‘Tis the season for Town Boards to begin considering the draft budgets that their supervisors have prepared for the year to come. The first iteration of such documents — before it gets massaged and trimmed and line items moved around from here to there — is nearly always alarming, especially to residents concerned about how much of a property tax increase might be in the offing. That goes double in a year when inflation is higher than usual and many people are looking for politicians to blame for the stress on their pocketbooks (never mind the fact that elected officials don’t actually exert much control over economic cycles, for better or worse).
It’s a challenge to look at a draft municipal budget and immediately derive from it how good or bad the tax bite is going to be, and the Town of Gardiner’s preliminary forecast for 2023, released at the October 4 Town Board meeting, is no exception. Residents can download the spreadsheet from a link at www.townofgardiner.org/town-board-agenda, but it’s too soon to say what the final numbers will look like. As it stands now, Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic explained, a projected 7.6 percent increase in the amount to be raised by taxes — a little over three million dollars — “includes everything”: the independent Fire and Library Districts as well as the dependent Sewer and Light Districts, added to the General and Highway Funds.
The New York State tax cap does not apply to independent district expenses, Majestic pointed out; without them, the percentage increase is actually higher, at 10.66 percent “relevant to the cap.” That implies that no matter how much Town Board members roll up their sleeves, the tax increase this year is going to exceed the State-mandated maximum (conventionally described as “two percent,” despite the fact that the formula varies somewhat from year to year and from municipality to municipality).
According to the supervisor, the draft presented to the Board was actually much leaner than the “wish lists” presented to her by the Town’s various department heads. She said that she had decided to cut all proposed capital projects out of the draft – a policy that fell hardest on the Parks and Recreation Department, whose leadership had sought a $100,000 line item to complete improvements to the pole barn in George Majestic Memorial Park, as well as large outlays for fencing repairs and improvements to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.
Councilman Warren Wiegand was quick to point out that “Removing capital items doesn’t mean those projects won’t happen. It just means that it’ll be accounted for in another way.” Some park improvements in the past couple of years, such as renovating the basketball courts, have been made possible by federal COVID relief funds, for example, and there is still a balance of those monies left unallocated.
“I also took out $20,000 for a park manager,” Majestic noted. “Gardiner needs to right-size its government. I’m concerned with giving increases that will be difficult to maintain, going into unstable economic times.” Another new salary line that may end up on the chopping block is a second full-time building inspector at $45,000, despite the recognized need for more staffing in the Building Department due to development pressures on the Town and increased demand by residents for better monitoring of noise and other quality-of-life impacts.
A public hearing at the first Town Board meeting in November on passage of a local law to exceed the tax cap is expected to be scheduled at a special meeting dedicated to the budget that the Board tentatively set up for Wednesday, October 12. A vote could not legally be taken on October 4 because proposed salary increases for Town employees had not yet been firmed up. Majestic’s draft version included increases of five percent for all non-union full-time employees and 6.5 percent for part-time.
The latter subject evoked the most newsworthy revelation of the October 4 meeting by far: Town clerk Michelle Mosher, who has held that post since 1995, announced that she did not plan to run for reelection when her current term is up. “This is going to be my last time,” she said. “It’s time for me to step away.”
Mosher struggled to keep her composure as she noted that her request for an 8.7 percent salary increase, which she said would “bring me up even with two other employees who we have no way of tracking their hours,” had been rejected. “I believe I’m worth that. I actually feel very unworthy right now by having it reduced.” Mosher pointed out that Town-issued health insurance is not a significant benefit to her because she is on her husband’s family plan and opts out.
“I’ve been asking for raises every year and have to scratch for it. Meanwhile someone came in for a year-and-a-half and got twice as much. This is an example of why I feel unworthy.” Asked after the meeting which other positions she felt were being overpaid in comparison to her salary, Mosher declined to elaborate.
Councilwoman Laura Walls expressed sympathy with Mosher’s position. “If this were a private business, you’d be making a whole lot more” than her current mid-60s salary, she said, but noted, “We live in a capitalist society.” She suggested that the Town employees who were making more money despite being much more recent hires had technical skills that were in short supply and high demand in the current labor market. “I’m happy with what you’ve done, and I’d be happy to give you what you’ve asked for,” Walls said.