It’s that time of year again when town officials try to wrestle the next year’s spreadsheet into submission, honing a tentative budget into a final version that will not send voters and taxpayers into excessive sticker shock. Having struggled for three years with inadequate staffing to rectify fiscal messes left over from the previous administration, Town of New Paltz supervisor Susan Zimet has presented the Town Board with what she calls a “very fiscally sound” $11.7 million budget that is essentially tax-neutral for the third year in a row. Proposed spending for the A Fund — meaning the part of the town that lies outside the Village of New Paltz — for 2015 comes in slightly under $7.8 million, compared to $8.6 million in 2012. But a $70,000 line in the 2015 budget creating a new position to ride herd on town expenditures, revenues, fiscal reporting and compliance is already drawing some fire from residents.
According to Zimet, her efforts to cut spending, consolidate systems and enhance revenue since being returned to office in 2012 would have resulted in a tax reduction of 4.4 percent for 2014, had the assessed valuation of town properties not dropped to the tune of $40 million, resulting in a tax decrease of “only” one percent. Staying well under Governor Cuomo’s two-percent tax cap last year earned the town a tax credit of $270,000 applicable toward its 2015 budget. Using that credit, combined with tapping into a well-padded Unallocated Fund Balance built up over the past couple of years by tightening the town pursestrings, New Paltz will be able to offset a state-mandated increase of $250,000 in the Police Department’s retirement expenditures and an estimated $150,000 increase in the cost of health insurance for town employees.
But pinching those elusive pennies is taking an unsustainable toll on staff, say Zimet, the Town Board, municipal bookkeeper Arlene Weber and others involved in the unwieldy process. Many factors compounded over a period of years to create a daily workload that far exceeds the ability of Zimet, Weber and her assistants to do anything but play catch-up, they contend. Moreover, some staff members are tasked with financial duties that aren’t really appropriate to their job descriptions, such as the secretary to the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals having to chase down uncollected escrow funds from developers to pay for engineering studies. And human resources are currently lacking to maintain the “separation of duties” in a “manageable and monitored form” between receiving and accounting for revenues that is necessary to eliminate opportunities for embezzlement of town funds, Zimet notes.
To address the problem, Zimet proposed the creation of a new full-time position, “a qualified fiscal agent that will secure the integrity of the town’s finance” under the title of “director of finance and administration,” and the Town Board approved it at its meeting on October 9, pending a review by the town attorney. It’s a job title that does not yet exist in New York State’s Civil Service handbook, so that will also have to be approved. Zimet explained that the title of “comptroller” was also considered, but rejected, partly because the town’s population is not high enough and partly because that position centralizes too much authority in one individual and hence has created problems for some other municipalities who have tried it. But the Civil Service designation is essential, she said, “to take this person outside of politics.” Councilman Dan Torres noted that the state Attorney General’s Office recommends that “to assure integrity” over time, such a position be held by the same person “throughout multiple administrations,” immune to electoral trends.
The job description for the director of finance and administration includes the following duties: oversight of bookkeeping and payroll/personnel; health insurance; retirement system; employee assistance program; contract monitoring; union contract compliance including benefits, retirement, sick days, years of service/accruals; grant monitoring; annual reports; audit and certify for payment all lawful claims or charges; audit of financial records and accounts of all units of government; multiple-year fiscal planning projections; and ensuring the integrity of the financial well-being of the town.
Candidates for the position must have a university degree in a related field, 10+ years of experience in finance or accounting, 5+ years of experience in both municipal government and union healthcare negotiations and a “job history including significant experience as delineated above.” Zimet says that she arrived at the $70,000 salary figure based on that of the Village of New Paltz’s on-staff treasurer, noting also that the New Paltz Central School District pays its finance officer $170,000 a year, along with a $70,000 assistant.
Some residents are questioning the expenditure, however, and Zimet’s success so far in reining in past fiscal problems may ironically work against her plan. “I don’t see any deficiencies in the current setup that you have,” said former councilwoman Kitty Brown at the October 16 Town Board meeting. “In the past three years it looks like those problems have been solved.” She argued that the current full-time bookkeeper already has two assistants (though one is on loan from another department) and “does provide fiscal and financial continuity.” Outgoing supervisors and Town Board members can provide “a lot of institutional memory” and guidance on a voluntary basis to incoming ones, she said.
Brown also noted the absence of councilwoman Jean Gallucci, who “specializes in government finance,” from the last several Town Board meetings. “I would love to hear her give us her input about why we need to create this position,” she said. “It seems that both the state and private auditors are happy with our finances. So what aren’t we doing right?”
“It’s impossible for a bookkeeper to handle all the finances associated with an $11.7 million operation. For years our bookkeeper struggled to try to do what she could do to perform her job, but in the process things got really messed up. For example, the people who lived in the town outside the village were overtaxed for years and didn’t know about it,” responded councilman Kevin Barry. “The most important reason why you want a finance person in place is because you’re going to have different levels of competence when it comes to finance with successive supervisors over the years.”
Zimet agreed, saying that although being the town’s CFO is part of her job, “A CFO is not a bookkeeper. This is not going to make my life easier; this person is needed for the bookkeeping department. Who’s asking for this is the bookkeeper. Our new bookkeeper, who is phenomenal, cannot keep up with the workload because she is doing things right.” In another meeting with the New Paltz Times, Weber affirmed the need for the position, calling the volume of work “phenomenal” and noting that the data entry workload alone for town finances requires a dedicated employee.
Much of the problem, say all concerned, is the backlog of work still needed to rectify allocation errors and poor recordkeeping by the previous administration. “Three years later, we’re still uncovering things that weren’t done correctly,” said Zimet. Auditors are still identifying monies that had for years been tossed into the General Fund without being allocated to the appropriate line. “Now we have to do Sherlock Holmes work to go back and find where that money is and post it into the right place. So more time is spent backtracking than actually doing the job,” said the supervisor.
Town Board members emphasized the need to free up resources for what councilman Jeff Logan called “forward thinking.” He noted that, according to feedback that he has gotten from Association of Towns meetings, New Paltz is “way, way behind on doing multi-year financing.” Barry argued that town officials need to spend more time strategizing “how we raise the revenue line in a lot of categories.”
In addition to the newly created director of finance position, the 2015 budget also includes a $34,445 line for a full-time code municipal enforcer/fire inspector position, since the number of applications for building permits has increased exponentially and current code enforcer Kelly O’Donnell now devotes half her time to assisting the bookkeeping department. Pay raises in the budget are restricted to the town clerk, justices and highway superintendent; a rumored raise for Zimet is actually a transfer of part of her salary from a separate line for her role in administering county social services to her regular line. Her total salary will stay flat for 2015.
Line-by-line analysis of the 2015 tentative budget will continue at the New Paltz Town Board’s next budget meeting at the Community Center this Thursday, October 23, beginning at 5:30 p.m. All New Paltz residents are invited to attend.