Orangetown Ponders Tax Cap Compliance; Jobs, staffing, composting top Tuesday Agenda

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

The Orangetown Town Board was pleased with itself three weeks ago when it announced that it would keep its property tax increase to only 1.9 percent next year, meaning the town would just barely skirt New York State’s mandate to keep tax hikes to 2 percent or less or risk heavy fines.

Tuesday evening, however, that same Town Board learned that its tax hike next year may indeed exceed the two percent cap.

Worse was the advice from town budget and legal officials that the board must adopt a final 2014 budget by next Tuesday, the state deadline, and if they are going to exceed the two percent cap, they must also pass a separate resolution that same evening declaring their acknowledgement of their intent to exceed the cap.

Failure to pass such a resolution, followed by an increase of greater than 2 percent, would lead to a fine against Orangetown of several hundred thousand dollars, Finance Director Jeff Bencik told the startled and dismayed five-member council.

If the final budget comes in at the projected $67.7 million, it would be just $15,000 below the tax hike limitation, Bencik said. If the budget figures hold up, the town would be safe from any allegation of violating the state limit, he explained. He quickly added, however, that if the theoretical $15,000 safety gap disappears for any reason, the town could be in serious financial jeopardy.

Critical Issues

There are at least two critical issues that remain to be resolved before the Town Board can adopt an official budget for next year, Bencik warned the council.

Since the town must vote on the final budget next week it must resolve those issues first, Bencik explained, either earlier that evening or during executive session conferences during the next several days.

The first is the size of the total budget itself. So far, the council has been working solely with Supervisor Andrew Stewart’s “preliminary” budget, which stands at $67,741,046. That document was prepared by Stewart and Bencik, based on their reductions from the budget requests submitted by all department heads over the past two months. Had they not trimmed each department’s request, the total town-wide budget would have gone up an estimated 15%, the two officials estimated at the time.

The other remaining open issue, according to Bencik, is the resolution of several major tax certiorari lawsuits against the town by aggrieved property owners who are seeking reductions on their assessed valuations, and thus their property taxes. He estimated for budgetary purposes that the town would win most of those legal actions, and that its tax revenues next year would thus remain stable and not take a drastic plunge.

Should any of the property owners win their suits, however, it will mean a significant drop in tax revenues for the township, and Bencik predicted that the $15,000 safety margin below the tax cap would suddenly vanish amidst a potential loss of several hundred thousand dollars, if not more.

Unfortunately, the finance director noted, the decisions on those tax lawsuits will not come for at least a month or two, meaning there is no way of predicting their outcome at this point, and no way to insert a more accurate figure in the estimated budget for next year.

If the town wins, the budget is “safe”, Bencik said, but if the town loses, or even splits a number of decisions, the resultant tax revenue drop will suddenly plunge Orangetown into deficit financing, and put it far in excess of the 2% tax increase limitation.

Proposed Solution

Bencik and Stewart said they had a remedy for the Town Board that would avoid running afoul of the state tax limitation, but the four members of the council quickly disagreed with that assessment, and said they would come up with their own solution by next week.

According to Stewart, the board’s only Democrat and also the town’s chief financial officer, the solution was to pass a resolution next Tuesday asserting that the town would knowingly exceed the 2% tax cap, and then adopt the budget with the theoretical $15,000 safety net. If the town loses enough tax suits to plunge it over that state limitation, it would be protected from being fined by having first adopted the resolution declaring it intended to exceed the limitation. A vote to adopt such a budget must be approved by a “super majority” vote of 4-1 or more, rather than just a simple majority of 3-2.

By declaring its intent to exceed the limit now, if in fact the town does adopt a final budget with a tax hike of more than two percent, it would be protected from any fine, Stewart and Bencik theorized.

Town attorney John Edwards was somewhat skeptical of the maneuver, noting that the override resolution would not become legally effective until a certified copy of the resolution was sent to Albany, received by the Secretary of state’s office, and posted in a state ledger. That could take five to ten days to accomplish, he theorized, while the state’s tax cap law requires that the resolution adopted by the Town Board Tuesday must be in full effect before it can exempt the town from being in violation. Since it must be in effect Oct. 22, the day it would be voted on, Edwards called it a feat that would be physically impossible to accomplish.

Political Debate

At this point in Tuesday evening’s Town Board meeting the council split between its political factions for the first time.

Stewart said he felt blindsided and thwarted by the council’s opposition to the plan advanced by himself and Bencik, without any advanced warning from the four-member Republican majority.

He reminded the council that he had presented his preliminary budget proposal to them, as required, a month ago for their review. Since then he said he has heard nothing back from the four Republican board members, not even a note or a memo suggesting any changes to the 100-page budget document he and Bencik submitted.

There is only a week remaining before the budget is to be adopted, and there hasn’t been a single meeting or negotiating session since his initial presentation, Stewart complained. He is willing to support that budget proposal, Stewart added, but he has no inkling if council members also support it and will vote to adopt it as the final budget for next year.

Council members quickly retorted Tuesday, saying they had been meeting regularly on the document, had made several changes and reductions, and would present their own proposed budget “at the appropriate time.”

New Document

Councilman Denis Troy (R-Pearl River), the senior council member at 14 years of service, said the council majority would work on the document some more over the next several days to arrive at a final document, which they will then present at next Tuesday’s full public meeting of the council. At that time they will offer their budget for adoption as the town’s “final” budget for 2014.

Councilman Paul Valentine (R-Blauvelt) added that while the council will present a document next week, it will continue “reviewing and revising” the document over the next several weeks, and then vote again on a “new” final document.

He and Troy also asserted that they would not share their budget proposal with Stewart as they work on preparing it, because they feet they have sufficient votes to approve their own document without the supervisor’s support. They accused the supervisor of preparing his budget proposal, assisted by Bencik, without ever consulting with the council, and they were just “returning the favor.”

Troy and Valentine said they would meet all state requirements regarding deadlines by which various versions of the budget must be adopted, and thus not put the town at any risk of running afoul of multitudinous and confusing state laws.

Trimming Dispute

Stewart and the Council then continued their debate over the budget, with each side claiming to be doing the most to reduce the overall budget for next year, and thus saving the taxpayers the most money.

Stewart began that phase of the argument by noting that when he received the requests of each department head for their share of next year’s budget, the total document represented a 15% increase over this year’s budget.

He and Bencik were able to reduce that to just 1.9% in about a month, Stewart asserted, without any input or suggestions from the four Republican council members. The GOP majority has also failed to make a single suggestion in the month since then, Stewart added, and was now threatening to continue that tactic for the final week of budget preparation.

With no input from the council, he said he is virtually powerless to make further changes, and will thus sit with the budget he has already presented when next Tuesday’s vote comes.

Councilman Thomas Morr (R-Pearl River) said spending in Orangetown is already going up about five percent next year, thanks to Stewart, resulting in the proposed 1.9% increase in property taxes. He added that he, Troy, Valentine and Thomas Diviny (R-Blauvelt) have already come up with several cuts they want to make in the supervisor’s budget which could end up eliminating any tax increase at all for next year.

He and the others said they would disclose their budget trimming suggestions over the next several weeks, starting Tuesday; all aimed at a substantial tax savings for town property owners. All four GOP council members said they had no intention of sharing their proposals with Stewart or Bencik before they announce them publicly, claiming they are merely following the pattern set by the supervisor when he unilaterally prepared his own budget without consulting them.

Few Agreements

About the only area in which all five Town Board members seemed to be in agreement Tuesdaywas in their reflection on the adoption of this year’s budget in the fall of 2012.

The five men recalled that the budget was slated to far exceed the two percent tax cap limitation, leading to a “flurry” of last minutes amendments to the document in the last two days before it had to be legally adopted. Even then the budget was still calling for a tax hike of greater than 2%, and the board found itself unable to make any further cuts.

The predicted tax hike of more than 2% was first covered by a resolution acknowledging their intent to exceed the cap, thus avoiding a state fine. The board then got a sudden salvation when the town learned a week or two later that it had won of all its pending tax certiorari lawsuits, bringing expenses down considerably and the projected tax hike to less than 2% after all.

Bencik said he was unfortunately unable to predict another such victory this year, since the town has little input into the certiorari process other than to defend its assessment procedures and figures in court hearings. Decisions this year could again uphold the town, go against the town, or split the difference with some increases and some decreases, the finance director suggested.

Board members also seemed to agree Tuesday that they were reluctant to dip further into the town’s “surplus” account to balance its budget next year. They are already skimming about $350,000 from that budget line item, also called the “contingency” line, bringing the remaining total dangerously close to its minimal recommended level as determined by standard budget and accounting practice.

Lingering Qualms

Issues on which the board agreed to disagree, at least for the time being, included:

  • How much to further trim Stewart’s proposed budget, with estimates ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 or possibly even more.
  • Compatibility, with Stewart demanding councilmen share information with him and his staff and arrive at a mutually agreeable budget total, while council members insisted they would adopt their own budget, with or without Stewart’s support.
  • When and if the board should vote on declaring its intent to exceed the state’s two percent tax hike limitation. Some council members and town officials favored doing so immediately, to protect themselves, while others felt it was advisable to further trim the budget and avoid the necessity for even having to adopt such a resolution.

Mulching & Composting

No sooner had the board concluded its debate on the budget than a new issue arose to split the Town Board members even further apart.

Without advance warning to the four council members, Stewart led a presentation on a suggestion he was making to introduce mulching and composting of yard wastes in Orangetown, leading to another spirited battle between the embattled supervisor and his four Republican adversaries.

Stewart introduced Ann Putko of the town’s environmental committee, who made a 15-minute presentation to the board on why it should support a proposed resolution recommending that residents, property owners and landscapers join forces to promote the mulching and/or composting of vegetative yard wastes to both improve the environment, reduce landscaping costs, and reduce local property taxes.

Putko’s presentation centered on a similar effort currently under way in the Town of Irvington in neighboring Westchester County.

In Irvington, as in Orangetown and most other municipalities, Putko said property owners or their landscapers typically haul grass clippings and leaf collections to the roadside for pickup and disposal by municipal public works departments or private contractors, with the expenses being shared by the property owners and the municipalities.

This practice leads to unsafe driving conditions, a high cost to property owners and municipalities and the “waste of valuable organic resources,” Putko claimed, citing Westchester cost estimates of $130,000 in Irvington, $175,000 in Tarrytown, $300,000 to $400,000 in Greenburgh and $4 million in Westchester County.

Putko said that rather than remove grass clippings and leaves and hauling and dumping them elsewhere, mulching them in place is good for the environment, saves considerable money for both landowners and municipalities, is a healthy practice for good lawns, gardens, parks and playing fields; and is a sustainable green practice that is now being promoted throughout the nation and the world.

Pet Names

Putko said the practice goes by several names, including LELE (for Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em) and ecological landscaping or “ecoscaping.” It basically involves shredding and mulching leaves and grass clippings into lawns and gardens rather than removing them from properties and dumping them elsewhere, usually in landfills.

If too much mulch is created to thatch into gardens and lawns, it can be composted into mulch beds for future use, Putko explained, so that none has to be wasted.

Benefits include increasing the water-holding capacity of lawns and gardens, also improving absorption of rainwater runoff; lightening clay soils and giving an organic fluff to sandy soils, cooling roots in the summer and providing temperature protection in the winter, increasing nutrient and oxygen levels in the soil, increasing biological activity of earthworms, microbes and other beneficial soil organisms, serving as a “free” fertilizer for lawns, gardens, trees and vegetables and eliminating or reducing yard waste from entering the municipal waste stream, saving taxpayers money.

Putko said additional information can be found on Irvington’s web site atwww.irvingtonny.gov/green, at the website www.LELENY.ORG and by downloading Orangetown’s ecological landscaping brochure at the town website of www.Orangetown.com.

Stewart, a long-time environmentalist who headed Keep Rockland Beautiful for 10 years before becoming Orangetown supervisor two years ago, strongly supported the concept, and said a demonstration of shredding and mulching would be given on Oct. 28 at 1 p.m. at the Blue Hill Commons condominium complex on Western Highway in Orangeburg, led by Curti Landscaping. It is located across the street from the old Orangeburg railroad station, a block south of Orangeburg Road.

Environmental Debate

Putko had to be cut short in her presentation as the board yearned to shorten its meeting and go home early, but even this seemingly innocuous proposal turned out to be fraught with political infighting.

Stewart, a long-time environmentalist, praised the presentation and the program, and submitted a page-long resolution he wanted the board to adopt, promoting the concept in Orangetown.

Entitled “Encourage on-site mulching and composting of leaves,” the document contained two lengthy “whereas” clauses explaining the benefits, followed by three “resolved” clauses saying Orangetown “endorses and encourages its departments (and) residential and commercial property owners to help reduce the costs of unnecessary leaf collection and disposal by the town and make optimal use of this rich organic resource by mulching and/or composting leaves on their own properties…”

The final two clauses “encourage all landscapers working within the town to implement these techniques on their clients and properties” and encourage residents to consult with the various websites listed above and to “participate in all efforts to obtain the many benefits of this economical and environmentally beneficial method of leaf management.”

Councilman Valentine led the counter attack, calling the proposal “interesting” and “worth considering,” but strongly objecting to a formal resolution, which he said gives the appearance of the town trying to act like big brother trying to force residents into compliance.

Valentine said he had no objection if residents want to mulch and compost, but he felt strongly it should be voluntary and not mandatory, and that the town had no business adopting formal resolutions calling for its implementation.

Chorus of Opposition

Valentine was quickly joined by fellow Republicans Troy, Diviny and Morr who all objected to the resolution, saying they felt it was worded as if it were a mandate to town property owners, rather than merely a “suggestion.”

None offered any specific objections to the program itself, merely to the wording of the resolution, which they felt too strongly endorsed the concept, making it appear as if the town was officially sponsoring it, when it is not.

While mulching and composting may be a good idea, the four men said, it should be entirely voluntary in Orangetown if it is done at all, and there should be no hint that it is in any way mandatory.

When asked by Stewart how or if they wanted the resolution amended, the councilmen said they wouldn’t object if the program were displayed on the town’s website as a “suggestion” from the environmental committee, but they in no way wanted it shown as an official resolution or proclamation from the town Board, which they felt would give it the imprimatur of an official edict or law.

Stewart protested to no avail, saying the resolution was merely an expression of the town’s promotion of the concept of recycling, not a mandate that residents do anything in particular, or follow the suggestion if they don’t want to.

By the meeting’s conclusion at 9 p.m. it was unclear whether Stewart would attempt to put the resolution back on the agenda for next Tuesday’s business session of the council, or follow the council’s suggestion to remove it and just list it on the town website as a “suggestion.

Clerk Vote

The council then split once again Tuesday on how to staff the office of the town Receiver of Taxes, since they have already voted to abolish that office in four years and merge it into the Office of Town Clerk.

Earlier this year the council voted unanimously to abolish the receiver’s department completely to save money. Until last year the department consisted of the elected Tax Receiver, Robert Simon; two full-time clerks and two part-time seasonal clerks who worked only at the busy tax collection season from September through February.

The office sets tax rates for all properties in Orangetown and sends out tax bills every August for school taxes, collected in September; and town and county taxes, billed in December and collected every January.

The Town Board eliminated one full-time clerk last year, and recently voted to abolish the department completely as being unnecessary and a burden to taxpayers, costing several hundred thousand dollars a year to operate.

Vote History

Because the position is mandated in the New York State constitution, it can only be eliminated if the Town Board puts it to a public referendum, which Orangetown has done, with the vote scheduled for this Nov. 4. Because Simon’s current four-year term of office is also up this year, state law stipulates that if the public approves of the abolishment of the office, it cannot take effect until the end of the term of office currently up for election.

Simon has held the office for 16 years, and is seeking his fifth four-year term this fall. Whether he or his opponent Chris Smith win, they will get to serve this final four year term of office, which ends Dec. 31, 2017. If voters approve abolishing the office next month, it will be accomplished four years later, when it will be merged into the office of Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan. If voters reject the referendum next month, the office will remain in place in perpetuity, and another election for tax receiver will be held in November of 2017.

Both Simon, a Republican, and Smith, a Democrat, have endorsed abolishing the very office they are seeking, saying the saving of tax dollars is worth more than the symbolism of the ages-old title which goes back to centuries-old medieval England. The only office of similar age and origin is that of county sheriff.

Under the current proposal if the referendum is approved next month the office would be abolished Dec. 31, 2017, and all existing employees at the time would be terminated. Those who wished to remain in public service could then apply for any existing similar positions in other departments of town government, if any such jobs existed.

The functions of the office; setting tax rates, mailing tax bills, collecting tax receipts and accounting for all transactions; would then be transferred to the existing staff of the Town Clerk’s office. No increase in employees in that office is anticipated at this time, with existing staff to be trained to accept the additional new responsibilities.

Incumbent Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan has said her office is ready, willing and able to accept those new responsibilities. Since it can’t happen until at least 2018, she said no specific plans for the transfer of responsibility have yet been made.

Scant Figures

Simon has been asked several times by Town Board members to come up with estimates of how much the town could save by abolishing his office and merging it into the clerk’s office.

Two weeks ago he estimated the town could save between $75,000 and $125,000, depending on how many employees leave town government employment and what increase in staffing, if any, the town eventually grants to Madigan for running her office. Simon has also noted that both he and Madigan, as elected department heads, get salaries of $72,000 and benefits of about $25,000, for totals of approximately $100,000 apiece. He has urged the Town Board to increase Madigan’s salary by $20,000 or $25,000 if she must administer two full departments of town government, something he has called “only fair, just and equitable” for the additional responsibilities she will be taking on.

Although Madigan is a Democrat she is running on every line this year for re-election, including her own party and the Republicans. She has been roundly criticized by fellow Democrats in years past for accepting Conservative and GOP endorsement, but has shrugged it off as “sour grapes” and said she has no philosophical problem with accepting cross endorsements.

At Tuesday’s workshop meeting of the council, Simon revised his earlier estimate somewhat, saying he now views the potential savings from abolishing his office as closer to $70,000. This would include a raise for Madigan and the possible transfer of one employee from his department into her office specifically to handle tax billing and collecting. An alternative might be to hire himself or a clerk on a part-time advisory basis to train Madigan’s staff, Simon said, leaving the specifics to the Town Board to decide, based on recommendations from Madigan on what she feels she will need in staffing and other financial support.

New Complication

Adding to the confusion over the status of the tax receiver’s office was a request last week to the Town Board by Simon’s sole remaining clerk to transfer to the Town Justice’s office as a clerk, at the higher pay rate of $44,594 annually.

The justice department has been short a clerk for several months following a resignation and the town’s two elected judges have been complaining that their backlog of cases is growing exponentially as a result.

When the town finally advertised the clerk’s position as being available several people applied and the judges selected tax clerk Lizbeth Buck as the best qualified and their first choice for the job.

At the judge’s request that transfer is now before the Town Board for approval. It came up for discussion this week and is slated to be voted on by the council next Tuesday, at its bi-monthly business meeting.

Worried about the impact such a transfer might have on Simon’s office, councilmen queried him at Tuesday’s workshop. At first Simon said he endorsed her move as a logical progression and advancement for his sole full-time worker. After mulling the implications, however, he later told the board that the timing of her departure might indeed cause problems within his short-staffed office.

Timing Inconvenient

Her request is to transfer on Oct. 28, just when tax bills are being prepared for mailing this fall for January collection.

Simon said he has the knowledge of how the bills are prepared and mailed, but not the specific computer knowledge to actually send them out to every property owner, bank or mortgage holder in Orangetown, about 18,000 separate bills, he explained. He theorized that he and his two part-time seasonal clerks might be able to muddle through the process, but that he could not guarantee the operation would run smoothly and on time.

By the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, Simon was advising council members outside their chambers that it would “certainly help” the operation of his office if the clerk’s transfer could somehow be delayeda month or two, to get through the busy tax collection process of this fall.

This led to further discussions about how the two judges would react to a further delay in getting their clerk’s position filled. The discussions did not involve Supervisor Stewart, meaning it was left to Republicans trying to decide how to best facilitate public jobs in Orangetown with other Republicans, taking on an almost comical air before the meeting dissolved in confusion and disarray.

Oddly, and perhaps on purpose, the only Democrats in Orangetown government are Stewart, Madigan and Town Attorney John Edwards, and they are the only officials not included in the discussions Tuesday on staffing the tax receiver, town clerk and justice department offices.

Come Tuesday

The issue is certain to resurface at next Tuesday’s business meeting of the Town Board, however, when decisions need to be made on not only the staffing of the three offices but the adoption of a budget and setting of a tax rate, town willingness to exceed or stay under the state’s 2% tax hike limit, future of the tax receiver’s office and a possible meeting of the minds on support for, opposition to or a laissez faire attitude by the town toward mulching and composting.

The meetings are free of charge and the entertainment value usually far exceeds that of any pay-for-view movie or play one might see as an alternative.

The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Town Hall at 26 Orangeburg Road in Orangeburg, at the corner of Dutch Hill Road. Parking is free, agenda’s and backup material are provided on a table in the lobby and uniformed police are usually visibly on duty in case of unruly observers whom officials try to first pacify and finally, when all else fails, forcibly eject.