Post-pandemic audit shows town in surprisingly good shape
There’s no question 2020 was a strange year. When New York was put on “pause” by the governor in March, it had a lot of impacts on local governments. A regular audit of the Town of New Paltz books shows that a lot less money was spent than anyone predicted, resulting in more money left over as fund balance. For the “B” fund, which results in the biggest expenditures, the fund balance — which is in essence an emergency savings account — shot up some $771,000. According to accountant Andrew Arias, who oversaw the audit, this is not bad news. This puts the fund balance at about eight percent of the total budget. There’s not a firm rule capping a town fund balance, but the state’s comptroller believes that somewhere in the range of 10-20% is healthy, according to Arias. A higher fund balance is good fiscal planning when there aren’t dedicated reserve funds to pay for specific big expenses, Arias noted.
What’s more, this year’s audit shows none of the same issues that were flagged in recent years, such as lingering old escrow balances. Supervisor Neil Bettez credited Jean Gallucci, the town’s comptroller, for those improvements; Gallucci was quick to share that credit with the entire financial staff.
Runoff plans well placed
This year’s report about municipal separate storm sewer systems in the Town of New Paltz shows that workers are diligent in ensuring that pollutants — ranging from paper cups and nasty chemicals to eroded soil and fallen leaves — don’t wind up in the Wallkill whenever possible. Engineer Ted Nitza explained that education about these systems — including the drains along roads that are intended to collect rainwater and nothing else — is part of what’s reviewed in that annual report.
Major issues that can contribute to pollution of the local river include runoff during construction, illicit discharges and municipal operations. Town building inspectors are tasked with ensuring that building projects include erosion controls to keep mud from sliding away during wet weather, and also to make sure that the finished project complies with the rule that there won’t be more water running off the property than before it was built. Illicit discharges can include anything from an overflowing sewer main to a leaking old oil tank; in New Paltz, a lot of this sort of investigation is undertaken by the volunteers of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance. Municipal operations includes keeping storm drains free of clogs that lead to flooding, flooding which can push garbage and material downhill. Those leaf and brush pickups are part of the MS4 plan, as are the highways that are adopted by individuals and on behalf of organizations, to get litter off the shoulders.
The draft report is available on the town website.
Chasing the money
State funding for local projects tends to be a moving target. The entire funding operation was shut down during the pandemic, with 2020 awards not being announced until this spring. Even without a pandemic, though, one has to know what’s going to appeal to the people reviewing the many applications sent in each year. New Paltz town council members spoke at their July 1 meeting with engineer Ted Nitza about what local projects are best positioned to win awards in the 2021 funding round.
Based on current needs locally and current priorities in Albany, the ask will be to fund planning grants pertaining to getting around on foot. It’s believed that the Springtown rail trail bridge will have to be replaced in another five to ten years; one request will be for money to create those engineering plans. The other will be for planning trails within the Mill Brook Preserve, and also connecting paths to places like Duzine Elementary School and Woodland Pond. Having those types of plans completed is believed to make it easier to obtain funding for the actual construction of such projects.
Clamping down on comment
Verbose residents, take note: New Paltz Supervisor Neil Bettez wants to make sure that the right to make comments at board meetings isn’t abused, either by someone commenting or by how the rules are administered. The limit is technically three minutes at town meetings, but Bettez tends not to be aggressive in cutting someone off when they go on. What concerns the supervisor more, though, is the emerging practice of having one person read letters from several others, taking up to three minutes for each. That’s going to end. Written comments are always distributed, and anyone who wants to speak won’t be given extra time to read one. Letters sent for a public hearing are incorporated into the minutes, although general public comment is not as a matter of course. Council member David Brownstein suggested that a “universal” policy for public comment might be created that would apply to all public meetings. Deputy supervisor Dan Torres noted that unlike the full-participation town-hall meetings in New England, in this state elected officials meet in public, but are not meeting with the public. The distinction Torres was making is that outside of a required public hearing, public comment is a privilege and can be limited to ensure that all business on the agenda can be conducted.
Library budget increase of $100,000 to be on ballot in November
In New Paltz, voters don’t pay taxes to fund the library directly. Instead, they vote on how much town tax money should be sent to Elting Memorial Library, which is over and above the annual town budget, approved by the five members of the town council each year. The only role of the town council is to ensure that everything is in order to have any change request placed on the budget, and that’s what they did at their July 1 meeting. In November, voters will be asked to increase the annual library allotment from $556,000 to $656,000.