BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown’s embattled Town Board finally adopted a budget for next year last Tuesday evening, keeping to its pledge not to exceed the state’s cap of a two percent hike over this year’s levy.
Property owners will see a 1.71 percent hike in next year’s taxes, due this January, when they receiver their newest bills in the mail on Dec. 31.
The total spending plan calls for expenditures of $49,248,383 according to Finance Director Jeff Bencik, following several cuts the council made to their original document earlier in the evening.
The council had been pondering that initial document, submitted by Supervisor Andrew Stewart in September, for the past two months, but had kept discussions to a minimum, and only amongst themselves rather than in public or with Stewart.
After weeks of deliberations, the four-member Republican majority on the board announced its final decisions during a four-hour meeting Tuesday, well attended by members of several of the groups which will be directly affected by the new document.
The biggest losers in next year’s budget will be the four hamlet libraries in Orangetown, which received an across-the-board ten percent slash, despite pleas from directors, staff, volunteer board members and the reading public who all pleaded for at least a continuation of current budgets, if not a small increase they had all requested.
Also losing was the Blauvelt Fire Protection District which was slashed from $879,650 this year to $835,685 in 2014, which also includes $40,000 in funding for workmen’s’ Compensation payments. Blauvelt is the only fire district in Rockland County, and reportedly one of only two in all of New York State, in which the Town Board serves as its board of fire commissioners. This means the council has to approve its annual budget, hire, fire and discipline all volunteer members and perform other such duties normally handled by a fire department’s own independently elected board of directors. No one on the town or department level has ever been able to explain why the Blauvelt fire district is organized in such an unusual manner.
The four hamlet libraries in Orangetown, Blauvelt, Orangeburg, Tappan and Palisades, used to receive ten percent budget increases from the town every year for the past three or four decades. During that time they also built up large reserve funds, often being as large as their budgets.
The Town Board learned three years ago that it didn’t have to give the libraries what they requested, however, and started slashing their requests ever since. First their increase was cut to five percent, then to nothing, and this fall the council proposed actually reducing them each by 10%.
Blauvelt agreed to the cut, and said it would still expand services by dipping into its own reserve fund rather than battle the town for money. The other three objected, and came to the council’s meeting in force Tuesday, pleading for their requested increases just to continue providing the services they are already giving patrons, even without any expansions.
The council remained firm, however, voting 4-1 to slash Tappan ($75,007), Orangeburg ($54,236) and Palisades ($41,587), even though all three are going through physical expansion programs and claimed they needed more money, not less, to fund salaries, construction costs, utilities, books, supplies and other materials.
Supporting the libraries’ requests was Supervisor Andrew Stewart, who was easily outvoted by the four Republican councilmen who were determined to reduce the town’s budget as much as possible in an effort to keep local real property taxes from continually rising each year.
The only contract agency that actually won an increase from the board was the Nyack Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which serves parts of both Orangetown and Clarkstown. They received $435,451 this year and will get $482,762 next year. The corps used to charge Orangetown 60% of its annual budget, while charging Clarkstown for 40%. The corps has agreed to even the charges at 50% each over three years, however, which will eventually reduce Orangetown’s share of the bill.
In departmental savings, the town’s Highway Department took the biggest hit, suffering $274,328 in reductions next year. Road resurfacing took the biggest hit at $320,000, followed by fuel for its trucks by $45,000 and even its supplies account, by $5,000. Overtime and double time for brush and weed removal was increased by nearly $34,000, while salaries for part-time seasonal workers was increased by $36,845. Revenue was also increased, hopefully, by nearly $100,000 in the CHIPS program and $74,807 from consolidated highway aid.
The police department agreed to a budget swap, giving up $200,000 for the purchase of new patrol cars next year while also planning on receiving $200,000 for the first time from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, for a total savings of $400,000. The police also took hits of $25,000 in computer supplies, $15,000 in fuel for patrol cars, $15,000 in supplies, $5,000 in overtime for radio dispatcher salaries and $5,816 in new uniforms for its auxiliary staff members.
One of the town’s largest areas of savings next year is predicted to be the money it was supposed to pay Rockland County for local students enrolled in community colleges outside of Rockland. Based on preliminary estimates, Orangetown will save $250,000 next year, if plans announced by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef to drop the charge to towns actually materialize.
The town is also planning on receiving $150,000 more in sales tax revenues from Rockland County next year, Bencik said, and plans to save about $50,000 in lower payments for Workmen’s’ Compensation expenses.
Nearly $100,000 will be saved in sewer department expenses, the budget shows, while smaller savings will come from other town departments, including justice court, finance, assessor, town clerk, parks and recreation, town attorney and even the town museum, which loses $1,000 in supplies.
Some departments also got increases, including the building department that will have an inspector’s position refilled at $52,000 plus benefits, and get a new part-time position at $25,000.
The town’s reserve fund, which has no specific purpose but can be used to pay for unanticipated emergencies, will be reduced from this year’s $17 million to $15 million next year, which is about 15.4% of the town’s total budget, Bencik said. The $2 million reduction will be used to reduce the tax levy and keep the budget well below the state’s two percent cap on increases, according to Troy and Diviny.
The town also plans on saving money by amortizing the cost of pensions for members of the Police Benevolent Association union, but is not doing the same for CSEA union members because the council fears the financial impact will be too great a strain on the budget
By the conclusion of the four-hour meeting Tuesday, it turned out Stewart and the council only strongly disagreed on two budget items.
The supervisor stood firm in requesting restoration of $47,311 to the Nyack Ambulance Corps budget, but could get no second to his motion to do so. He also voted against cutting the three hamlet libraries by 10% each, saying he wanted to keep them at their current level of funding, with no increase or decrease. He was outvoted 4-1 on both matters.
The only disagreement between the Town Board and the audience Tuesday other than disappointment by library supporters came during a brief spat between Troy and South Orangetown School Board member Annmarie Uhl, who had also been a Democratic candidate for the council, seeking to beat either Troy or Diviny.
Uhl listed three budget objectives she said would help the town: reducing losses at the two town golf courses instead bleeding funds from libraries, ambulance corps and fire departments, questioning how reductions to the town reserve fund would be replenished in the future and finally calling on the town to stop charging the school districts a fee to collect school taxes.
Troy sprang to the town’s defense, saying the reserve was safe at 15% of the budget and noting that the town only charges the schools one-eighth of one percent to collect the taxes, when by state law it can charge a full percent. Other towns in Rockland do charge the full percent, Troy added, hinting that if Uhl kept complaining the council might look into such a fee.
He also criticized South Orangetown, saying that the town pays $200,000 for police crossing guards at every school in the district; with no financial help from the district she leads.