Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart started his town's budget process on Monday with presentationof his tentative budget for 2013. He offered three key questions at the town council meeting.
1. How much and where can we cut our budget and services without seriously undermining the quality of life and value of property in Orangetown?
2. How much fund balance can we afford to use in each of the next few years to reduce our deficit and still have enough in reserve for purposes of cash flow, emergency and maintaining a good credit rating?
3. What current expenses -- such as rising pension costs, replacing police cars and re-paving roads -- can we reasonably put off to future years with the expectation that better economic times will enable the town, in the future, to pay the costs of deferred maintenance and debt payments on top of normal operations?
The answer is a proposed budget that includes the use of $1.5 million in unreserved fund balance, the delay in hiring replacements for retiring police officers and some road re-paving projects as well as the closure of Broadacres Golf Course and still includes a 9.19% tax increase.
"After years of austerity, there is very little fat in the town budget," Stewart said. "Serious savings cannot be achieved without reducing services and cutting staff through attrition and layoffs. This budget reduced spending on 200 out of 500 budget lines, enough cuts to compensate for the rising cost of labor, and it targets some of our biggest departments -- highway, police and parks -- for increased austerity."
Stewart said the proposed tax increase is likely lower than those expected in Haverstraw or Ramapo, but higher than Clarkstown.
"Just so everybody can understand why Clarkstown comes in low, they sold the Solid Waste Authority in West Nyack for about $20 million. They have been wisely using that as a tax stabilization fund."
Clarkstown also charged its school districts one percent for tax collection, the highest amount allowed by the state. Orangetown also started charging its school districts for tax collection in 2012, but at one-eighth of a percent.
The possible closure of Broadacres has been a point of controversy since Stewart first suggested it in May. The town council ultimately decided to continue funding the course for the rest of 2012, but seems likely to go along with cutting the funding for 2013. Stewart's proposal would move full-time employees from Broadacres to Blue Hill Golf Course or elsewhere in the Parks Department while laying off part-timers.
The savings would be relatively small in 2013 due to unemployment insurance costs, but increase greatly in 2014. The golf course consistently lost money, as much as $311,000 in 2011, though the numbers are better due to the weather and adverting efforts in 2012.
"It looks like Broadacres is going to have to close unless there is some miracle," Councilman Tom Diviny said. "I think everyone on the board is clear with that. I question why close it and move positions to Blue Hill. We have to cut those people. That's where the savings is."
Councilman Tom Morr asked Stewart to look into ways to make the course profitable before making the decision to cut it and the idea of trying to find a private company to take over the course is also being considered.
"When you make major decisions, you don't put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard without some kind of (research). I haven't seen it," Morr said.
"To answer how it might be salvaged, it requires a different kind of research and knowledge of the golf world and it is something people have been trying to turn around for many years," Stewart said.
Council members also questioned the projection of 25 percent of golfers currently using Broadacres moving to Blue Hill, in part because most of the desirable tee times are already spoken for at Blue Hill.
Among other notable items in the tentative budget:
- The purchase of new police cars would be delayed
- The hiring of replacements for retiring police officers would be put off, with a projection of the number of officers dropping as low as 76 from the current 81.
- Hiring of additional dispatchers for the Orangetown Police Department, allowing current officers to spend more time on patrol.
- Delay re-paving projects by the Highway Department.
- Cut Highway Department overtime during leaf pick-up season, which Stewart acknowledged could lead to some not being collected before it snows.
- Moving the Supervisor's administrative assistant so her pay is split with shared services and increasing the appointed executive assistant position from part time to full time so that the person can focus on economic development. Diviny is just one member of the board who previously opposed this idea.
- Amortize some pension costs, but not all, for 2013 and 2014, saving money for those years but leaving the town with long-term payments.
The full text of the proposed budget and a summary written by Stewart are attached to this report.
The proposal includes the use of $1.5 in unreserved fund balance and another $1.5 in department funds in 2013. According Orangetown Supervisor of Fiscal Services Ann Maestri, the town would use $3 million in reserves both in 2013 and 2014, but it would not be able to use any beyond that. Maestri has taken the point on the budget process since Director of Finance Charlie Richardson left for another job earlier this month.
"We are projecting no fund balance usage in 2014," Maestri said.
Stewart's letter also outlines financial issue the town cannot control, such as rising pension and health care costs, declining sales and mortgage taxes, salary increases tied to the new Orangetown Police contract and costs being shifted from Rockland County to the towns.
Stewart said he expects this budget to be just a first step and asked the other members of the town council for more feedback when they have had more time to look through it.
"The town board is officially encouraged and welcomed into reviewing, breaking out the red pens and pencils, dissecting and commenting," Stewart said. "We are working toward Oct. 23, when we have a draft (of the 2013 budget) due and hopefully Nov. 7, when we would approve a final budget."
The Orangetown Council would still have to vote whether to allow itself to exceed the state-mandated tax levy cap, which is a two percent increase with exceptions. The state's final deadline for town budgets is Nov. 20.
Stewart will be available to discuss the 2013 budget and other matters at a joint office hours with Patch Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Pearl River Public Library.