Sparks flew as Woodstock town Council member Bennet Ratcliff made another bid to increase pay for senior recreation teachers at the expense of raises for elected officials. During the Woodstock Town Board’s year-end meeting on December 30, Ratcliff proposed cutting supervisor Bill McKenna’s salary by $2,000 and each board member by $1,000 and using the money to fund the pay raises for the teachers.
“If there’s enough to pay raises for the Town Board members who are elected, I think we should be able to find money that is unappropriated,” Ratcliff said as the board discussed moving $104,202 in unused funds to different spending lines as part of its end-of-year bookkeeping cleanup.
“We gave the teachers an increase,” countered Council member Laura Ricci. “I know it wasn’t what they would’ve liked, but we did give the teachers an increase. The teacher salaries are probably approximately twice the average of what we do pay our other town employees.”
“I don’t make a lot of money, and I could have used the extra money from our raises, but I was willing to forgo that so it could go to the teachers that have been waiting many years to get raises,” said Council member Maria-Elena Conte, who voted with Ratcliff to reduce the elected officials’ salaries.
That motion failed 3-2. Conte and Ratcliff also voted against the budget transfers, but that motion passed 3-2.
McKenna now makes $62,836 and the four members of the Town Board make $12,055 each.
In November, Ratcliff proposed raises for senior recreation teachers and money for boards and committees at the expense of budget cuts that included elimination of raises for elected officials and town employees, angering town clerk Jackie Earley. “We have done nothing but save money for this town. You have no idea what I’ve done for this town. How dare you?” she said in November.
Senior Recreation Committee chair Edwina Henderson had asked for raises ranging from $10 to $15 per class, mostly offset by an increase in fees charged to class participants. Ratcliff proposed much more.
Instructors now make an average of $50 per one-hour class and $75 for longer classes. In the 2023 adopted budget, the instructors will get a four-percent raise, bringing their pay to $52 and $78 depending on the class.
Questions over senior exemptions
Ratcliff ruffled feathers during discussion of proposed expansion of eligibility for property tax exemptions for seniors and those with disabilities based on income level. The Town Board voted to increase the income level to be eligible for an exemption. To get the maximum tax exemption, 50 percent, the maximum income is $41,599, up from $29,000.
The tax exemption decreases as the income increases, and will be as follows:
$41,601 to $42,600 – 45 percent
$42,601 to $43,600 – 40 percent
$43,601 to $44,600 – 35 percent
$44,601 to $45,500 – 30 percent
$45,501 to $46,400 – 25 percent
$46,401 to $47,300 – 20 percent
$47,301 to $48,200 – 15 percent
$48,201 to $49,100 – 10 percent
$49,101 to $50,000 – five percent
Homeowners with disabilities or aged 65 or older or whose spouse is 65 or older and whose household meets the income requirements are eligible for the exemption.
But the changes didn’t come without Ratcliff’s concern over cost and accountability. “How much do you think this is going to cost in terms of revenue that we will not receive with these limits or increase?” he asked.
“I can’t say, because we don’t know who’s going to apply,” McKenna said.
“You don’t know how many people are eligible?” Ratcliff asked.
Deputy assessor Karen Shultis, who was participating via Zoom, said that there are now 197 individuals receiving a senior exemption and 17 receiving a disability exemption. “There is a potential, if I’m using the state records that we currently have…could be about 80 more people if they all apply,” she said. “And we don’t know if they’re going to apply or not.”
McKenna said that the town can’t predict the effect it may have, because it will depend on the exemption percentage.
“They could get five percent; they could get 50 percent, or in between,” Shultis said. She told Ratcliff that she can run a report to determine the exemption amount that the 214 people are getting.
Ratcliff wanted to know if the vote on the exemptions could wait until the next meeting so numbers could be finalized. McKenna reminded him that the Town Board has had the proposed changes since November.
“But you don’t even know the numbers here yourself,” Ratcliff said.
“In my mind, it’s minuscule, and it’s worth it to help our struggling seniors who don’t have the money to pay the bills,” McKenna retorted.
“In my mind, the $2,000 that you’re pocketing in your extra salary is also minuscule,” Ratcliff said.
“This is going to be a rough year, let me say,” McKenna chuckled.
At this point, town clerk Jackie Earley urged a return to decorum. “I think the cameras should go off, because we don’t need to be playing politics at this point. Can we go on with the meeting, please?”
“I agree,” McKenna said.
Ratcliff ultimately voted in favor of the proposal for expanded senior exemptions because of the tight deadline for passage, and approval was unanimous.
Disclosure: The reporter, Nick Henderson, is the son of Edwina Henderson, who chairs the Senior Recreation Committee.