The Shandaken town board voted November 9 to approve the 2017 budget, with a cumulative tax increase of 6.93 percent, including general, highway, and special district budgets, after a public hearing in which town supervisor Rob Stanley defended specific provisions against objections by community activist Kathy Nolan. The hike exceeds the state’s two percent tax cap for the first time in six years, and amounts to about $69 per year for $1000 of a property’s taxable value.
An additional 1.8 percent may be added to that increase if the absentee ballot count brings a reprieve for the Phoenicia Library, whose request for more funding was narrowly turned down on Election Day. The absentee ballots were scheduled for counting on November 16 or 17.
“What I’ve heard from people is that they don’t want costs to go up because incomes are flat,” said Nolan. “Why can’t we get closer down to the cap? You’ve got increases in salaries for elected officials — none of the council members, but supervisor, town clerk, and highway superintendent. In the highway department, we have decreasing need for services with less snow in recent years, but no decreases on those lines. I appreciate that some of the costs are fixed, but where they are not, instead of going higher this year, when it’s already high because of workman’s comp going up, why can’t we use the fund balance? If you could get down to six percent, that would be better.”
Stanley had said that as long as taxes were going over the cap anyway, it seemed wise to preserve the fund balance reserve for future needs. Unavoidable rises include employee health care costs; payment of future and past wages for emergency personnel after a federally mandated restructuring; Workers Compensation charges from Ulster County; and contractual salary increases for police, ambulance, and highway departments.
Regarding the wage increase for elected officials, Stanley said, “We didn’t raise the town council because $9000 per year is one of the highest for council members in the county.” The supervisor and town clerk salaries, on the other hand, are lower than in nearby towns, while workloads are increasing with heightened requirements for documentation.
The highway budget is challenged by the need to outlay money for repairs that will eventually be paid for by FEMA grants, but the town has to wait for reimbursement. Stanley blamed the destruction of Hurricane Irene in 2011 for the slowdown in regular maintenance of bridges. During years of low snow, the department paves more roads, as the hollows and back roads have to be maintained to meet federal and state standards. Highway superintendent Eric Hofmeister chimed in, “Last year we had a mild winter, but the year before, we had to play catch-up. And this could be a really bad winter. You can’t nitpick this stuff — there’s too much work to do.”
Council member Gael Alba commented, “Being new on the board, I see this from different eyes than last year. When I’m signing vouchers, I see the hard work that’s being done that I never saw before. I believe the staff deserve that raise. When people come and talk to me, it’s about roads.”
Nolan replied, “I’ve seen the staff going out at all hours during snowstorms throughout the winter, and I’ve always felt the highway department should have the highest salaries. But as years have gone on, we rarely have that [activity]. If the voters like what you’re doing, they will continue to elect you. If the people who are most impacted by the changes aren’t here, all I can do is raise my voice on what people have brought to me.”
The board voted unanimously to approve the budget.
Other town news
Two new Local Flood Analyses (LFA) are beginning for the hamlets of Allaben and Shandaken, funded by the Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program. The process will include a detailed engineering study of the Esopus Creek in those areas, along with a request for input from residents on what occurred during recent floods. LFAs completed for Phoenicia and Mount Tremper have opened up funding opportunities to make those communities more resilient in the face of flooding.
Shandaken will participate in “I Am Pro Snow,” a program of the Climate Reality Project. The initiative reaches out to mountain communities associated with ski centers in an effort to encourage development of renewable energy sources and reduce carbon usage. With ski resorts heavily dependent on snow-making in recent years, one project will be to convert snow-making machines to renewable power sources.
The board voted to approve a one-year contract, costing $1000, for SwiftReach, a system that will alert town residents to flooding, evacuations, water issues, and other emergency situations. Emails, text messages, cell phone calls, and landline calls can be sent out quickly. Shandaken residents are asked to register to receive alerts at http://www.shandaken.us/disaster-prep-response/sign-up-for-alerts. If you know someone who does not go online, have them call the town clerk’s office at 845-688-5004 to be added to the database.