Council Reduces Proposed Increase from 9.2% to 6.2%
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
The Orangetown Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday to override the state-imposed limitation of a 2 percent increase in local real property taxes next year.
By doing so, Orangetown joins three of its neighbors who have already passed similar resolutions: Clarkstown, Ramapo and Haverstraw. In all of Rockland County only the Stony Point Town Board has so far voted to keep its tax hike within the two percent limitation imposed in 2011 by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The board also Tuesday decided not to adopt a preliminary budget for 2013, but rather to delay that action for a special meeting next Tuesday, Oct. 30, and to vote on adopting a final budget a week or two later, in early November. By state law, the town must adopt a final budget by Nov. 20.
And in another delaying action, the Orangetown council voted to postpone a public discussion of the proposed Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Company budget from this week’s business meeting to Nov. 7 as well, giving the council more time to examine and dissect both its own budget and that of the fire company.
Budget Dominates Meeting
The town’s proposed budget for 2013, and the taxes it will require to fund that budget, dominated the majority of Tuesday evening’s meeting, both among board members and between the board and a packed auditorium of residents who showed up to hear the discussion and offer their own input to the council on how they felt they should reduce the document before it is finally adopted.
Orangetown managed to keep just under the two percent cap last January by reducing its 2011 budget of $65.9 million to $64.4 million for this year. The board later added items and its “adjusted” budget ended up at $65,140,354. By keeping spending down and not filling vacant personnel positions, however, the town’s budget office predicts Orangetown will actually end up on Dec. 31 having spent only $65,028,916.
Budget planning for next year began this summer, according to Supervisor Andrew Stewart, who asked all department heads to submit their budget projections showing a zero increase for 2013. Taking into account pay raises guaranteed by long-term contracts, that made Stewart’s first budget proposal come in at $65,063,281.
Because of decreased state and federal funding, loss of tax revenues due to lawsuits by Pfizer and other companies, and a transfer of several costs from the county to the town, however, that would have required a tax hike of about 14 percent, officials said. Stewart later requested budgets showing a 5 percent reduction.
Republican board members told Democrat Stewart that was an unacceptable figure, and all five men spent more than a month going through the budget with a fine tooth comb. By September they had lowered expenses enough to reduce the tax hike to 9.19 percent, where it remains to this day.
Board members noted Tuesday however that they are continuing to review the budget and look for additional cuts, and feel they have gotten the tax increase down to 6.19 percent. That figure was revealed by Councilman Thomas Diviny of Blauvelt, who also read a corresponding list of budget cuts the council had agreed to in order to reach that figure.
The cuts included reducing the police department by four positions, replacing officers on the radio and telephone control desk with lower paid civilians, and making several full-time positions at the town’s golf courses and other parks part-time instead.
Diviny said during the discussion that he would release the full list of proposed cuts at the end of the meeting. Instead, the board went into executive session at the conclusion of the public portion. When they returned to an empty auditorium, Diviny announced that the board had decided not to reveal the list of cuts yet after all, but to delay it for another week or so to give them time to make even more reductions.
Diviny also revealed that the board had trimmed nearly $1million from the total budget so far, but was working hard to reduce it even more before the state-imposed deadlines by which they must adopt a final document.
Councilman Denis Troy of Pearl River gave a historical perspective to the budget, noting that last year’s GOP supervisor, Paul Whelan, presented a 2012 budget with a seven percent tax hike. Troy wanted to adopt that budget, he said, but the council eventually voted 3-2 to trim it even further and keep the tax increase to less than 2%. He doesn’t know how much further the council can trim the proposed budget at this point, Troy added, without decreasing services to town residents.
Stewart noted that the board was only able to accomplish that last fall by taking $3.5 million from the town’s fund balance, or reserve fund, and counting it as revenue to offset the projected expenses. The town’s reserves are now so low that the board will not be able to make a similar transfer this year, the supervisor predicted, leaving them little room to negotiate other than through cutting direct services.
Direct service cuts appeared to be what a majority of residents in Orangetown want next year, as opposed to increased taxes, nearly 25 of them told the council last night during the public participation portion of the weekly meeting.
The majority in the auditorium said they favored closing the town’s money-losing Broadacres Golf Course, and either mothballing it or selling it to a private operator. They also said they favored selling the town’s entire sewer treatment system to Rockland County, eliminating both a huge financial drain on town finances and a long-standing headache that suffers frequent breakdowns, accusations of causing foul odors and being responsible for the town’s largest bond indebtedness for past improvement projects.
Orangetown owns and operates two golf courses, the 27-hole Blue Hills facility in Pearl River and the nine-hole Broadacres course on the former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus in nearby Orangeburg. Broadacres reportedly loses about $400,000 yearly, and town officials have suggested closing the course to save money, or even selling or leasing it to make a profit instead.
In past meetings dozens of residents and golfers have packed Town Board meetings, pleading with the board to keep Broadacres open. This week, that ratio changed. The only supporters Tuesday evening were course director Joseph Wrafter and May Kriedes, president of the ladies golf league at the facility.
Wrafter said the loss is artificially inflated because the town spent about $50,000 to upgrade the electrical and other systems at Broadacres a couple of years ago. The bonds for those expenses will be paid off next year, Wrafter explained, meaning the course’s expenses will automatically decrease in 2013 and following years.
Wrafter also said drugs have become a huge problem among Orangetown’s youth, especially in Pearl River where lives. One of the best ways to combat drug abuse among teenagers is to involve them in healthy recreational activities, such as golfing at Broadacres, so they won’t be tempted to “hang out” with their peers and try drugs and alcohol.
Kriedes said she and most seniors in Orangetown are not permitted to play golf at the town’s Blue Hill course because that requires a handicap score, which she said most seniors and teens do not have. As a result, closure of Broadacres would remove the only recreational forum that is current available to seniors, she explained as she pleaded with the board to allow the coarse to remain functioning next year.
Most residents at the meeting felt differently, however, saying the town did not need two golf courses, and should close the smaller and more costly Broadacres as soon as possible. Among those calling for the closure and sale of Broadacres were Henry Rand and Beth Riso of Nyack, Michael Mandel of Pearl River, Carol Silverstein of Orangeburg and Ann Putko of Piermont.
Silverstein said she is the former chairperson of the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission and favors closure of the course as soon as possible to eliminate “that albatross around our necks.” Also calling it a “sinking ship,” she urged the board “don’t keep trying to save a sinking ship or we’ll all drown with it.”
Putko went a step further, saying the town should not only close and sell Broadacres, but the entire 348-acre RPC campus it now owns as well. The town has no use or need for it, Putko asserted, it is a severe financial drain on town finances, and the town could make a fortune by selling it to a commercial developer or a university for a new educational complex.
As each resident spoke, the majority of the audience burst into supportive applause and shouts of “right on” and “that’s telling them.”
The board took no action on any budget item Tuesday, but did promise to make its list of suggested cuts available publicly next week at the special meeting they have called for Oct. 30. That will start out as a police commission meeting at 6 p.m. in executive session, but will become public for budget discussions about 7 p.m., board members indicated.
A new financial analysis on the potential costs and savings that might be generated by a closing of the Broadacres Golf Course was provided after the meeting by Supervisor Stewart, although no discussion on the document was held.
Continuing expenses for the town to own but not operate the course next year would be $373,825, which would drop to $241,825 each of the next four years. Increased savings by laying off one employee and a transfer of funds to the Blue Hill course would be $121,000 each of the five years, the analysis shows. The net carrying costs of the expenses less the savings would be $252,825 next year and $120,825 each of the following four years.
The annual average loss at Broadacres, including debt service, is $333,751each year, the analysis shows, concluding that the net savings would be $80,926 next year and $212,926 in each of the coming four years through 2017,for a net five-year savings of $932,630. The report also shows that revenues have been dropping annually at Broadacres, while expenses have escalated.
Operating revenues from greens fees, cart rentals and other income went from $648,199 in 2010 to $560,820 last year, while expenses rose from $930,296 in 2010 to $973,769 last year. Combing those two lines showed the town lost $282,097 operating Broadacres in 2010, jumping to a whopping $412,949 last year.
And because the losses have been accumulating yearly, the report shows that the cumulative deficit rose from $1.6 million in 2010 to $2 million last year, and is continuing to escalate annually, and drain more and more money from the town’s cash reserve fund.
Audience members did suggest several cuts to the budget at this week’s meeting, however, with board members taking notes and indicating the suggestions would be taken under advisement. Among the ideas offered were the following:
Eileen Larkin, Palisades: Become more aggressive in selling portions of the RPC campus to private developers so the town can reap the sale price as well as the taxes that would be generated from the private developments.
Michael Mandel: Make private landscapers haul away the leaves, grass and twigs they collect from customers yards instead of leaving them curbside for the town to pick up. Become aggressive in collecting money owned to the town by the South Orangetown Little League for their use of town fields on the RPC campus. If the town keeps Broadacres, it should increase the player fees so they cover the full cost of operating the facility so it no longer runs at a deficit. Lobby the New York State legislature to amend the state’s Taylor Law so the town can reduce salaries and benefits to town employees, especially in the police department. Eliminate all vehicles given to some 15 employees. Combine all elections on one day each year, including county, town, school, library, fire districts and other special districts, dramatically reducing the budget for multiple annual elections.
Eileen Larkin: Freeze all positions and do not hire any new employees in any department next year. Do not convert any part-time jobs to full-time, do not create any new part-time or full-time positions, and do not fill any vacancies from retirements or other causes. Freeze all salaries at their current levels, reduce benefits where possible and eliminate all overtime. Ask each department head for a list of suggestions or ideas on how their individual budgets can be further reduced.
Carol Silverstein: Do not approve Stewart’s request to make his part-time assistant, Suzanne Barclay, full-time, and do not replace a part-time deputy town attorney will a full-time person.
Ann Putko: Make all residents mulch their own grass, leaves and other debris, or pay to have them removed, so the town highway department can eliminate that function from their list of responsibilities and save the town hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
Henry Rand: Eliminate all contracts with landscapers for services they perform for the town. Either have town workers do the work, make the public do it if they want it, or don’t provide the service. Freeze all salaries as the federal and state governments have done for the past three years. Eliminate newly created positions of clerk of the works, assistant director of the Department of Environmental Management and Engineering (DEME). Eliminate street sweeping equipment and personnel from the highway department.
In Other Business
In a brief business meeting Tuesday, The Town Board unanimously adopted the following resolutions:
- Scheduled a public hearing for Nov.7 at 8 p.m. to discuss whether or not the board should adopt the proposed 2013 budget of the Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Company. The Town Board serves as the board of fire commissioners for the Blauvelt Fire District, and must approve the annual budget for inclusion within the town’s budget. Several board members have questioned portions of the fire budget, including a large reserve fund, money for an annual dinner for $17,000 and a large chief’s discretionary fund. The board is also expected to vote on adopting a final 2013 budget at this meeting.
- Approve purchase of a light duty truck for the Highway Department for $50,478 from Van Bortel Ford of Rochester.
- Approve purchase of a 24-yard dump trailer for the highway department for $36,420 from Vasso Waste Systems of Brooklyn.
- Authorize the highway department to hire McLaren Engineering for $10,500 for the purpose of conducting a Sparkill Creek flood relief engineering investigation.
- Release a performance bond of $80,796 put up by Orangeburg Warehouse for proposed development of the former Flintkote property on route 303 in Orangeburg, because that plan has been replaced by the newer Orangeburg Commons proposal on the same site, now under construction, which has its own performance bond.
- Approve the extension of a performance bond in the amount of $350,000 for the proposed Route 9W Golf Subdivision in Palisades.
- Schedule a workshop meeting of the board for Tuesday Oct. 30, to start with a police commission meeting at 6 p.m. and a public meeting about 7 for the purpose of discussing details of the proposed 2013 town budget. The board may adopt a preliminary budget at this meeting as well.
- Adjourn in memory of 16-year-old Thomas Robert Scognamiglio of Pearl River.