Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst unveiled her proposed $82.7 million budget for 2013 on Tuesday night, touting the accompanying flat tax burden and an improving fiscal condition of the town.
The spending plan, if adopted as proposed by the supervisor, calls for an approximately $2.4 million increase in spending, driven primarily by contractual salary increases for town employees and by rising health care and pension benefit costs. But forecasts of rising revenues means that the budget proposes a tax levy for town residents equal to the 2012 levy, though individual property owners’ tax bills could be affected by changing assessments.
The budget will be the subject of a series of public hearings and, most likely, amendment proposals by members of the Town Board. A final budget must be in place by November 20.
In her address to the Town Board and residents at a meeting on Tuesday evening, the supervisor said the fiscal constraints represented in the budget, her third as supervisor, will be made possible by continued consolidations within town departments, ongoing controls on staffing costs and internal spending, heightened efficiency through reorganization and technological improvements, and new policies toward spending that will cap borrowing and, thus, the town’s annual debt burdens.
Reaction from across the aisle was optimistic at first glance, with a nod to the importance of keeping spending in check.
“Spending will be at issue, without question,” said Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi. “Keeping spending in check has been the priority from my perspective over the past couple of years, and to the extent that this budget accomplishes that, it will be good. Some of the organizational changes in here were things we had discussions about, and I think that’s a good idea, and I appreciate that the supervisor was open to that.”
Mr. Nuzzi noted that he was a strident supporter of the town’s hiring freeze that has contributed to the shrinking workforce and salary burden. “People fought me on the hiring freeze, but it’s been one of the integral things that’s saved us,” he said. “Instead of having to resort to these mass layoffs like other towns, we’ve been able to rely on attrition. It’s been painful, but we’ve protected our workforce.”
The supervisor highlighted the town’s fiscal turnaround during her administration: the elimination of some $7 million in deficits, an 18-percent reduction in the town’s staffing and substantial cuts in staffing costs, and positive reflections of the town’s financial stability by national credit agencies that has allowed for savings when borrowing. She also nodded to some of the challenges the town continues to face, such as skyrocketing health care and pension benefit costs for current and former employees—which leapt by double-digit increases again in 2012, pushing up spending in nearly every town department or fund with employees.
Absorbing those increases this year was helped somewhat by the improving economic condition nationwide and revenues from mortgage taxes that have inched upward over the last two years. Town Comptroller Len Marchese noted that in addition to the increased mortgage tax revenues and building department fees as construction continues to pick up, the town also will get slightly higher amounts of state aid in 2013 and an increase in Cablevision fees.
Nonetheless, the supervisor said, keeping tax levies flat for 2013 would be a challenge. “We have, I believe, accomplished a great deal in this budget,” the supervisor said. “This budget continues the town on a steady course toward financial stability.”
Foremost in that course has been streamlining operations and staffing at Town Hall and within the town’s various departments through centralized efficiencies, consolidating departments and trimming non-essential staff, primarily through attrition and retirement incentives. On Tuesday, Ms. Throne-Holst outlined how that will continue in 2013—if not through actual staffing reductions then through improved efficiency of the staff on hand.
She spotlighted a shift that she said is hoped will have both fiscal and community benefits: the consolidation of the town’s Code Enforcement, Public Safety and Bay Constables departments under the single umbrella of the town attorney’s office, and to move the code and safety staff to offices within Town Hall so they are closer to the attorneys and other code inspectors that their operations rely on.
Among the new policies represented in the budget that will further the effort to rein in spending, the supervisor said, is a change in the way the town makes large expenditures on equipment and vehicles. Rather than allowing the purchase of such items to be lumped into capital spending, paid for with long-term bonds, the supervisor said she plans to implement a “pay as you go” policy, requiring departments to fund purchases in their regular budgets—a fiscal constraint that the Town Board has been discussing with Town Comptroller Len Marchese in recent months.