The Eagle’s View: Top 10 questions of the Saugerties election

(Photo by Steve Chorvas)

(Photo by Steve Chorvas)

With Election Day fast approaching, questions abound.

  1. The Saugerties elections in 2013 saw about 5,800 residents come out and vote. With numerous races in 2015 not being contested and some outcomes predetermined because of major party cross-endorsements, how significant will the drop in voter turnout be, especially among non-party enrolled voters, considered swing voters? Will a low turnout have bearing on who wins?
  2. National politics often affects local elections and turnout. Will the dysfunction in Washington, especially with what’s going on with House Republicans and Conservatives choosing a speaker, have ripple effects in the local elections and turnout?
  3. With District 2 Legislator Chris Allen having both major party lines, and assault charges having been levied against him, how well will his Conservative Party opponent, Angie Minew, fare against him? Will Minew’s own problems, including her unintelligible letters-to-the-editor and never having voted in a local election, hurt her standing among voters? Will an unusual percentage of voters decide not to vote for either candidate?
  4. If Republicans win the Town Council seat between Allyson Barbaria and Leeanne Thornton, thus giving them a majority on the Town Board come January, what changes, if any, will that mean in the way the town is governed?
  5. With the rumor mill being that this may be Greg Helsmoortel’s last run for elective office, what political maneuvering to replace him will start to develop after November’s election?
  6. Assuming the likely, that Helsmoortel will win another, and final, two-year term next month, will Helsmoortel attempt any grand initiatives, especially on the economic front, to cement his legacy, or will he essentially act the role of a lame-duck?
  7. Will the Saugerties Republican and Conservative parties aim to come closer together after this election, or will the 2015 campaign have driven them further apart, as it did in 2013, to the jubilation of town Democrats?
  8. Will the Saugerties election results coupled with party politics cause turmoil within each party after the election? Republican caucus attendees cross-endorsed two Democrats in Town Board races and a Democratic legislative candidate won an unprecedented Republican primary as a write-in. Conservatives are running their own candidates for three offices without a major party endorsement, thereby likely handing their Democratic counterparts victories. Democrats didn’t run a registered Democrat in any town race and didn’t put up their own candidate in two of three county Legislature races.
  9. Based on the summer caucuses, primary results, and the November election, how secure will party chairmen Joe Roberti Jr. (R), Lanny Walter (D) and George Heidcamp (C) be in their roles? With each of these chairmen having been involved in Saugerties party politics for decades, will factions within each party start to develop or arise looking for new leadership?
  10. With county executive challenger Terry Bernardo having the Republican, Independence, and Conservative lines, will that be enough to present incumbent Democrat Michael Hein a serious challenge?

 

Whose budget is it?

Fingers are being pointed this year, as they are every election cycle, over who’s to blame for real or imagined town budget and town financial problems. Here’s the reality. If there’s a problem, it’s unlikely to be the fault of any one person on the Town Board.

That observation won’t make party chairmen and candidates happy because they like pointing their finger to the opposition, as though it’s always only the other party’s fault.

The truth is the town’s budget is created and managed by the five Town Board members, consisting of the supervisor and four town councilpersons.

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This is how they do it. Each fall during budget preparation time, each board member brings to the table the department budgets they are responsible for.

If a new police car is needed, the board member that’s the liaison for the Police Department submits it in their department budget. If a major repair is needed to a piece of building department equipment, the board liaison to Parks and Recreation working with the department head submits the cost of repairs in their budget.

Changes can be made by the Town Board, and eventually a budget is voted up or down.

Department heads and board liaisons manage their budgets through the year, and the supervisor is expected to watch over the budget, deliberating with the town’s accountant.

That’s the way it works, election rhetoric aside.

 

Making sense of the financial stress

The state audit report that labeled the town’s finances as under “moderate stress” came to that conclusion based largely on the town not having a larger fund balance.

Here’s what you need to know about the fund balance, and why taxpayers may be better off because the town hasn’t accumulated a large fund balance.

Municipal fund balances are generated when actual revenues exceed expenses for one or more years.

A fund balance can be likened to a homeowner’s checking account. Let’s say the owner doesn’t have a bank escrow for their January tax bill, which is $6,000. So every month starting in February the homeowner starts putting $500 into a special checking account.

By January they’ll have accumulated $6,000 to pay their bill, and after writing a check for the tax, they’ll have nothing left in their bank account.

But, let’s say, the improbably happens. The expected tax bill of $6,000 is only $5,600. Their account will now have a $400 fund balance. Very cool.

Or, maybe the homeowner get a new job and makes more money, and can now afford and decides to set $600 aside each month in case taxes go up in January. They’ll have $7,200 in their account at the end of 12 months. If the tax bill comes in at, let’s say, $6,100, they have a fund balance of $1,100. Nice.

Now the homeowner can use the $1,100 balance to fix that car or buy that TV they’ve been looking at, or just let it sit there and use the money the next year in case taxes go higher.

It’s nice having a fund balance. But remember, the fund balance exists because the homeowner put their money in their account.

The town accumulates fund balances in the same way. During the fiscal year, they might come up with a new insurance plan that saves them money. So, instead of paying, let’s say, $100,000 for that insurance policy they estimated it would cost at budget time, a new carrier only charges $80,000. Bingo. $20,000 remains and winds up as a fund balance.

Now that $20,000 can be left to sit there and grow with other savings, or some of it can be used to pay for unexpected expenses, or it can be used to offset a future tax increase.

There are other ways fund balances can grow. Some legitimate. Some involving a bit of trickery. Here’s how.

If the state reimburses at a higher rate than budgeted, or a grant is found where now state money instead of budgeted town money is used, the fund balance increases. That’s fair.

One illegitimate way of increasing the fund balance is to purposely underestimate revenues at budget time. Here’s how that game is played.

A town budget has to balance; revenues have to equal expenses. In town budgets, most revenues come from property taxes.

But there are revenues from other sources. If a town budgets too little revenue from those sources, whether on purpose or inadvertently, taxpayers have to make up the difference. Say ‘tax increase!’

Then, when the revenue comes in higher during the year from those other sources than was budgeted, a fund balance is created. But, remember – taxpayers were the ones that technically increased the fund balance.

Most politicians like creating large fund balances by adding a little year after year, because the money can be used to offset large tax increases in a given year when they mess up town finances.

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So remember. No one else is going to tell you during this election campaign that the large fund balances that the state likes to see, and criticizes Saugerties for not having, is often created by overtaxing taxpayers in the first place.

Yes, a town having a small fund balance may be because it hasn’t managed its expenses well in a given year or a period of years, or it suffered significant unexpected expenses.

But having a small fund balance may also be because a town board hasn’t been playing the overtaxing game to purposely build up a fund balance.

 

Feedback

In last week’s column, I discussed the 2013 Saugerties GOP ads that criticized the Conservative supervisor candidate at the time, and I said that the Conservative Party chairman put pressure on Republican Town Board candidates Jim Bruno and William Schirmer to denounce those ads.

I have information from a normally reliable source that the Conservative chairman had a role in the letter to the editor that was published.

I received feedback last week from one of the 2013 signers of the letter and he said 1.) he was not talked to by the Conservative chairman about the letter before it was published; 2) he is not aware of any of the other three signers having been talked to by the Conservative chairman about the letter and; 3.) he didn’t have any “pressure” put on him about the development or publishing of the letter and is not aware of any “pressure” having been put on any of the other signers by the Conservative chairman.

 

Endorsements

The past couple of weeks have seen Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand endorse Democrat Mike Hein in his County Executive re-election bid, and Westchester County Executive and 2014 Republican nominee for governor Robert Astorino, along with Republican congressman Chris Gibson endorse Terry Bernardo in her challenger position.

A Prominent Democrat endorsing a Democrat and a Prominent Republican endorsing a Republican isn’t really news. Now if Gillibrand endorsed Bernardo or Astorino/Gibson endorsed Hein, then we’d be talking front page!

Klaus Gaebel’s column appears monthly, with additional special dispatches during the election season.