During a sometimes tense public hearing on the 2022 budget, New Paltz Town Council members found themselves on the defensive about the impacts of a decision made in public long before the pandemic started, namely to borrow enough money to renovate a warehouse into a justice center with space for police and courts under one roof. They did so as part of their first meeting held in the new space, but members of the public were only able to glimpse bits of it in the background, as they were only allowed to participate remotely.
Supervisor Neil Bettez explained that in its present form, this budget would result in a tax levy of about $10,076,000, which is a 4.9% hike from the 2021 figures. The increased costs are all long-term ones, such as the health-care costs and pay increases which were in the past negotiated into multi-year contracts. Personnel will be costing $373,000 more and medical insurance will run $125,000 more in 2022. More than either of those is the $390,000 in new debt payments, which is for the justice center.
Infrastructure and equipment have been a priority for Bettez, who noted that there’s been a culture of neglect in Town government for decades. A number of highway department vehicles that had been in service for 20 years or more have been replaced since Bettez took office, but finding a permanent solution to replace the various temporary offices has been looming. The police were in rented space, the court building was in poor condition and the bulk of Town offices have been in temporary trailers for eight years. That’s because the old Town Hall — the renovation of which into municipal offices was the last major town building project — had to be demolished in the lifetime of the supervisor who oversaw that project. Having explored and discarded as too expensive the option of building a new Town Hall on that same property, Bettez opted for a justice center as a first step. This empties out the Town-owned portion of the Plattekill Avenue campus, making it possible to renovate that space to get those other Town employees out of trailers which lack potable water and are serviced with a septic system that was only intended to last for three years.
Getting this budget under the tax cap will take $300,000 more in cuts, the supervisor said. While that could be softened by the use of federal pandemic aid, applying a one-time cash infusion against recurring costs only pushes the problem off by a year. One way that those federal dollars will be used is to bolster the youth program; staff members there have seen close to a hundred children a day in recent months, which is unprecedented. In particular, Bettez was clear that there would continue to be ample food on hand for the scores of teens.
Resident Tom Jelliffe doesn’t think that the borrowing for the new building can be justified, calling the debt service schedule for the borrowed $8 million “explosive.”
Bettez disagreed, making that clear by engaging in discussion during the public hearing. “We don’t have many choices,” the supervisor said, because town leaders “didn’t invest in infrastructure for 50 years.” David Brownstein pointed out that public hearings are not the time for debate, causing Jelliffe to complain that if there had been more information about the budget in advance, then members of the public would be better prepared. One source of confusion appeared to be what was meant by “cuts.” A budget cut might be understood as a reduction from one year to the next, but during this hearing the word “cut” was also used to refer to the difference between numbers in the first two drafts of this year’s budget. That reasoning led some members of the public to conclude that less money would be spent on youth programs in 2022 than in 2021, which is not actually the case.
Comments by Jelliffe and some others led to frustration by some council members. Brownstein told residents that the justice-center decision was made “years ago” and in a transparent manner. “You make it look like improper activity. Do your homework.”
“I met with you a half a dozen times,” Bettez said, then going on to claim that three residents — Jelliffe, Edgar Rodriguez, and Maggie Veve, all of whom were present and commenting during this hearing — have “spent more time speaking in the past year than board members.”
Deputy supervisor Dan Torres tried to bring the temperature down. “A lot of times, the way questions are asked, they come off as accusatory,” said Torres. It’s also “hard to hear tone” through a virtual connection, the deputy noted.
Tammy Friedman’s comments followed, and they seemed clearly accusatory. Calling a new police station and court “reckless spending” since there are also state police and sheriff’s deputies, Friedman claimed that “police will have to collect that money” to pay off that bond. “I’d like to see who voted for these things,” said Friedman, calling those elected officials “children running around with a credit card.”
During the discussion later on in the meeting Jean Gallucci, the town’s comptroller, explained that borrowing is a standard way of funding large municipal projects because it allows for careful fiscal planning. “It’s a long-term asset that’s been created,” Gallucci said, which justifies the debt.
Bettez agreed, pointing out that what was designed was a “50-year building,” which would more than outlast the 20-year bond. Comparing it to household finance, the supervisor observed that most people “don’t buy a house with cash,” either. “Over 20 years yes, I think we can handle this debt.”
The budget will be finalized in the coming weeks.