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A leaner ledger

Tax hike drops in latest Woodstock budget

by George Pattison
October 14, 2010 12:17 PM | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cathy Magarelli
Cathy Magarelli
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After scouring a preliminary 2011 town budget that would have raised property taxes by a quarter to a third over their current level, the Woodstock Town Board on October 12 released a modified plan, known as a tentative budget, that calls for a 10.76 percent townwide tax increase, reflecting a $500,000 cut in proposed spending from the general fund and a lesser reduction in appropriations for the highway fund.

The board achieved the half-million-dollar savings mainly by deleting three general-fund appropriations from the preliminary budget, which Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran unveiled on September 21: a transfer of $200,000, from the general fund to a capital fund, for a renovation of Town Hall; a bond payment of nearly $116,000 for the Town Hall project; and $86,000 for the development of a Comprehensive Plan. The remaining savings of approximately $100,000 came from a variety of sources, said Moran.

As a result of the spending cuts, the amount of revenue to be raised for the general fund through the townwide tax levy is currently $3,426,897, down from $3,953,921 in the preliminary budget. The overall 2011 budget, and the attendant tax levy, may be trimmed further before a final spending plan is approved in time to meet a November 20 state deadline. Between now and November 9, the date for a public hearing on the budget, Town Board members will continue to scrutinize the tentative ledger for additional savings. The board expects to adopt a final budget at its November 16 meeting.

In general, said Moran, the budget is a product of “shrinking or flat revenues and substantial increases in unfunded (state) mandates,” particularly town contributions to employee retirement benefits. “I think we’ve been pretty good about controlling our own costs, but not so good about controlling New York State-mandated costs,” he observed wryly.

Council members are considering a reduction in the number of hours worked by selected town employees as one option for potential savings in the final budget. “I think we all agree that the only place we can cut is the hours worked by employees. You can’t cut taxes and maintain services,” said Moran at the October 12 meeting, before the board tabled a resolution that would have stipulated daily hours for employees in various departments. In an interview after the meeting, the supervisor said that the board was not currently contemplating employee layoffs as a cost-saving measure.

The townwide levy, which is imposed on all taxpayers, funds the four major spending lines — the general fund, highway fund, fire district, and library district — in the nine-line municipal budget. The tentative budget calls for $1,502,629 to be raised through taxes for the highway fund, reflecting a decrease of about $27,000 from the corresponding amount in the preliminary budget. In September voters approved a library budget that carries a 3.4 percent tax increase. The fire district budget, which is subject neither to voter approval nor Town Board modification, will increase its taxes by approximately 2.3 percent.

The budget’s five other spending lines are special taxation districts — water, hamlet sewer, on-site sewer, Woodstock lighting, and garden lights — whose services are funded through taxes paid only by the residents and businesses that receive them. The biggest such districts, in terms of appropriations and the size of the accompanying tax levy, are the hamlet sewer district ($222,635 to be raised through taxes, toward expenditures of $435,985) and the water district ($111,766 and $281,616, respectively).

Moran announced that taxation for the on-site sewer district, and possibly the hamlet sewer district, would decrease from the 2010 level, as a result of the retirement of bond payments. Water district taxes are scheduled to increase, however, in order to cover bonding for system improvements including the redevelopment of wells, a hydrogeology study, and the testing and likely replacement of some of the town’s fire hydrants.

(In a related matter, councilman Jay Wenk noted that a contractor’s bill for recent repair work on the town’s most productive well, in the amount of about $16,000, exceeded the approximately $12,000 payment that the board had authorized for the job. Accordingly, councilwoman Cathy Magarelli, who chairs the board’s infrastructure subcommittee, will review the terms of the original resolution before the town approves full payment to the contractor, Layne Christensen Company.)

Noting that copies of the voluminous tentative budget had become available only hours before the meeting, Moran was unable to provide details of the water and sewer budgets in response to questions from attendees, including former town supervisors John Mower and John LaValle. Several questions focused on the town’s method of basing debt-service charges to water district customers on the assessed value of their property rather than their actual use of water. Apart from debt service assessments, all customers pay a $15 base charge for quarterly meter readings and a user rate of 31 cents per 100 gallons.

Under the current method of assessment for debt service, said the questioners, two customers with the same assessed property value but disparate levels of water consumption — for example, a restaurant that used a lot of water and an ordinary homeowner who used relatively little — would pay at the same rate, imposing an unfair burden on the homeowner.

In response, the Town Board acknowledged the potential inequity and agreed to review the water and sewer district budgets further, instead of voting on resolutions that called for their adoption at the meeting. Although public hearings on the district budgets were closed, members of the public may comment on any aspect of the town budget, including the water and sewer district spending plans, at the November 9 meeting.

Meanwhile, LaValle, who served as town supervisor from 1980 to 1987, and Mower, who held that office from 1992 to 1995, exchanged views with the incumbent supervisor on the efficacy of the hamlet sewer system, which Moran said “works, but not well,” noting that heavy rainfalls compromise the operation of the 25-year-old system and adding that Woodstock ships its septage to Saugerties for disposal.

Mower maintained that the system is perfectly functional, operating at a capacity of less than 100,000 gallons per day except during heavy rain. LaValle observed that the system has a predicted life span of 40 years, operating at a maximum capacity of 240,000 gallons per day. If heavy rains appear to cause infiltration and disruption of the system, he said, the town should analyze available data and address the problem.

RUPCO supporters

At a time when the Town Board is weighing the eligibility of the Woodstock Commons affordable housing development for connection to the municipal water and sewer systems, discussion at the meeting turned to the systems’ ability to accommodate the projected needs of the 53-unit project, whose developer is the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO).

In the public comment period at the outset of the meeting, LaValle and residents Susan Goldman and Martin Feinberg spoke in favor of the housing project, maintaining its eligibility to receive town water and sewer services had been established during the Planning Board’s environmental review and should not be revisited by the Town Board. Feinberg characterized the Town Board’s consideration of the matter as a redundant and expensive delaying tactic. A local joke, he said, captures the essence of the opposition to the project: “The Woodstock Times costs a dollar instead of 75 cents because no one in Woodstock wants change.”

One prominent opponent of the project, Iris York, defended the Town Board’s authority to deliberate on the matter. “This is the time to address water and sewer (service) for Woodstock Commons,” she said. “It didn’t come up earlier because the Planning Board took at face value (RUPCO’s claim) that Woodstock Commons is in the districts.”

Another longstanding opponent, Robin Segal, attempted to present to the board a copy of an anonymous letter to the county district attorney, in which the writer alleged a conflict of interest on the part of Paul Shultis Jr., chairman of the Planning Board. Moran declined to accept the letter, stating that the Town Board does not consider anonymous correspondence. [Note: A report on this subject will appear in an upcoming issue of Woodstock Times.] The supervisor added that the Town Board hopes to act expeditiously on the RUPCO matter, after consulting with the town attorney and reviewing an engineering study of the capacity of the water ands sewer systems.

Other items on the meeting’s agenda included the following.

Time Warner franchise agreement. The board voted unanimously to authorize the supervisor to sign a new agreement with the town’s cable services provider. The agreement has three key provisions. First, Time Warner will complete a six-mile extension of service to parts of three town roads — Mink Hollow, Hutchin Hill, and Upper Byrdcliffe — which have lacked service because they have fewer than the legal minimum of 25 households per mile. The company had previously extended service to areas of Silver Hollow and MacDaniel Roads. Second, Time Warner will connect subscribers to the system’s education channel (Channel 20), which broadcasts from a studio at Onteora High School, within a couple of weeks after the agreement is signed. Third, the company will furnish the local public access TV station with up to three new modulators, which are expected to improve the sound quality of broadcasts from the Community Center, Town Hall, and the town offices on Comeau Drive.

Harry Castiglione. Those attending the meeting observed a moment of silence in memory of longtime Woodstock resident, former Democratic county elections commissioner, professional musician, and indefatigable community volunteer Harry Castiglione, who died on October 8, at age 78. “He was a great Woodstocker, who gave a lot to the town,” said Moran.

Woodstock Environmental Commission recommendation. The board adopted three resolutions related to a WEC recommendation to prohibit trapping on a parcel of land within the town’s borders that was acquired by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). As a result of the WEC’s action, which followed a public hearing in August, hunting, fishing, and hiking on the parcel are allowed only with a permit. Moran and Magarelli reported that members of sportsmen’s organizations who are also officials of grant-funding agencies “expressed dismay” at the town’s ban on trapping and intimated that it could adversely affect future funding of town projects. In the meantime, however, the town has secured nearly all of the approximately $150,000 in grants required to fund the Habitat Mapping Project, a townwide biodiversity study to be conducted by the ecology research institute Hudsonia Ltd. The institute plans to begin work on the project in 2011.

Bridge replacement. The board voted unanimously to proceed with the installation of a temporary structure while it plans the permanent replacement of the VanHoagland Bridge, for which the board has allocated $569,500 from the town’s highway repair reserve fund. The resolution at the October 12 meeting authorized a lease and advance payment for the temporary bridge in an amount not to exceed $25,000.

Town Hall event. The board waived the usual fees and insurance requirement, while setting conditions, for an October 18 presentation at Town Hall by local business owner Neal Smoller, who will discuss Medicare, Part B.

Zena event. A chicken barbecue and bake sale will take place at the Zena firehouse from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 13. Call 679-3770, or e-mail wfdzena@gmail.com, for more information. ++

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