroney accused the supervisor of relying excessively on bonds to finance the budget (see letter to editor on page 4).
Stewart sees next year’s budget as part of a trend in Orangetown. He is completing his fourth year in office as supervisor, and if his proposed budget is adopted it will be the fourth year the town has been able to come in with a budget beneath the state-imposed “cap,” which limits budget increases to less than about two percent over the previous year.
“And this year’s budget is not a fluke,” Stewart added. “While the federal, state and county governments continue to struggle with severe fiscal issues, Orangetown is basically in good financial shape. From Jan. 2012 to Jan. 2015 our overall reserves increased by around 60 percent and our unencumbered (assigned and unassigned) reserves increased by 18 percent. Likewise, since 2012, our overall town debt has decreased, and we have retained our excellent Aa2 bond rating from Moody’s.”
And although he did not mention it in his budget message, Stewart is also seeking reelection this fall to a third two-year term as supervisor, the lone Democrat on a five-member board controlled by the four Republican Councilmen. He is facing strong opposition from GOP candidate and retired Orangetown Police Officer Michael Moroney, who is also son of Rockland County Legislator Patrick Moroney.
Stewart noted that “Like most municipalities, Orangetown’s budget is heavy on mandated costs – our budget is about 80 percent mandated costs and 20 percent discretionary costs. Even those discretionary costs are in many cases not discretionary at all,” he added, noting as an example that road salt for snowplows or fuel for police cars are examples of “discretionary costs that are really anything but.”
Mandatory costs the town faces are headed by employee salaries and benefit packages such as health insurance, pensions, workmen’s’ compensation and overtime, Stewart went on to explain.
The supervisor said, “In my view, the town is staffed at absolute minimum levels in most departments, and our residents are taxes to their maximum tolerance, so the only solution is meaningful reform in mandated costs at the state level, something that I will continue to pursue in the coming year.”
Another cost driver, according to Stewart, is the large number of tax certiorari’s, or lawsuits, filed against Orangetown in recent years by commercial giants such as Pfizer and Blue Hill, all seeking to have their taxes reduced because of large vacancies in their tenancies.
The only remedies, Stewart says, are changing the statewide system of tax assessment, or helping Pfizer, Blue Hill and other commercial giants attract new tenants so they pay their full allocation of taxes. Pfizer, the formerly Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, has alone won tax refunds of over $7 million in the last four years, and Orangetown is obligated to repay them an additional $1.8 million this year.
Offsetting those loses somewhat, Stewart said, are new businesses moving into Orangetown, including several large data centers such as Bloomberg LP, two new hotels in Orangeburg and Nyack, Anellotech and Protein Sciences at the Pfizer campus, Celtic Sheet Metal fabricators in Orangeburg and at least two movie and TV film centers.
On the positive side of the ledger, Stewart said he and the council have audited Orangetown’s cable TV franchises and reached agreement with Cablevision alone for a refund of $150,000, along with a $25,000 annual reduction going forward, and entered into a load-sharing agreement with Orange & Rockland whereby the town will turn on its generators every so often and sell electricity back to the utility, for an income of about $100,000 annually.
Aggressive grant-writing has garnered the town almost $5 million in state grants in the past two years, and more is planned for the future, he added, thanking Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and State Senator David Carlucci for their assistance, along with grant writer Sylvia Welch and town department heads.
Regarding bonded indebtedness, Stewart said he is proposing issuing $3.1 million in new bonds next year “for pressing capital needs in the police, highway, parks and IT departments.” Overall, the town is reducing its reliance on bonding, outstanding indebtedness is dropping, and town’s overall bond rating remains among the highest in the region, Stewart said.
The biggest gap in next year’s budget, so far, involves the future of the town owned and operated 27-hole Blue Hill Golf Course in Pearl River.
Stewart said he has removed $550,000 in operating expenses for the facility in his 2016 budget proposal, based on the hope that the course will be rented to a private firm to operate. That will both reduce the town’s operating expenses to run the course, and generate rental income to the town from the private operator.
The town entered into a similar arrangement two years ago with New Jersey firm Applied Golf to run the town’s other course, the nine-hole Broadacres Golf Course at Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg. Based on the success of that venture, the town solicited bids in August from firms interested in running the larger Blue Hill, as well as its large restaurant at the stone “castle” and its profitable pro shop.