Orangetown Taxes Unsettled for 2014

Council refuses to pass resolution that would allow town to exceed 2 percent limit, if necessary

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

The Orangetown Town Board agreed to disagree on next year’s property taxes Tuesday evening and will continue to debate the matter until the deadline approaches in mid-Novermber.

Supervisor Andrew Stewart, a Democrat who is seeking re-election to a second two-year term on Nov. 5, had proposed a budget in late September that stayed within the 2 percent tax cap, but he also proposed adopting a resolution Tuesday alerting New York State that Orangetown might exceed the state limitation of 2 percent on any tax increases next year. He said this is a safeguard against any unpredicted changes in the budget, as the town is only narrowly beneath the cap in his proposed budget.

According to law, if the town exceeds a two percent increase, it must advise the state in advance or else face a fine. Stewart and Town Finance Director Jeff Bencik are predicting so far that tax levy will rise about 1.9 percent, leaving a $15,000 cushion below the magical 2 percent cutoff. Both men have said that the figure is so close to the limitation that they feel the town should adopt the state notification “just in case,” so Orangetown will be protected if in fact it ends up exceeding the limit when all budget negotiations conclude next month.

GOP Disagrees

Stewart could get little support from his all-Republican four-man council Tuesday, however, as they turned down his motion for state notification on a 3-2 vote. The only vote supporting the notification came from Blauvelt Councilman Paul Valentine, while opponents included Denis Troy, Thomas Morr and Thomas Diviny.

Troy and Diviny led the attack against notification Tuesday, accusing Stewart of panicking before they had a chance to respond to his proposed budget with their own recommendations.

The two GOP leaders said they had been meeting on and studying Stewart’s tentative budget proposal for more than a month, and were getting ready to announce their findings and their recommendations to him, and publicly, within the next week or two.

Both men said the Republicans would recommend significant reductions to that proposed budget, which they asserted was prepared solely by Stewart and Bencik, without their input.

An exasperated Stewart responded that he did so only because the four councilmen refused to meet with him on the budget preparation, and then refused to discuss his document after he gave them copies a month ago. He said he was required by state law to prepare the tentative budget by mid-September.

Relations Testy

It quickly became apparent that nerves were almost at the fraying point Tuesday evening, as Stewart said he would have appreciated and welcomed input from the councilmen over the past four weeks, but asserting that they refused to reply to his requests for suggestions. Not only didn’t they respond, Stewart added, they didn’t even let him know they weren’t responding, or why, or when or if they would.

By law, the tentative budget became the preliminary budget this Tuesday and the final budget is due on November 19, giving the council some time to iron out details.

Troy and Morr said the Republican councilmen have been meeting regularly on the budget for more than a month, and should have their recommendations ready for Stewart and Bencik “soon,” without giving a specific date.

Regarding the state cap on tax hikes; the councilmen differed slightly in their responses. Valentine, the only one to favor overriding the 2 percent limit, said he was too nervous that the $15,000 cushion was too narrow, and didn’t give the council sufficient room to safely negotiate changes without risking going over the cap, and risking a huge resultant fine.

Spending for next year is already 16 to 17 percent, Valentine claimed, and to cut the budget any further would mean to lay off personnel and services in the police, highway, sewer, parks and recreation and other departments of town government, directly affecting resident services. He said cuts would mean no leaf pickups, fewer police on patrol, less road and sewer maintenance, no replacement of failing Orangeburg sewer pipes which are quickly deteriorating and similar services and programs in virtually every department.

Valentine said he felt seeking the override now was the town’s best protection against state sanctions if the board is eventually forced to exceed the cap, even if it doesn’t want to.

Others Disagree

The other councilmen disagreed, however, saying they felt confident they could come in with enough budget reductions to keep the final document well below the 2 percent figure, and possibly even keep taxes level with this year.

Morr said he wanted a firm commitment from the entire board that they would insist on a 2014 budget that falls below the 2 percent tax cap. Lacking that unanimous commitment Tuesday, Morr said he could not support the override vote, and would instead continue fighting to further reduce the current budget figures.

Troy based his opposition vote on history, noting that the 2012 and 2013 budgets both exceeded the 2 percent cap when presented, and that he voted both times to approve the override and send the notification to the state to protect the town from potential fines. Both times, however, he said the board was able to later lower the budget below the state cap after it was adopted, making the override and the notification unnecessary. With this year’s budget already at just a 1.9 percent increase, he said he is confident the board will bring it in much lower in reality and after negotiations, so he sees no reason to panic and adopt the override in unnecessary fear and urgency.

Diviny, pressed by Stewart for actual recommendations and figures instead of promises of future budget changes, lashed back at the supervisor for not giving the council sufficient time to research his 100-page document, and come back with its own recommendations.

Rustling through several pages of hand-written notes, Diviny in exasperation finally released some of the GOP’s preliminary recommendations for the first time, saying the board majority would press for slashing donations to the town’s four hamlet libraries, budget for $200,000 in seizure money from the DEA, anticipate the Rockland Legislature ceasing its expensive community college chargebacks policy toward the towns, eliminate vacant positions in several departments of town government rather than re-filling them, and increase projected revenues from sales taxes and fees charged by the highway, building and sewer departments, town clerk’s office and other entities.

In total, Diviny said the Republicans believe Orangetown will increase its revenues next year by at least $700,000, and should be able to reduce its expenses by the same or more, leading to a $1 to $2 million budget reduction, rather than a 1.9% increase.

Departments Protest

While the council wrangled over proposed figures, several department heads used the same meeting to protest proposed reductions within their jurisdictions.

Leading the protests was Highway Superintendent James Dean, a 50-year town employee and the unofficial “dean” of all highway heads in the county and possibly the state.

Dean said Stewart and Bencik slashed his departmental budget request with no input from him, and that it defies logic and will lead to drastically reduced services next year. His request includes 12,000 man hours to remove leaves piled along curbs, including 4,800 hours at overtime rates of time-and-a-half and double time, depending on when in the week and on the clock they are worked. Stewart contended that Dean was needlessly scheduling leaf pickup on holidays.

Pay Affected

Stewart also reminded the board that his budget request for salaries includes increases in both basic hourly pay and overtime pay, based on a recent agreement between the Town Board and the CSEA employee union.

Dean and Bencik differed over the impact of the proposed cuts as well; with Dean claiming $131,000 in double time pay was arbitrarily eliminated, while Bencik claimed it was only $33,000.

Dean also claimed regular pay was reduced by $36,854, which means a loss of one worker in his department, which he claimed is already stretched to its maximum just to meet existing job tasks. Dean said he is now reduced to eliminating that position and trying to replace the terminated worker with two part-time employees, if he can find them, who won’t receive any benefits. Dean also complained that the new fee collection at the town’s drop off center has increased his workload.

Rather than reducing his operating budget, Dean suggested the council use some of his reserve funds to retain employees, instead of using it to purchase new vehicles and equipment, as he had initially proposed. He still needs the vehicles and equipment, however, he quickly added, suggesting the town float a bond for that purpose instead of utilizing the reserve account.

Dean concluded his plea by telling the board his workers are the best in Rockland County, and deserve to be treated better than they will be by the proposed budget. He said he stakes his own reputation and that of his department on the dedication, knowledge and experience of his employees, and will fight for their retention despite efforts by the council otherwise.

Other Leaders Balk

Dean was quickly joined by a succession of other department leaders Tuesday, each of whom put in impassioned pleas to salvage the staff and services their departments use to meet the needs of Orangetown residents.

Next in line was John Giardiello, head of the building department, who noted that he just learned Stewart and Bencik had proposed the elimination of his housing inspector as of Dec. 31.

He already lost his deputy department director and his plans examiner in recent cutbacks, he said, and simply cannot absorb another executive departure without seriously affecting the effectiveness of his entire department.

The final plea of the evening came from Robert Simon, the town’s Receiver of Taxes, whose own job is slated for abolition in four years, if voters approve a ballot referendum on Nov. 5.

Simon has held the elected position for 16 years, four four-year terms, and is up for re-election next month for another four-year term. If voters approve the referendum, whoever wins next month’s election will serve out the final term, and in December of 2017 the office will be permanently closed and merged with the office of the Town Clerk.

Simon noted that when he took office 16 years ago he had three full-time clerks and two part-time clerks who worked during tax collection time in September through January.

Two of his full-time clerks have already been eliminated in earlier budget cuts, he said, and his final existing one, Lizbeth Buck, was approved Tuesday evening for a transfer to the town justice court as a clerk there at a salary of $44,594. She is slated to actually move offices next week, on Oct. 28, leaving Simon alone in his office with just the two part-time clerks, who will soon be gone themselves.

Simon has endorsed the closure of his office and its merger with that of Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan, but he complained bitterly to the council Tuesday that he cannot run the entire office all by himself for the next four years without any clerical help at all.

He not only begged the council to delay Buck’s transfer until some other arrangement can be made, but he pleaded with them to leave her clerk’s position in his department’s budget next year.

Next Move

The next move is now apparently up to the Republican Council, with Troy and Diviny saying Tuesday they will probably present their budget recommendations back to Stewart in the next week or two, giving another week or two before the budget must be finalized to meet the state deadline of Nov. 19.

Stewart expressed frustration and exasperation at the news, claiming they already had more than a month to respond, and that he had heard “absolutely nothing” from the council in all that time.

If they don’t get their recommendations to him and Bencik soon, he said, there wouldn’t be enough time to negotiate a budget for next year.

Should that occur the supervisor said he doesn’t know what the town will do, adding his frustration again at the council’s failure to enact the tax cap override resolution earlier in the evening. Should the town be forced to exceed the cap because of an inability to agree on a final document, the supervisor said that would force the state to in turn fine Orangetown, making their financial situation ever more precarious.

There is no meeting of the Town Board next week, the fifth Tuesday of the month, meaning the next session won’t be until Nov. 6, the day after Election Day. The next business meeting, at which the council can adopt a final budget, will be a week later, on Nov. 12, a week before the state’s absolute deadline for budget adoption.