By Terry Duffy
"This is still not balancing. I am very concerned. Everybody needs to be put on the alert."
So warned Town of Lewiston Finance Officer Martha Blazick Monday to Town Board members and outgoing Supervisor Dennis Brochey of Lewiston's troubled $15.764 million 2016 budget.
Despite more than a month of reviews with board members and town department heads and readjusting the numbers, Blazick bluntly stated Lewiston's budget remains very far from settled. She said the budget remains at least $450,000 to as much as $600,000 shy of balancing. And Blazick warned that, unless Lewiston is able to come up with some significant moves, either by means of cutting costs or coming up with more revenue from other sources, the town could very well be looking at overriding the state's 2 percent tax cap on municipalities to make ends meet for 2016.
"We need to figure out where we are going to cut money," Blazick said, with her focus on the town's H-97 fund (infrastructure spending, contractuals, highway expenses). "You can't be taking out more than the current (town property) assessment, which is $850,000 ...of the $1,268,986 H-97 fund total. ...
"As of right now ... you need to cut as a bare minimum, $450,000."
Arriving at that figure, Blazick went on to explain the H-97 situation. "As we put this budget together, H-97 (is developed from) the transfer of funds from other budgets to balance this. All of those dollar amounts added together are $1.268 (million). ... What the H-fund is normally used for is to cover debt, highway infrastructure and other things of that nature."
Blazick said monies gleaned from the town's SS3 account (Lewiston south sewer, special districts) and Highway Department accounts will help, but added, "That still leaves $450,000 out of the A-fund (A general, town) that really needs to be cut down. ... "I really don't know" where to start.
"If it were me, I would cut all your contractuals, as well as your nonprofits by 10 percent," Blazick suggested.
"It's a little bit late in the game to be discussing this; we should have done this a little while ago," Town Councilman Ron Winkley said.
"When I initially presented this, I was concerned that (the shortfalls) were there. ... We were not really looking at it," Blazick responded. "I said from day one the budget needs to be cut; we need to find ways to save money. I was hoping in these discussions that we would find things that would come out that we would cut back. That really hasn't happened at all."
She went on to suggest the town seek an additional 10 percent cut in spending from all its departments, as well as the aforementioned 10 percent funding cut to nonprofits. In the lengthy discussion that followed, board members were not at all receptive to the idea.
"I guess we've come to realize that the 10 percent ... there's no where we can cut," Councilman Al Bax said. "The problem is the fact that there is not sufficient revenues to support the budget of the town. That is why we are looking at this unfortunate path for more revenues (the town tax)."
"It's a reality that past several boards have tried to avoid; we're at the point where we can't deny it," he added.
Blazick responded, "The problem is a town tax is not going to fix it."
Commenting on the town's budget situation, Bax said, "We've always been (wanting to find) that pot of gold; it's never materialized. Our revenues at the same time ... have gone down."
Blazick put the blame squarely on the town's complete lack of adequate budget preparation in the past, stating, "Over the past two years, the department heads have not been involved in the budget discussions at all."
"We need to start talking about next year's budget come January," Bax responded.
"I don't know what you need to do (to correct this) ... there is no panacea," Blazick said. "As we've been going through this process, I was hoping that we would be cutting things back, adding revenues ... but it's still not balancing."
Winkley suggested town salaries (the board earlier approved a raise for Town Clerk Donna Garfinkel to $60,972) would have to remain as is. He then told Blazick her request to add a junior account would likely not happen.
"I'm very concerned," Blazick said.
"Well, we just found out that we're in worse shape than we thought," Brochey said.
"No, we're exactly where I thought we were," Blazick responded. She added she was hopeful "things would just fall out; they're not."
Of Blazick's suggesting a 10 percent cut to nonprofits, Winkley said, "You can't do that ... you have to maintain your government."
Blazick agreed. "It's late in the year; it's the start of their year. ... I have maintained very strongly that it's not fair to them, to cut them at the last second. But everybody needs to be put on the alert that this is an interim (situation) and they need to look for alternative funding.
"But ... for the 2016 budget, we need to make a decision how we are going to meet it, or are we going to swallow it and use up what's in that reserve."
Blazick told the board the town has roughly $1 million to $1.5 million in its reserve, adding, "that's not a lot."
"If we use up what's in that reserve, it's not there (for town projects such as) Lauren Court, for your other problems that come up. That's the problem with using that," she said.
And saying individual departments cutting 10 percent still "would not be enough," she reiterated, "It's not going to make this budget balance."
"I think it's come down to services and paying for those services," Bax said. "It's the reality we've faced for a long, long time. Paying them out of different sources, now those sources have run dry. We've got to deal with it now.
"We have to do the right thing, we have to realize that ... my experience with the residents of the Town of Lewiston, we have always enjoyed a high level of service, and they demand that. (Now) we have to make the decisions. ... We need to be aggressive on our budgeting in the following years."
Blazick agreed and faulted past town administrations for the current situation.
"We need to have detailed budgets ... (unlike past years)," she said.
Noting Lewiston, with its proposed .004 tax rate, is at its limit for staying within the 2 percent tax cap, Bax said, "The problem we face is a budget that doesn't reflect reality."
He continued, "The reality is the economy of Lewiston is changing. The municipal economy of Lewiston is changing. We've been dependent for decades on tipping fees. It's not that way anymore. ... We have to accept the reality of the future, which is we're going to (have to) get by like a lot of other municipalities, which is ... living hand to mouth ... .
"But we're going to have to deliver the same services that residents require. I'm just not sure we are able ... to figure it out in this next six-week period. We're going to have to be dipping into reserves for some time and we're going to (have to) hit it hard running for next year's budget.
"I don't think it's fair or realistic to ask everybody to cut 10 percent at this late date," Bax said, adding, "the town's department heads don't have it in their ability to do that."
The matter was left with Blazick instructed to meet with town department heads this week and come up with a way to achieve 3 percent cuts in spending across the board.
"If we are able to save, we should," Bax said. "Otherwise it's going to end up with higher taxes, layoffs."
He said any compromise on their part "would be a step in the right direction."
But Bax reiterated the town has to deal with reality. "It's got to be on the revenue side, because expenses are going to go up. Whether we like it or not. It's just a reality," he said.
Blazick told the board that, at present, "The only thing you have to manipulate numbers in any way is on the sales tax (side), to cover things (like highway in the H-97, which has debt service). ... But that's a borrowing from Peter to pay Paul situation. It's not going to resolve the overall situation. (Sales tax) is the only thing you can change in any way, shape or form."
Blazick said she'd meet with department heads to see where additional cuts, if any, could be made and then prepare the final budget plan accordingly. "I'll see what I'm able to do," she told board members as discussions closed.
The Town Board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, to review the latest numbers. Lewiston's budget needs to be adopted and presented to the state by Friday, Nov. 20.