Gardinerites can thank COVID for lower Town taxes in 2022

In an era when where many towns have to adopt resolutions every year overriding the state-mandated cap on local property tax increases, Gardiner has a strong track record of keeping the annual increase below the limit. Remarkably, the Town Board has just approved a 2022 budget that actually reduces the town tax rate on Gardiner residents by .31 percent.

The final budget adopted at the November 4 Town Board meeting totaled $1,965,299, down from $1,976,641 in 2021. Highway Fund appropriations went up by more than four percent, but the General Fund allocation was reduced by more than nine percent to compensate.

How did they manage this feat? Partly by moving $102,500 from this past year’s unexpended fund balance into next year’s spreadsheet. Cautious municipal spending and hanging onto a substantial fiscal cushion in case of emergencies are longstanding traditions in Gardiner, so there was money available to shift around. “It’s nice to have a healthy fund balance and pass that savings along to the public,” supervisor Marybeth Majestic observed at the meeting.

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But part of the story is also the impact of COVID-19: an ill wind that did blow some people some good, despite its devastating effect on many. Gardiner found its expenditures down in 2020 and 2021 due to cutbacks in municipal services, including the long closure of Town Hall and the hiatus in the summer recreation program. The Town also reaped a bounty from the misery of urban New Yorkers and the enforced leisure time of local residents: Councilman Warren Wiegand noted that revenue streams from home sales, mortgage taxes and building permits were all up significantly during the pandemic. Apparently, when people have no choice but to cocoon, they want their cocoons to be as nice as possible.

Majestic warned that some large costs that could potentially be incurred in the year to come are not yet reflected in the budget. While it contained a $50,000 line item for preliminary engineering costs for repairs to the sewer system in the Gardiner hamlet, inflow and infiltration studies recently completed by Pitingaro & Doetsch Consulting Engineers, PC indicate a need for about $450,000 worth of work on aging infrastructure that is perilously close to its maximum carrying capacity. The Town is counting on help in the form of a capital improvement grant from New York State, but the amount has not yet been determined, and local matching funds will be needed in any case. “We would have to bond for the balance,” the supervisor said.

While the General Fund budget for 2022 went down substantially, it does include salary increases for municipal employees, some of them deferred in recent years – including the supervisor herself, whose $42,867 salary line for 2021 is being bumped up to $50,000. Incoming councilwoman Carol Richman, who is joining the Town Board in January, did not dispute the increasing demands of the supervisor position, but questioned whether board members might not be able to assume more duties if they were allocated a larger stipend. Incumbent councilman Franco Carucci demurred, noting that such an arrangement would tend to rule out residents with full-time jobs from being able to serve in what is seen as primarily a volunteer role.

Richman also argued in favor of larger allocations for stipends to the Town’s other boards, commissions and committees, considering the amount of work that many of them have to put in without compensation. She noted that the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals have the advantage of budget lines for consultants, but pointed out that the members of the Environmental Conservation Commission – on which she served for several years – have no such resource and are required to invest many hours into research, analysis, reports and recommendations. According to Majestic, the committee chairs had not submitted requests for such increases in their department budgets for 2022, but she said that she would make them aware that they have that option when the 2023 budget process gets underway.

A tense moment occurred in the public hearing on the 2022 budget when Town clerk Michelle Mosher stepped to the other side of the microphone, so to speak, to protest the salary increase for the Town’s bookkeeper to $61,000, noting that she had only earned $38,000 of the funds allocated on her line during the previous year. “I can’t get help. She’s not here,” Mosher said. “It’s not fair.”

Majestic ascribed the bookkeeper’s limited availability to COVID-19, noting, “She has been here for 17 years.” Several board members noted that it wasn’t appropriate for them to critique an employee’s performance during a public meeting; personnel matters are typically reserved for executive session.

There was some discussion of the difficulties that municipalities across the county are experiencing in attracting highly qualified candidates for fiscal management positions. It was agreed that the $61,000 figure needed to be in place in order for Gardiner to remain competitive, regardless of the outcome of a performance evaluation of the person currently holding the bookkeeper position.

“This is on us that we’re having this difficulty,” said councilwoman Laura Walls. “With reluctance, I’ll agree to move it forward. But we need to commit to due diligence immediately.”

“If we tie salary increases to job performance, we have to do it across the board,” said councilman David Dukler.

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