Rising Town Budget in Clarkstown has All Concerned

BY MARIA BROWNSELL

Just two days after Election Day, Clarkstown had their Town Board Meeting. After Alexander Gromack was reelected to Town Supervisor, Stephanie Hausner was reelected as a Councilwoman, and George Hoehmann was reelected as a Councilman, the town budget was ready to be discussed.

The first public hearing was about proposed local law entitled “A local law to override the tax levy limit established by general municipal law 3-C.” New York State has a limit of 2 percent by which towns can raise taxes each year. The public hearing was to make a law so that they don’t have to follow that law and can raise taxes for 2014 by 3.5 percent for homeowners and a whopping 16 percent for commercial stakeholders. After agreeing upon the override, the $140 million dollar budget was open for discussion to the public.

“I’m interested in what measures you have taken to avoid breaking the tax cap?” asked Tom Nimick of New City.

“It is true the county has dumped a lot of costs on us. We’ve already been clobbered by the county. Before we go over the cap, we need to look at ways to save money. I see the same contractors time and time again getting contracts. I’ve been told we have checks and balances. Well, it’s not working,” said Steven Levine of Congers. “We need an independent eye to look at these costs. We need to look where we can start saving.”

Gromack said that they receive many bids on every contract before they make their decision. Sometimes they get between five and 15 independent bids on capital projects.

Alice Lenna of New City Bowl was concerned about the commercial tax increase, as school taxes went up a record amount this year. “Is Clarkstown a business friendly town or do they not want the businesses?” she asked. Gromack said that the rates that the taxes go up for residents and commercial are according to a formula that is handed from the state, but he believes the commercial rate will start to go down very soon.

“The county took a 10 percent cut. You need to take it on the chin, too. If you do, then it’s better negotiating with the unions,” said Levine, referring to Ed Day’s proposed salary cuts.

“We have to realize what is going on out there. Businesses are closing and making cuts. We have the highest paid elected officials in the county,” said Joe Ciardullo.

The police, the CSEA, and elected official have taken pay freezes for the past two years and it doesn’t make much of a difference, according to Gromack. The only was to save more money is by consolidation. The receiver of taxes position is being consolidated with the town clerk position and a part time salary job will be removed from the Town Clerk Office.

“We’ve asked department heads to come in with budgets 5 percent less except for the fixed budget items,” said Gromack.

The budget is explained to have many costs that are fixed. Between what the county passed along and other obligations, about 90 percent of the costs are fixed according to Councilwoman Shirley Lasker. She said that with the remaining 10 percent they can control, it would take a cut of $1 million to drop the budget by 1 percent.

“It keeps going up. It’s out of control. I’ve never seen the taxes go down. We need to start saying no,” said Levine. Levine believes that some of the amenities need to be removed. There is too much spending on unnecessary items even if it makes some people unhappy, he said.

“What do people want? Do we want to close schools, close senior recreations? What?” said Lasker. “I think we are doing a great job.”

Gromack said they get state grants, FEMA money, and even have a surplus. Money is being used from the reserve fund to keep the taxes from going up even more than the 3.5 percent. After this year there will be $15 millions left in the surplus. The council said they don’t want to use too much and lose their triple A bond rating. They’ve used over $1 million from the reserves per year the last few years.

The town is also hoping to get some money from sales tax revenue at the Shops at Nanuet. The difficulty there is that 94 percent of sales tax goes to the county. The remaining 6 percent gets divided across the towns and villages evenly, which Clarkstown finds unfair, as they are home to the majority of the stores that accrue the sales tax.

Gromack rattled off many different numbers to explain how the town is saving money. He mentioned that the board has decreased the town’s workforce, which saves several million each year, and boasted that solar panels are being installed in the landfill, which he predicts will save $6 million over several years.

Residents at the meeting disagree. “We can’t keep going like this. Clarkstown will end up a ghost town,” said Levine.

Councilman George Hoehmann announced that he is having a hard time passing the 3.5 percent increase. He agreed there are some fixed rates that they cannot control, but there are some that they can. He pledged that next year he will not vote to override the tax cap, so they need to look at things more creatively and get spending figured out this coming year. He said he would not take the 2 percent increase in his salary this year to show his commitment.

“I want to lead by example,” said Hoehmann. Councilman Frank Borelli and Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner also agreed to not take the increase.