"We're getting down to a point where it's starting to get a little scary."
So summarized Town of Lewiston Budget Director Mike Johnson to Supervisor Steve Reiter, attending Lewiston board members and visitors, as discussions continued Thursday on the town's very preliminary $14.4 million spending plan for 2011.
Johnson revealed the town, like countless other municipalities, has found itself increasingly cash-strapped. "Everyone thinks the town is loaded; we're not."
He informed that Lewiston in 2010 has been confronted with such issues as lower than expected revenue, higher retirement costs, higher health insurance costs, the need for equipment replacements in departments such as Highway, flat rates on interest bearing accounts, and lower than expected sales taxes, among others.
While Lewiston residents have enjoyed the luxury of no town tax or highway tax over the years, and the town does carry fund balances, the latest factors have begun to put a strain on town finances and budgeting. As a result, the town is now looking to cut back on spending and becoming more innovative as it strives to avoid any discussion of taxes.
Noting one concern, Johnson said that hazardous waste gross receipts tax money paid from Waste Management's CWM Chemical Services operation in Porter is down significantly, as CWM's business volume has declined. Johnson reported that the town had budgeted $312,000 in anticipated CWM gross receipts for 2010. Thus far, based on CWM's business activity, that total is $109,000, and the town is forced to make up the balance.
Another concern is retirement cost, which has gone up $100,000. "It's a sign of the times," said Johnson. "And we still don't know where we're at on sales taxes."
As a result, Johnson said all department heads have been instructed to cut back spending by 4.5 percent and other measures are being explored as the town tries to avoid imposing a town tax and a highway tax on residents.
"We have to think about replacing," commented Town Highway Superintendent Doug Janese as budget discussions moved to highway needs. He and Reiter reported that such high-ticket items as tandem trucks have been not been replaced on a timely schedule over the years by past administrations as they should have. As a result, the highway fleet, while consistently maintained over the years, has nonetheless aged, with many of its current vehicles dating from the 1990s and '80s, and even one truck from the late '60s.
"It's time to consider replacement," said Janese. He reported, however, the department finds itself cash strapped by a limited spending line on equipment, which he called "too low." Reiter agreed, pointing out a tandem truck used for snowplowing could cost the town as much as $175,000 to replace.
Councilman Ron Winkley said some financing options do exist for such purchases, and mentioned New York Power Authority funding could be one. The town receives $850,000 per year from NYPA for capital improvement as part of its settlement package from the Power Project relicensing agreement. He suggested that using portions of this funding could be one way to offset highway expenses. Matching grant funding pursued by town grant writer Bernie Rotella could be another way.
To this and other budget concerns, Johnson said he continues to explore options. Among these is a proposal to restore funding allocations for 21 organizations presenting budget requests for 2011 back to 2009 levels. Reiter also mentioned that Modern Corp. has agreed to hold the line on the garbage tax fee of $35 per household (which the town has been absorbing via the Modern fund balance); and that the village indicated it would possibly assist with $36,000 in funding towards the Lewiston Police Department's estimated $1.2 million budget.
"We're not in disaster mode yet," said Johnson. But "we're down to where we have to start making some decisions here; we're not done yet."
He closed by saying the town "is looking at any avenue it can to alleviate a tax."
Budget discussions are expected to continue over coming weeks, and the town is expected to have a public hearing on this year's plan on Nov. 4. The budget needs to be adopted by Nov. 19.