New Paltz Town Council members rolled up their sleeves and got to work on the budget last Thursday night. In the end, the process was about as smooth as driving on a state road during pothole season.
The tone was set during the public hearing on a law to override the state’s tax cap. In order to even try to pass a budget exceeding the cap requires a local law be passed first, and it’s not uncommon for local officials to pass that as something of an insurance policy. What made this one different is that it was clear that for the second year in a row, it was likely to be used.
Officials in towns around the county have warned, since the cap was made a law in 2011, that sooner or later it would necessitate cutting those services which residents derive a clear benefit from, because health care and retirement costs in particular increase far faster than the cap itself, which is indexed to a complex formula which rarely exactly equates to the two percent it’s named for. In a New York Times editorial at that time, writers declared that “local politicians have to make the tough decisions to raise revenue and wrestle down personnel costs, streamline services and rationalize costly state mandates,” and a cap would undercut that ability.
In New Paltz, lawmakers are looking at a 4.8% increase, and that’s making it harder to avoid cutting deeply into anything that isn’t mandatory. The tax cap is 1.018%.
Resident Lou Cariola said that two of the highest salaries in the town are paid to the community education coordinator, who works largely with individuals at risk for addiction, mental health and other complex issues, and director of the town’s youth program. In contrast, he pointed out that highway department budget is the “only thing we can see,” because “we have no other services.” Perhaps community education and youth expenses could be shared among other stakeholders, he suggested, such as the village and college.
Cariola found allies in Marty Irwin and Jeff Logan, both of whom voted against the law. Irwin felt so strongly that he even voted against a routine measure, determining that the law has no environmental impact.
Supervisor Neil Bettez hung the increase on expenses like defending the lawsuit that’s blocking the creating of water district 5, declining revenues and a fund balance too small to provide much of a cushion. Department heads have “cut a lot of fat,” but not enough to offset other factors. He invited his colleagues to suggest additional cuts, saying that he’d be “pleasantly surprised” to get under the cap.
Logan offered several, starting with restoring fees to use the community center to the rates they were before being cut last year. He also suggested getting rid of the special prosecutor, who in Logan’s opinion represents an unnecessary expense. The next police contract should be negotiated to reduce the high costs of health care and retirement, he said, and more thoughtfully deploying highway employees could minimize overtime costs.
“What are you going to do when our infrastructure turns to crap?” asked highway superintendent Chris Marx.
Defunding the deputy highway superintendent position was also on his list. Looking at how the pool is funded, Logan characterized it as a “loss” since the cost to taxpayers is less than the cost to users. As with past budget discussions, Logan questioned if recreation director Chuck Bordino isn’t getting paid too much. Bordino took over senior activities when coordinator Kathy Puglisi died.
Irwin thought developing more business along South Putt Corners Road would help the town’s situation, although that area lacks infrastructure. He also believes spending on updating the comprehensive plan would in the long run save money.
Eventually, the conversation devolved into questions about which council members had put in sufficient time studying the budget to propose any cuts. Once three or more members started trading accusations simultaneously, Bettez moved to adjourn the meeting.
Before that the budget hearing was scheduled for November 2,7:35 p.m. at the community center.