The New Paltz Consolidation Finance Committee, which studied a proposed municipal merger in New Paltz, squared off with a handful of critics and concerned citizens on Monday night.
It was the first in a series of meetings to explain their somewhat controversial conclusion that New Paltz would have saved $1.62 million if the town and village had merged back in 2011.
Village Trustee Sally Rhoads said she thought the public had “gotten stuck” on an in-depth analysis of the 2011 numbers, and that they’d failed to see Finance Committee’s purpose. They attempted to provide an illustration of savings possible in a consolidation scenario — just to see if moving forward even made sense. She noted that, under state law, if a merger does take place, the math will definitely get checked.
“An outside auditor — or the town, village auditors together — must come up with a financial statement of cost savings for three years prior to the referendum vote,” Rhoads said. “It must be what the costs are and what the savings will be. That’s part of the law.”
New York State Finance law mentions repeatedly that consolidated governments or shared service projects of any sort need to show proven savings. For instance, one section of the law says this: “Any approved project shall include an examination of financial savings, return on public investment and management improvements resulting from project implementation.”
During Monday’s meeting, the topic for discussion was the revenue section of those 2011 budget numbers. Not every potential dollar of income made the cut, explained Finance Committee Chairman David Lent.
Sales tax, which is redistributed to towns by the county, was not included in the 2011 numbers at all. Committee members were unsure how Ulster County legislators might change that number this year. If towns see a huge 2013 cut in sales tax revenues from the county, anything the committee put in would seem like an unfair exaggeration, he said.
Finance Committee members focused on 2011 because it was the most recent year for which they had New York State Comptroller-audited financial numbers — actual expenditures — to work with. But focusing on only one year had drawbacks.
Lent did delve a little into expenditures in his Monday night presentation, but only to look at money spent on town and village board members, the mayor and supervisor. Because both boards voted to give their executives more money last year, those budget lines are stale.
“I’ll be frank with you, this was 2011. My guess is if you bring it to 2015, that you’ll see those salaries are going to be higher,” he said.
New Paltz won a state $50,000 grant back in 2009 to study government efficiency and consolidation. In 2011, a potential merger of the two local governments became a focus during the elections when pro-consolidation candidates ran and won in both the village and the town. Early last year, elected officials in both governments set up a number of committees to answer questions left over from the 2011 Fairweather Report. One of those committees is the Finance Committee.
Consolidation has already become an intensely heated issue this year. Mayor Jason West — who doesn’t like consolidation as proposed by Rhoads and town Supervisor Susan Zimet — has consistently voted no on merger-related items and has walked out on joint town-village meetings. Most votes have gone 8-2 or 9-1, usually with town Councilman Jeff Logan voting no with West.
Rhoads, who used to be deputy mayor under West, resigned as the Village Board’s second-in-command to rejoin the rank-and-file village trustees after the mayor publicly disputed the validity of the Finance Committee’s findings.
On Facebook and in between meetings, consolidation advocates and skeptics have already launched rhetorical counter offensives to win the hearts of undecided voters — even though a public referendum isn’t officially set.
Two of the biggest questions about the Finance Committee’s work — a $300,000 one-time police expenditure claimed as a savings due to consolidation, and the $520,077 claimed as the savings from combining the town Highway Department and the village Department of Public Works — were not directly discussed.
New Paltz Police Department expenditures in 2011 — excluding retirement and benefits — amounted to $2.7 million. In 2012, that number, again minus retirement and benefits, had dropped to $2.1 million.
According to Lent, they only claimed $300,000 of the total $600,000 saved between those two years because it was felt that a merged New Paltz wouldn’t have needed to spend all that money.
“One of the things was the contract settled. It had been open for four years,” he said, adding that the long and winding road to a new police contract added costs to taxpayers. “They should have put it in the reserve fund. They should have paid some of that cost out of the reserve fund. It would not have appeared in the budget.”
A fuller explanation of the police number will occur at the Feb. 25 meeting. A discussion of the Highway Department number will occur at the March 12 meeting.