by Terry Duffy
Lewiston residents had their opportunity to sound off on the town's $15.6 million tentative 2012 budget and its quest for an override of the state's 2 percent property tax cap in two public hearings Monday night.
And sound off they did. First on the budget, which includes a $70 per year refuse fee - an increase from $15.28 last year or 357.8 percent - for all households. And then on the town's response of proposing the 2 percent property tax cap override in the form of Local Law No. 4 to address it.
At the leadoff budget hearing town Finance Director Michael Johnson explained to residents the particulars of the $15.6 million plan, one which is up roughly $1 million from last year, and one that other than the refuse fee, brings no other increase in cost to property owners. "We've have state retirement increases, workman's compensation, and two big changes," said Johnson.
Of the plan itself, as reported in last week's Sentinel it brings no taxes for property owners on the appropriations line, which includes the town's general, general/outside village, highway/drainage - town outside village, and Water Pollution Control Center funding.
Where there are tax increases are on the special districts line, which includes water department hikes due to contractual agreements, water improvement costs due to the updating of Orion meters in 2013, and the aforementioned refuse fee.
Focusing on refuse, Johnson explained that Modern had passed a $70 per household cost to the town for last year, but through the town's utilizing of an existing $90,000 fund balance account intended for recycling, it was able to avoid the increase to residents and kept Modern's rate at $35. That brought the cost to $15.28 per household, which the town was able to absorb. "Now we have depleted those funds. We had the NYPA signing bonus money, which we could use for anything, which we used for the past four years to pay down the garbage tax. That has been depleted now."
"The real increase now is $70 per household, which actually comes out to $1.34 per week," said Johnson.
He said Lewiston compares favorably to other communities such as Amherst, whose residents' costs total $300 to $400 per year. Johnson forecasted that in 2013 the town would be dealing with the Consumer Price Index when it comes to the Modern contract. "I don't know what the rate will be in 2013, so we'll have to keep an eye on that," he said.
Otherwise, he said, the town has worked hard to keep its budget and spending in check. "We met with all the department heads ... told them where we exactly have to be. We said 'give us your best shot forward, show us exactly what you need.' And they all worked very hard with us."
He said the town did realize some extra money in 2011 in the form of FEMA reimbursements from last April's windstorm as well as grant money for town operations to help with the bottom line. But he blasted New York state for what he called an unfunded mandate with the 2 percent property tax cap. "It's really affecting us because we are under contractual agreements with our vendors (Modern and others) and there's no other way around it."
Following Johnson's remarks, five residents spoke. All spoke out against the budget with its tax cap override and questioned town spending in other areas.
RoseMary Warren of Sanborn questioned a number of budget items, from confusing explanations on town funding transfers, to Parks and Recreation increases of $26,000 on equipment and personnel and contractual, to expenses over Joseph Davis Park. "I'm wondering about the $10,000 of personnel services for the Joseph Davis line," said Warren.
Terry Davis of Marywood Drive called the budget presentation "National Baloney Day."
"I've heard it all," said Davis. "There's a lot of people just trying to make ends meet, and you want to raise it 2 percent? People are trying to survive."
Creek Road Frank Selke chastised the board on Creek Road culvert repairs he had been seeking for three years and town's response of no money for the work. "The town just goes on and on spending money for useless projects," said Selke, bringing up Joseph Davis Park as an example.
"Where is the money to fix these projects?" he continued. "Other towns deal with contractuals, cutting back. ... This town should renegotiate contacts ... not put them off to the people."
"We're not going to put up with this crap," charged Selke. "There's no more money!"
Supervisor Steve Reiter and the board members heard similar unfavorable comments from residents as the budget hearing session wound up. And in the tax cap override session that followed, it continued.
But not before the board, sensing the growing dissatisfaction, went on the defensive.
"From the start I did not want to override this tax cap," said Council member Ernie Palmer. He told the crowd that state law does not provide for addressing contractual issues in a budget.
Discussion then turned to the issue of Lewiston's tax-exempt properties and their impact on special district funding. Johnson, Reiter and other board members placed the blame on escalating special district costs directly on such entities as the New York Power Authority, Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center and Niagara University. All were cited as having tax-exempt properties within the town that have major impact on special district services such as police, fire, refuse, and other services and pay absolutely no special districts tax.
Also mentioned was the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission; it also does not pay special district but pays fees in lieu of taxes.
Reiter was particularly critical of NYPA. "The Power Authority puts a big hole in our town," he said, pointing out that NYPA lands account for 50 percent of the town's total assessed value. He suggested the Town Board look at holding hearings in January to look at special district and out of district costs involving NYPA and the others. "Maybe we should look at that," said Reiter.
In the comments from residents that followed, five of six who spoke were again decidedly against the tax cap override.
Joan Davis of Marywood Drive suggested the town take a hard look at tax-exempt properties such as NYPA. And she questioned the Modern contract. "The town needs to be fiscally responsible," she said.
Residents heard the Modern pact was signed in 1995, and runs until 2040. Last year, at the request of Modern the town entered into discussions on a new contract and a fee schedule. Those however went nowhere after Modern opted to back off following sharp criticism from residents.
Selke reappeared and called Modern's increase "a slap in the face." He also charged the town is out of control on its spending and has to tailor in "duplication of services."
Swan Road resident William Kraft blasted the town on its expenses on Joseph Davis Park. "What is the point of spending $250,000 to take this on" when you don't even own it? he asked.
As the session went on, board members realizing they would not get the matter resolved that evening, elected to close the public hearing and postpone any vote on the tax cap override. The board will revisit the tax cap on Monday, Nov. 14, following its 6 p.m. work session. The board will decide on the tax cap override at 6:45 p.m. and is expected to act on the budget at 7 p.m.
A budget has to be formally adopted by the town by Nov. 20.