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Town of Lewiston: 2018 budget discussions underway

Sat, Oct 7th 2017 07:00 am
Town officials fault continued decline in sale tax revenues for budget problems
By Terry Duffy
Editor-in-Chief
The Town of Lewiston began the review process on its tentative $17.287 million spending plan Thursday, in discussions with Supervisor Steve Broderick, Town Board members, Finance/Budget Director Martha Blazick and town department heads.
With Lewiston forecasted to continue its tax rate, still as-yet undetermined, for town and property owners as part financing the budget, both Broderick as well as Blazick emphasized the plan, as it stands provides for adequate funding for town operations.
It does feature a 2 percent increase in salaries for town employees, but does not include funding for the Lewiston Police Department contract that remains in negotiations with the town and the police union. It covers for planned expenditures in highway, but also calls for a 30 percent increase in the water usage rate to handle a passed-down hike to localities from the Niagara County Water District.
While it provides sustained funding for the town's nonprofits at 2017 levels, in many respects the budget is also "bare bones," Blazick said.
She said the plan does cover all town operations - thanks to cooperative discussions held over past months with all town departments. But Blazick went on to say, time and time again, the town, in addition to having to contend with the continued problem of stagnant funding from declining sales tax revenues - down 53.91 percent for 2017 - is now facing the music of a decision of a past administration to eliminate the town tax rate in 2006.
Blazick said that move stripped Lewiston of its financial ability to manage department needs and address continuing infrastructure and improvements, as well as fund overall town operations without dipping into fund balances.
Instead, she said that, over those years, the town grew to overly rely on New York Power Authority funding to address its fundamental operational needs, as well as the aforementioned overuse of fund balances in various accounts for all types of spending, from highway paving to water department needs.
"When the town cut taxes earlier, it really put a crimp in its operations," Blazick said.
As a result, a number of 2018 town budget allocations, such as highway, are now at "bare bones."
"There's no frills in this," Blazick said.
Singling out highway, Blazick said that account, the $3.088 million DB highway/drainage-town outside village fund - draws much of its funding resources via the aforementioned county sales tax revenues. That funding, as noted, is down significantly and based on population. As a result, a portion of highway funding is derived from H-97 NYPA disbursements, which are part of the town's overall general fund structure and impacts other town spending considerations.
The highway budget is "extremely tight," Blazick said. She noted that, in many areas, such as finding supplemental funding for paving intended to lengthen the life of Lewiston's roads, to handling basic needs for expenses such as winter salt, the available money remains fixed, with the best options being the town pursuing outside state funding sources or grant money to cover its needs
Discussing what she called the town's five-year plan for the future, Blazick and town officials said Lewiston needs to focus on such areas as growth opportunities in population to provide for a greater share of the sales tax pie, to better get its infrastructure in order.
Moving to the town's sewer accounts, Jeff Ritter, administrator of the Lewiston Water Pollution Control Center, said that, in many respects, his department is adequately covering the bases at present. He credited a recent arrangement with Modern Disposal where the town is processing Modern's leachate, which, in turn, is helping it to fund the $2.181 million SS-1 account, and the financial benefits from the quad-community sewer use arrangement Lewiston has with neighboring communities, that has assisted in it addressing recent WPCC improvements.
"Overall, operations have improved," Ritter said of the WPCC.
However, Ritter pointed to problems with the $1.796 million SS-2 Lewiston master sewer account. He told Broderick, Blazick and attending board members Al Bax, Rob Morreale and Beth Ceretto that his budget here "is extremely tight to manage," adding that he would have to use the account's appropriated fund balance (which currently stands at $0) to address any unforeseen "hiccups."
Ritter and Blazick said, for the future, such areas as system capacity, age and overall maintenance all need to be addressed, pointing out, for example, that the town has yet to perform a complete town-wide assessment of its sewer infrastructure, and that some areas of the town have sewer piping "several decades old."
While Ritter said, "Overall we're doing good," he added that costs would continue to be a factor, and suggested that a sewer rate increase might be in order to address future needs.
Moving to water, Broderick said the town's water rates would be going up by 30 percent to address the recent passed increase from the Niagara County Water District to communities.
Broderick said that, for Lewiston property owners, the water rate would increase 30 percent, from $22.35 per 1,000 gallons to $29.06 per 1,000. He said the Niagara County Water District increased its rate 20 percent, from 75 cents to 90 cents per thousand gallons, and said Lewiston is also dealing with the added costs absorbed by combining its prior arrangement of 13 separate town water districts, and all the prior individual district costs that existed, into one townwide water district.
The Water Department "has no fund balance to speak of," Blazick said. She said the town has many related leftover factors (improvement costs from its prior arrangement of 13 separate water districts), and it needs to pass these costs down to residents.
Again pointing to her desires for a five-year plan toward improvements for Lewiston's now townwide water district, Blazick said the new rate would be adjusted as a fund balance debt under the 2018 budget in her proposal.
She explained the problem lies not with the town's recent creating a new district, per se, but that of a host of problems throughout the town - old water mains, aged piping and equipment needs throughout Lewiston has accumulated - need to be addressed now and down the road.
"Water rates have traditionally been low," Blazick said. She explained the town has been utilizing H-97 NYPA funding - but that "the need exists to fund capital programs, infrastructure and equipment costs, townwide."
"If the county is increasing its rate, it has to go up," Broderick said.
Moving to the LPD, Blazick said its funding, part of which is derived from the town's $3.173 million general/outside village B fund, is another source that is based on declining sales tax revenues.
While the B fund is good for 2018, as to sales taxes, for LPD, "We need to address the festivals, Artpark, that are taking police" resources, Blazick said.
Town officials pointed to such factors in 2017 as an overall decline in Artpark attendance, but also the impact of the growth of festivals in the village have increased overall Lewiston police costs.
LPD Chief Frank Previte told officials police costs to cover Artpark events and Lewiston's festivals amounted to $56,000, just for staffing.
Town officials suggested some type of surcharge placed on Artpark event tickets could be the answer, as well a fee structure placed on festivals. Both topics are expected to discussed with the village in the future. No actions have been taken.
Discussions continue this week on the town's 2018 plan, with Town Board members expected to meet with nonprofit interests on Thursday, Oct. 12.
The Town Board will also hold a work session at 6 p.m.

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