With a show of ambivalence that may have suited the occasion, the Woodstock Town Board on November 17 approved a 2012 municipal budget with an overall tax increase of 6.5 percent, concluding a tortuous process that raised thorny questions about the costs and benefits of town services.
As a result of the overall tax increase, the owner of a property assessed at the 2011 townwide average value, $274,000, who paid $1,017 in town taxes in the current year, will pay about $87 more in 2012, for an approximate total of $1,104, according to figures provided by Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran.
The 4-1 vote to adopt the budget, in which councilman Jay Wenk was the sole dissenter, came only minutes after the board had unanimously rejected the very same spending plan. The thumbs-down vote was at least partly symbolic, as it offered council members an opportunity to express their displeasure with a budget that shrank local government but still raised taxes for the general fund by nearly 11 percent and exceeded the statewide 2 percent cap on property tax increases by a wide margin.
But a looming state deadline of November 20 — effectively, November 18, since November 20 would fall on a Sunday — would have left the board little time to return to the drawing board and fashion a new, presumably leaner budget. Indeed, just two days earlier, the council had agreed to restore about $50,000 in appropriations — in the form of health insurance for part-time elected officials, including board members, and compensation for an expanded maintenance position — that it had previously planned to eliminate. (See Woodstock Times, November 17, 2011.)
The board also received unwelcome news soon after its November 15 meeting: the cost of health insurance for retirees under the town’s current plan would increase by approximately 30 percent, adding some $40,000 in spending to the budget. Mandatory pension contributions continue to increase and currently account for 10 percent of the town budget, Moran noted.
The health insurance development was the latest in a series of surprises in the budget process, including the discovery of two computational errors in Moran’s tentative budget, which effectively quashed any chance that the final spending plan would comply with the state tax cap. Accordingly, the board on October 25 adopted a local law to override the cap for one year.
The budget negotiations brought to the fore questions about the levels and kinds of services that taxpayers desire, and how much they are willing to pay for them at a time of falling revenues and rising costs. A proposal by Moran to save money by replacing the local Dispatch Department with the Ulster County 911 emergency service found no takers. As a result, the nine-employee department, which operates around the clock, is retained, intact, in the 2012 budget.
Elsewhere, board members evinced little support for the option of increasing revenue by selling Town Hall. The decision of whether instead to renovate the 74-year-old landmark, at an undetermined cost to taxpayers, will be left to the next Town Board, which takes office on January 1. The new board may also tackle other budgetary matters, such as negotiating a less expensive health insurance plan for retirees, seeking ways to pare state and county unfunded mandates, and further scrutinizing the size and composition of town government.
The adopted budget totals $8.8 million, with $7.1 million to be raised by taxes; the respective subtotals for the general fund, the budget’s biggest component and the highway fund, are $4.5 million and $3.53 million. Although the tax levy for the general fund will increase by 10.8 percent, the townwide levy — the portion of the budget to which all taxpayers contribute—will rise by only 6.5 percent.
The townwide levy comprises the general and highway funds, as established by the Town Board; the library district budget, which must be approved by voters; and the fire district budget, which is not subject to voter approval and cannot be modified by the Town Board. The tax levy for the highway fund will increase by 2.1 percent, the levy for the library by 2.0 percent, and the levy for the fire district by 2.5 percent. The tax increase for the general and highway funds combined is 8.2 percent. (The budget can be viewed on the town website, woodstockny.org.)
Taxes for so-called special districts are paid only by residents who receive the services in question. The levies for the garden lights, Woodstock lighting, and on-site sewer districts will each increase by 2.0 percent. The levy for the hamlet sewer district will decrease by 4.6 percent, while the water district levy will be unchanged.
The special-district levies, along with the taxes for the highway and general funds, are established by the Town Board. According to Ken Panza, who won a seat on the board in the recent election, the state requires the inclusion of those levies, but not those of the library and fire districts, for a calculation of the budget in relation to the tax cap. Employing that method, Panza provided estimates indicating that the total levy authorized by the board amounts to a tax increase of 7.3 percent, or 5.3 percent above the cap, although the tax hike that affects every property owner — the townwide levy — will amount to 6.5 percent.
Personal and political differences among board members surfaced during the November 17 special meeting, which took place on a Thursday morning. After Moran announced the steep and abrupt increase in the health insurance premium for retirees, councilwoman Cathy Magarelli and councilman Bill McKenna declared that the board should start its budget review earlier in the future, to allow for such unexpected developments. McKenna disagreed with Moran’s contention that Woodstock, like other towns in the area, could get by without a local dispatch service.
Nevertheless, the board seemed prepared to adopt the budget at hand when Moran initiated a roll-call vote, beginning with Wenk. A year earlier, the councilman had abstained in the vote to approve the 2011 budget. More recently, Wenk was out of town and thus absent from a meeting at which council members executed difficult, across-the-board cuts in departmental spending. At the November 17 session Wenk reiterated his support for the state tax cap, which he proposed to meet through revenue increases that his colleagues deemed speculative or impractical, a request that outside consultants reduce their fees, and a refusal to comply with unfunded mandates from the county. After concluding his remarks, he voted no on the budget.
Magarelli, Moran, councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum, and McKenna followed suit, leaving the board without a budget as the clock on the state deadline continued to tick. Moran, who is leaving office at the end of the year, addressed pointed remarks to Wenk, a frequent adversary, who won a new term on the board in the November 8 election. “I suggest that Jay Wenk lead the effort to modify the budget,” said the supervisor. “We’re kind of taking your lead on this. Let us know what cuts you want to make.”
“We need to make a very serious attempt to cut expenses,” responded Wenk, who went on to repeat his previously stated suggestions, including a proposal to raise revenue by charging a fee for parking at the town-owned Mountain View lot. McKenna dismissed Wenk’s suggestion for reducing consultants’ fees by 15 percent, pronouncing it impossible to accomplish within 24 hours, and added a note of exasperation. “I have been making suggestions for weeks now,” said McKenna, “but I haven’t heard much from anyone else.”
With the discussion apparently headed nowhere, Moran called for a second vote on the recently rejected budget. This time around, the spending plan was approved, with only Wenk holding fast to his previous stance. “We have been working on this for months. The new Town Board can spend the next 12 to 14 months finding ways to reduce costs in the (2013) budget,” said Moran.
The special meeting had begun at 9 a.m. Before it adjourned, after nearly two hours, McKenna had the final word. “This budget process has been an absolute mess,” said the councilman, “an embarrassment for the board.”++