Taxes stabilize, some services & libraries cut
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Despite a last minute plea by four South Orangetown Public Libraries and one town department head for a restoration of slashed funding for next year, the Orangetown Town Board unanimously approved a 2015 budget of $67 million Tuesday evening.
The town passed a 1.5 percent tax increase over this year’s total, but remains just under the state’s cap of 2 percent, meaning Orangetown won’t be punished for excessive spending by the state. In order to achieve the 1.5 percent tax levy increase, the town actually had to reduce the size of the total budget.
The board took into account warnings from its finance director, Jeff Bencik, who said he was nervous that by cutting the increase so closely, the board faced the prospect of unexpected costs and/or decreased revenues next year, putting the town inadvertently over the state limit and thus incurring the penalties despite months of careful planning this fall.
At his suggestion, the board also voted unanimously to allow Bencik to automatically draw down the town’s reserve fund if necessary at any time next year, and transfer those monies into other town accounts, to cover shut shortfalls and thus avoid conflicting with strict state regulations. He can transfer up to a total maximum of $1.1 million, with a goal of remaining at least $100,000 below the cap limit the board stipulated at all times, and he must report such actions to them as soon as possible following each transaction.
In another last-minute cost-saving move, the five-member council also voted unanimously to issue $2 million in sewer bonds next year, to cover the cost of repairing and replacing century-old sewer lines in the Nyack area that Orangetown inherited decades ago when it agreed to take over the Nyack Sewer System and merge it into the town-wide system.
The town will get a $500,000 grant from New York State toward the improvements, which will be used to decrease and delay repayment of the 30-year bonds, thus actually decreasing town sewer expenses next year, instead of increasing them.
Orangetown must repair the Nyack sewers, Bencik also explained, because it signed a consent order with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation agreeing to do so, after a state inspection discovered numerous leaks. The leaks were caused by inflow and infiltration, or I & I, Bencik said, and must be repaired or the town will be heavily fined. The 30-year bonds carry a one percent interest rate, which will be wiped out by the grant, the finance director concluded, leading to no tax increase for Orangetown property owners.
The 2015 budget now stands at $67,263,841, $3,418 higher than the amended total as of last week of $67,259,423.
With a state budget cap of two percent, Orangetown now stands at 1.94 percent, meaning the town will not face any state penalty if it remains at that level throughout the year.
Subtracting federal and state grants, income, fees and other revenues, Orangetown will be seeking to raise $50.4 million of that budget from local real property taxes. Homeowners in Orangetown can currently expect to pay about $46.95 more next January when their tax payments will be due than they did this year, based on an “average” home in the township assessed at $200,000.
The only additional cuts to the budget made Tuesday were to three of the four hamlet libraries in South Orangetown, with Blauvelt taking the biggest hit at $17,754. The Orangeburg Library will lose another $12,203 and the Tappan Library will lose $10,126 more. Palisades Library was not cut further than it had already been trimmed last week.
Some departments got last minute budget increases, however, more than offsetting the library cuts. They included $19,165 to the Police Department for additional permanent staffing, $10,000 to the Office of Emergency Management and $7,500 to the senior citizens program. No further explanations were given for those increases.
The council also voted to adjust the way it contributes to the state CSEA employee retirement fund, but it was noted this would be a “wash” in the budget, by balancing a reduction in costs of $1.1 million against an increase in revenues in another area of the same amount.
Board cuts blasted by some
While the vote to approve the budget was unanimous, most in the packed audience were furious with the board for slashing their favorite programs.
The first objection came from Highway Superintendent James Dean, a 35-year veteran and an elected (Republican) town official. While not directly beholden to the often politically motivated Town Board because of his elective status, he is beholden to the council for the creation of positions, his budget, and the purchase of equipment and material.
Usually Dean successfully argues for what his department needs each year during fall budget-preparation negotiations but has fallen victim to severe cost-cutting the past few years, having truck purchases delayed, overtime hours for road workers trimmed and similar reductions.
This year, the board attacked Dean’s road repair program, slashing 2015 funding on that line from Dean’s request of $580,000 to just $200,000. The department used to spent $600,000 and more annually for road repair, Dean said, including pothole patching, re-paving of roads with new asphalt, sealing cracked roadways, patching broken curbs and sidewalks and coating roads with oil and fine gravel.
Cutting that program by two-thirds will have a “devastating” effect on road maintenance in Orangetown Dean predicted publicly Tuesday as he pled with the board for a restoration of at least some of his budget, if not the entire amount he had requested.
He added that the board had been trimming the road maintenance budget slightly each year recently, but this was the first time they had slashed it so dramatically. He had argued and negotiated with the council in private sessions over the past several months for at least a partial restoration, he noted, but to no apparent avail. That led to his last minute plea Tuesday, after which the budget would be locked in stone.
His plea fell on deaf ears, however, as the council voted unanimously to affirm its earlier cuts. His budget line for 2015 remains at $200,000, the council said, and Dean and his department would just have to live with, and make the best of it they could.
“This will have a very negative impact” on all of Orangetown, Dean predicted, explaining that all he can do at this point is pray for a mild winter and less road maintenance needs than usually occur.
The symbol of the New York Public Library is a pair of stone lions flanking the front steps along Fifth Avenue. Librarians and their supporters roared loud and clear at the council Tuesday evening, in a last minute plea for a restoration of funding cuts they suffered in the budget.
The four hamlet libraries in Orangeburg, Blauvelt, Tappan and Palisades are unique in Rockland County, and apparently in all of New York State, in that they get all of their funding directly from the township, rather than through their own tax district as libraries everywhere else do.
Orangetown has three other non-profit public libraries, in Pearl River, Nyack and Piermont; but each of them directly taxes its own district residents to raise their annual budgets, and gets no funds from Orangetown.
The four hamlet libraries decades ago formed the Orangetown Public Library District, and have received 100 percent of their operating costs provided by the town, through its annual budget. At some point the district even negotiated an agreement with the town that the four libraries could get an automatic 10 percent budget increase each year, whether they needed it or not.
Since expenses usually went up far less, the libraries dumped the additional funding into their reserve funds, or budget surplus account, leaving them with balances of a half million dollars to well over $1 million.
No one questioned this little-known method of financing until a few years ago, when it was noticed by Councilman Denis Troy, who immediately began questioning its legality and ethicality, as well as its financial implications for town taxpayers.
He was finally successful in overturning the long-standing agreement about five years ago.
At first the four libraries agreed to negotiate for separate budgets each year, rather than simply accept the automatic annual increase they had been getting for decades. After that council members began trimming the amounts of those increases, generally limiting them to 1 or 2 percent annually.
Last year, the council actually decreased the town’s subsidies to the four libraries, and this fall cut the budgets even further. The libraries resisted the cutbacks, and mounted telephone, mail, e-mail and other campaigns aimed at getting their funding restored, to no avail.
Only Palisades remained virtually unaffected this fall, for their 2015 funding, by submitting a budget request that was actually lower than they received this year. The council accepted that request and approved the grant without further deletions.
Libraries in Blauvelt, Orangeburg and Tappan all protested their cuts however, and when their protests apparently fell on deaf ears they mounted a campaign for a show of strength at Tuesday’s council meeting, where a final vote was to be taken on the town’s 2015 budget, including the line for library aid.
Orangeburg was first cut to $500,321 and then slashed again to $488,118. Tappan was trimmed to $685,194 initially, and then again this month to $675,068; and Blauvelt, the largest of the three, went first down to $710,173 and then to $692,419.
Directors, staff, trustees, members and supporters of all four libraries tuned out en masse Tuesday to protest the cuts and demand restoration of funding, but to no avail. With the hearing room packed with supporters about 20 of them took their three-minute turn at the microphone to denounce the cutbacks and plead for a restoration of what they called “desperately needed monies.”
Several, like Janet Weber, were especially critical of what they viewed as political influence on funding of local non-profit agencies in Orangetown. How could the board void its own law and grant a building fee waiver to the Gaelic Athletic Association to construct a new clubhouse, and a month later deny critically needed funding to four public libraries that serve the entire population of Orangetown, she queried in an angry and astonished tone of voice.
Laura Grunwerg, director of the Blauvelt Library, identified herself as the head of “that library with the very large fund balance,” to chuckles from the supportive audience. That fund balance is there for a purpose, she said, and that is future expansion of the library to include a derelict adjacent strip mall and a new park entrance to the town’s nearby walking trail on the old Erie railroad right-of-way.
Instead, the library has been forced to dip into its fund balance to meet daily expenses, she explained, dropping the reserve fund to a level what won’t permit the long-dreamed expansion.
Raleigh Tozer, president of the Tappan Library, said his facility is also being forced to dip into its reserve fund just to pay bills, and is just about completing a huge addition that has used up most of its fund balance. When that is gone the library will be in financial distress with nowhere to turn, Tozer predicted glumly as he pleaded with the board not to enact their latest financial cutbacks.
Carol LaValle of the Tappantown Historical Society urged the council to give the libraries more money than they got last year, not less; while Eileen Buckley of Orangeburg requested a minimum 2.5 percent hike in funding for the four hamlet facilities, warning the council she would keep track of who votes for and against library funding, and use that information in coming years when they seek re-election.
John Buckley, an Orangeburg Library trustee, complained that his library has suffered a 22 percent reduction in funding by Orangetown in the past three years, forcing them to dip into their reserve fund as well just to pay current bills. Pleading for a restoration of funds, Buckley said “libraries and the town should not be adversaries but partners,” to a round of applause from the partisan audience.
Elaine Simon of South Nyack criticized the board for granting funding through a fee waiver to the GAA while at the same time cutting funding for libraries, showing, she said, where the council members’ priorities lie.
Her husband, former Finkelstein Library Director Sam Simon said he was “dismayed” at the Town Board’s vote to cut library funding; while Tappan Library Vice President Thano Schoppel urged the board to “support libraries at least as well as you do sports programs,” in another reference to the GAA controversy.
Alyssa Maloney of Blauvelt said her library’s fund balance is nearly depleted because of two years of budget cutting, and next year’s cut will nearly wipe it out, scuttling their future expansion plans.
Although the Town Board usually remains silent during the open comment period at the start of every council meeting, they took the opportunity to respond Tuesday the heckling they took from library supporters.
Troy was the first to speak, noting he was alarmed when he first realized the libraries got automatic funding increases of 10 percent every year for many years. He was able to get that cut to 5 percent for two years, and then an actual reduction last year and this year, and another reduction for next year, he explained.
“I was accused of being a ‘book burner,’” Troy complained, because he called for a halt to the automatic increases and because he lobbied the libraries, unsuccessfully, to change to a public vote on their budgets, like Pearl River, Piermont and Nyack and most other local libraries.
He was also particularly critical of Blauvelt, noting a speaker had proclaimed its reserve fund to be “almost depleted” because of town cutbacks. Blauvelt’s reserve fund is about $1.5 million, far overshadowing and more than double its current annual budget of $710,000, Troy asserted.
Rather than being embarrassed or upset over the accusations of being anti-library Troy said he is proud of being a cost cutter and eliminating unnecessary waste, something he was elected to do for 20 years as a council member and currently its longest-serving member
Fellow Republican Thomas Morr, and like Troy a Pearl River resident, said he agreed with his fellow councilman’s remarks, and also wanted it to be known that no libraries have had their funding cut in Orangetown, they have only had their annual budget increases cut. There is a big difference which library officials know but which the public does not, Morr said, leading to confusion such as Tuesday’s large turnout of angry supporters.
Thomas Diviny, another GOP member of the council, echoed Troy and Morr and noted Orangetown has been trimming its budget reserve each year to save taxpayer money. The libraries should follow suit and do the same thing, Diviny said, and not try to keep increasing the fund balance account in their budgets. He added that the town “must” come in with a tax increase below the state cap of 1.56% “and we will. We have to.” Libraries should do the same thing, he added, and should not evade the state edict by creating huge surplus accounts far in excess of any other governmental body.
The final council member, Republican Paul Valentine of Blauvelt, called libraries “a vital part of our community,” and thanked the dozens of supporters for showing up for Tuesday’s meeting. The four libraries will be getting $1.8 million next year, Valentine said, “so they are being funded,” just not quite as much as in previous years.
To make up for the slight decrease in town funding, the libraries are dipping into their huge fund balance accounts and blaming the town board for the anxiety this has created. Their reserves are more than their budgets, however, and should be tapped for operating expenses because they are needlessly over-funded, the councilman asserted.