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Wheatfield budget reflects financial catch-up

by jmaloni
Thu, Oct 7th 2010 11:00 am
by Susan Mikula Campbell

A new general tax for 2011 likely will be added to a continuation of this year's highway tax and cuts in services as Wheatfield Supervisor Robert Cliffe continues his quest to put town finances in order.

The Town Board now will begin going over the tentative $11.2 million budget submitted by Cliffe last week, and there still could be changes ahead. Residents will be able to have their say on the results of the board's work at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3.

Under Cliffe's tentative budget, the proposed total real property tax levy for 2011 will be $4,622,684, (compared with $4,205,045 for 2010). The new tax for the general fund totals $414,652.

The total 2011 town tax for the average homeowner living in a home assessed at $125,000 will increase $58.99, or 9.58 percent, to a total of $674.89 (compared to $615.90 for 2010). That figure includes general fund, highway fund, sewer fund, fire protection district and garbage district.

"I am very proud of the work put in on this budget, but it's not a feel-good budget," Cliffe said. "It was simply unrealistic not to put a tax someplace in there."

After Cliffe took over as town supervisor in January, he appointed Edward Mongold as budget director. Mongold reported back that the town's finances were left in disarray by the previous administration and, as months passed, the serious deficit left from previous years was confirmed by reports from both the town's independent auditor and the state auditor.

"My primary concern was to make this budget a realistic budget ... and address the recovery of the deficit, not to eliminate it, but to reduce it," Mongold said.

The tentative 2011 budget of $11.2 million is up 9.93 percent from the $10.97 million 2010 budget.

Most of the budget increase comes from three areas: a $200,000 reduction in the amount listed for sales tax revenues (consistently overestimated in the past three years); an additional $85,000, required by contract, to the town's five fire companies; and $125,000 to reduce deficits in four of the town's six main budget categories.

Budget appropriations (costs for running the town) are up by $246,035, primarily due to wage increases for town employees and related fringe benefits, an increase in the amount of the town's contribution to fire companies and additional interest on outstanding debt.

The tentative budget includes a number of cuts.

Proposed cuts include eliminating $65,000 for library services at the North Tonawanda and Sanborn libraries, $5,000 to the Niagara Community Action Program, $5,000 to the Niagara Military Affairs Council, $5,000 to celebrations and $125,000 to staff reductions.

The 3.5 staff reductions would include not replacing a position left vacant this year or an upcoming retiree, as well as layoffs.

Cliffe said he was not happy with the cuts.

For instance, the North Tonawanda Library had asked for an increase this year and a contract for additional years to help in its planning.

"I feel badly about not being able to help out. A lot of Wheatfield people go there," he said. He also pointed out that NIMAC was instrumental in saving the air base. However, with the kind of fiscal problems the town is facing, Cliffe said he didn't feel it was appropriate to include the programs in his budget.

Also, the tentative budget continues cuts made in the 2010 budget, including $25,000 for mosquito control, $18,000 for television coverage of board meetings and $11,000 for Fourth of July fireworks.

Cliffe said that the board, if it wishes, could restore programs or make cuts to reduce the tax levy or further reduce the deficit as it goes over the budget.

There is little room for more cuts. Councilman Larry Helwig led the board in cutting former supervisor Tim Demler's budget for 2010 last fall, eliminating any fat, Cliffe said. "There's no where else to go."

The town could lay off more people to the point that the Highway Department would only be able to cut grass and let the recreation program go fallow, Cliffe said, "but that's not what we need in Wheatfield."

With budgeting $125,000 towards the town's deficit, it will take about four years to bring the town to fiscal health. However, some additional funds may be available at the end of the year. It's too difficult to estimate at this time how much that would be, Cliffe said, but department heads have already been asked to cut back wherever possible and not spend all of their funds included in the 2010 budget. He's asking that they continue that practice next year.

He pointed out that enough money has to be budgeted for each department to cover unforeseen emergencies - "that doesn't mean we have to spend it all."

"I am confident that, with the efforts of the board and the public working together, over time we will resolve the financial condition of the town," Cliffe concluded.

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