Supervisor Steve Reiter and the Lewiston Town Board envisioned Thursday's public hearing at Town Hall to be focused solely on the 2011 $14.5 million budget proposal, one that carries the potential of a new town tax plus a garbage fee for property owners.
However, it didn't exactly go as planned. The Modern landfill proposal controversy returned almost as soon as public comments opened and went on to dominate much of the more than two-hour session.
Finance Director Michael Johnson opened with a look at the numbers. "It's a work in motion, continually, still now," said Johnson. He told the crowd he's been contending with revenue shortfalls coupled with increased costs as the town's budget planning process edged along.
Chief among the shortfalls was CWM Chemical Services, whose gross receipts to the town thus far total $210,000 versus the $312,000 projected, which has resulted in the town having to make up the difference this year and plan accordingly for 2011. On top of that, Lewiston, like many other communities has seen lower than expected sales tax receipts, resulting in lower revenues.
And then there's increased costs -- employee health care up 15 percent; workmen's compensation up $50,000 to $152,000 for 2011; drainage department expenses to contend with; monies owed to the village in fire company service awards expenses due to past non-billing; maintenance costs; capital improvements; plus now the prospect of having to address garbage fees.
Johnson said that despite departments already having trimmed their budgets by 4.5 percent, the town continues to face the prospect of a town tax on property owners for the first time in years. "This has been an ongoing process. We definitely would like to have no town tax."
Johnson said the town is now considering a tax of 25 cents per thousand of assessed valuation for 2011. For the owner of a property assessed at $100,000, the cost would be $25. On top of that, the town is eying a $15.28 per household refuse fee. The plan does not call for any highway tax to cover the proposed $2.145 million in highway funding for 2011.
Reiter told the crowd that fund balances had been depleted, that monies created through earlier windfalls were gone and that town coffers have gotten down to bare bones. "There's no unnecessary expenses," said Reiter. He and Johnson also repeatedly told the crowd that no money from the latest Modern proposal is factored into the budget.
"Am I happy I'm going to slap a 25-cent tax on you? No, I'm not," said Reiter.
"Am I going to do it? I don't know yet."
Public comments led off with criticisms on the budget. Paulette Glasgow blasted Reiter, the board and the town for its poor fiscal management and not addressing reality. RoseMary Warren chided the board, saying it cannot do "creative accounting;" longtime Town of Lewiston Democratic Committee Chairwoman Diane Roberts criticized personnel costs and adding of positions; Paul Bencal told the board they had "to get real;" and Mountain View Drive resident Nannette Woozak threw out a number of criticisms, from overspending, to its shortsightedness on new revenue, to its lack of control on finances. "Who is in charge? Do we have a clue here?" she asked.
Those criticisms went on to fuel residents' anger on what became the dominant topic of the session: Modern. Despite Reiter repeatedly advising the crowd that the session was intended to address the budget and that their remarks on Modern were not relevant, a total of 22 went on to speak over the course of nearly two hours. Sixteen of them were decidedly negative toward Modern.
"I am very disturbed at what I'm hearing," Kumble said. "I don't think this makes sense." He told the board if the town has to settle for having the Modern landfill, "We should be getting a lot more for it."
As comments wound up, Reiter and the board announced that no decision on Modern would be forthcoming that night, as many had feared. Fully aware of the negativity, many in fact sounded sympathetic towards the residents and their concerns. Councilman Al Bax said his and other members' phones "having been ringing off the hook" with complaints from residents about the proposal. Further, all conveyed they had their own reservations on the proposal.
Councilman Ernie Palmer said the board continues to work with new environmental attorney Damon Morey and "much remains to be done."
"Personally I'm not satisfied at all with the Modern proposal," said Palmer. He told the crowd there's "deficiencies from the original agreement that need to be discussed."
"We all have different opinions here; we're all one vote," said Bax.
"We doing our best here; our opinions are changing every day," said Councilman Mike Marra.
Councilman Ron Winkley said he's removed himself completely from all negotiations and that he would be abstaining on any Modern vote, due to the fact that his wife works for Modern.
And Reiter and Johnson again stressed that no Modern revenue whatsoever was even being considered in the 2011 budget. "The town is looking very diligently to target other resources for revenue. We are looking at revenue. We are not looking at Modern," said Johnson.
As far those having questions on the budget, he invited residents to come in and discuss "what is really there."