by Terry Duffy
"Expenses have gone up, but there's still no town tax," stated Lewiston Finance Director Michael Johnson as a public hearing to consider override of the state's 2 percent tax cap got under way Monday at Town Hall.
The Town of Lewiston's 2013 budget has occupied much discussion over past weeks with Supervisor Steve Reiter, the Town Board and department heads since an initial budget figure of $17.937 million was released in late September. The first version marked a $2.390 million increase over the 2012 town budget of $15.547 million.
That number has since been trimmed and a number of adjustments and substitutions made to manage expenses. As a result, "The town is able to maintain within the 2 percent tax cap," said Johnson. He quickly added though that the town needs to consider other expenses, noting such factors as its dealing with bargaining units, and said that the town is nonetheless pursuing the avenues toward an override to provide it "flexibility."
"The budget in front of you is not going to be over the 2 percent tax cap," said Johnson, "but if you don't have some flexibility in there and (it) falls apart in December, you're not going to have a cushion to fall back on."
At Monday's session Johnson revealed a 2013 preliminary budget of $16.585 million - $10.806 million on the "Appropriations" line and fully funded via estimated revenues and the appropriated fund balance with zero raised by taxes; and $5.778 million in "Special Districts," with funding coming from $2.9 million in estimated revues, $340,609 from the appropriated fund balance and $2.4 million raised by taxes.
The budget is one that holds the line with no town tax, but also one that provides for highway department expenses such as paving without the added cost to taxpayers. Johnson explained the town would be able to accomplish this through its ability to obtain bonding at low interest rates. "We reverted to considering a bond to pay it off (highway expenses)," he said. Johnson explained the revised budget is based on Lewiston being able to obtain a low-interest $1.2 million bond to cover paving and other highway expenses over the coming year. He anticipated a favorable rate of 2 to 2.5 percent would enable Lewiston to secure bonding for highway and remain within the cap. Without it, the $1.2 million in highway related expenses would go on the tax bill.
For years, Lewiston, unlike other communities, has been able to avoid imposing a town tax on its residents. Regarding the 2 percent cap, Reiter, Johnson and board members faulted the state for not factoring in such major impacts to town expenses as contracts, salaries, workmen's compensation, retirement and health insurance costs. For 2013, the town has four different fire company contracts to consider, plus contracts for the Lewiston Police Department, the highway department and water department. Next year it has CSEA and outside sewer contracts to address.
On top of that, the town is handling a 3 percent cost of living increase for town employees, not including elected officials; a workmen's compensation increase of $350,000, costs for health insurance, described by Johnson as "getting pretty pricey," and unspecified retirement costs.
Reiter, who expressed his appreciation to Johnson and his staff for fine-tuning, overall sounded upbeat on the latest package. "I think this budget is pretty strong. We've been able to cut, but still we have a surplus."
Prior to the session, Johnson, Reiter and board members discussed a number of town financial issues in a lengthy mid-afternoon meeting with the press. Some highlights:
•The 2013 Modern refuse cost for Lewiston residents will increase to $70 per household, or $1.53 per week, up from the current $35 per household. Following years of no refuse costs whatsoever to households, then followed by modest charges, the refuse fee for 2013 is still regarded as favorable to Lewiston, compared to that charged in other communities, Reiter said. The new fee is reflected in the budget as $325,290 to be raised by taxes.
•Reiter disclosed the town would fully cover the Lewiston Police Department's $1.3 million contract should the Village of Lewiston elect to discontinue its 23 percent or $294,500 annual share to the town.
"We feel that we've protected the police department to the extent that, if the village decides to go with the sheriff's department, we could maintain the police department without their budget," said Reiter.
"Would it be easy? Absolutely not. Could it be a severe problem? Absolutely. Do we think the village is going to work with us on this? I hope so, but that's their call."
Reiter and the Lewiston Town Board will meet with Mayor Terry Collesano and the Village Board of Trustees Monday, Oct. 29. The police contract and water issues will be discussed.
•The town is exploring a move to natural gas to power all town vehicles. Reiter noted that Modern this past year went to natural gas power for much of its refuse and recycling fleet - at considerable savings. He and board members discussed scenarios where Lewiston could obtain funding via the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, National Fuel and other grant sources to cover setup costs; where the town would possibly team with Modern and utilize its existing equipment and National Fuel transmission lines on Model City Road; and how additional grants could enable town purchasing of new gas-powered vehicles for police, highway, etc.
•Reiter and Town Councilman Ernie Palmer discussed at length how the town is continuing to make progress on its financial problems stemming from its low-cost power sale disparities of the past with National Grid, by embarking on a new association with an energy service company, ESCO Company, whose purpose is to help communities such as Lewiston better achieve energy savings.
"The town had an agreement with National Grid that led to the town reimbursing its residents," said Palmer. "Over the years the discount, due to the market, disappeared. This board decided to create an ESCO, which is a co-op company."
"The market didn't (do) us a favor," said Palmer, pointing out that National Grid envisioned Lewiston's low-cost power selling on the market for 6.5 cents, when it actually sold for 3.2 cents.
Palmer and Reiter disclosed that in 2010 Lewiston's deficit to National Grid stood at $1.2 million from the failed low-cost power market sale program that saw the town continuing to furnish power discounts to residents despite declines in market sales. Through its workings since 2010 with ESCO, the town has been able to whittle that deficit down to $57,000 as of last August, is expecting an $80,000 transfer soon to get itself out of the deficit, and sees itself on the road to building its revenue base from the power sales once again.
"We will be able to pay off National Grid, start our own escrow account," said Reiter. "We will then look at other alternatives on what we will do with our money. We will be out of the hole with National Grid and have extra revenue."
During the public hearing, a handful of residents spoke on the town's 2 percent tax cap override consideration - all opposed. Board members moved to keep the 2 percent override public hearing segment open, with a vote to be taken at the town's budget public hearing, announced last Monday to take place on Thursday, Nov. 1, at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.
More on the Lewiston Town Board in next week's Sentinel.