6.3% tax hike seen in tentative Rhinebeck budget

Rhinebeck Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia has delivered a tentative, “first draft” budget for 2015 that includes a possible 6.3 percent increase in the tax levy.

The budget indicates appropriations of $4,071,388, which would be a 2 percent, or $87,883, increase in spending. Total property taxes to be collected are proposed at $2,626,617, a $155,674 increase, or 6.3 percent, which would exceed the state-mandated 1.56 percent tax cap.

The tentative totals translate to a tax increase of $6 for a village property assessed at $300,000, according to Spinzia. In the town, the tax increase for a $300,000 assessed property would be $30.

The budget also uses roughly $220,000 from fund balances, an amount Spinzia said is lower than the $500,000-plus drawdowns of previous years. She told the Observer that fund balances can only be spent at the current rate for another four to five years before they are completely used up.

Councilman Bruce Washburn told the Observer that he agrees with the approach of using surpluses from “chronically over-funded” areas of the budget. However, he added, he is against busting the tax cap.

“I hope that the town board will make every effort to bring taxes in under the cap while maintaining adequate fund balances,” he said.

In a written statement presented with the budget to the town board Oct. 1, Spinzia explained that her goal was to “apply sound budgeting principles… while avoiding further decay in our infrastructure and reliance of funds balances.”

The budget projects a decline in non-property tax revenues of roughly the same amount as the spending increase, largely due to lower mortgage taxes, court fines and burial fees.

A 2 percent salary increase for almost all full-time employees and a 5 percent one for part-time employees are included, but elected officials will not get raises in 2015.

The biggest expenditure increases are for the highway department, up $100,650; general government support, up $45,009; and the Rhinebeck fire protection district, up $29,842. The latter reflects the new contract for fire protection services negotiated with the village over the summer.

Spending was trimmed in other areas of the budget, including playgrounds, youth programs, I.T., and maintenance.

Spinzia briefed the board on the potential for big spending hikes at a contentious Sept. 23 meeting.

At that meeting, she focused on two main areas of expenditures—the highway department and town funding for the Thompson-Mazzarella Park development, which is on hold until the town decides on its financial commitment to the project.

At Spinzia’s request, Sally Mazzarella was present at the meeting to discuss the park budget. She explained that the rec park committee had secured roughly $800,000 in funding from other sources but was looking for an additional $140,000 from the town.

Spinzia did not include appropriations for the project in her budget, because it is a capital expense, not a regular budget item. However, she told the board Sept. 23 that she supports using unspent fund balances to pay for the park.

Board members Joseph Gelb and Allan Scherr challenged Spinzia and Mazzarella on the issue, questioning the use of town funds and the soundness of the rec park committee’s cost estimates for the entire project. The disagreement appeared to come down to differing opinions on what level of support past town boards had agreed to for the park.

“This is really a complete reversal of what we’ve been told for years. I certainly never thought that we’d be dipping into part-town funds for this project,” Gelb said, referring to a specific fund within the budget.

“It was our understanding that certain dollars were available,” Mazzarella replied.

“I’m not questioning the value of the park, but we’ve got a lot of competing needs,” said Gelb, noting that additional highway department expenses could be a factor.

“I refuse to duke it out with Sally,” countered Highway Supervisor Kathy Kinsella.

Kinsella told the board that the highway department would need at least $215,000 for necessary road repairs in 2015, up from $75,000 in 2014, which she noted was unusually low.

While Spinzia stressed the importance of avoiding what she called a “do it later approach” to infrastructure spending on Sept. 23, the budget includes only $120,000 for road improvements. Aside from this year, that would be the lowest expenditure for road improvements since 2006.

“I don’t think anybody here is dead set against spending money,” said Scherr at the Sept. 23 meeting. “We just want to be prudent.” He referenced the board’s 4-to-1 decision the previous evening to reject a bid on replacing the town hall’s damaged front steps. At $20,000, the bid the town board voted against was roughly twice the expected amount.

Spinzia was the sole vote in favor of accepting the bid, and she criticized the others for voting against it. “I hope those of you who voted it down have a plan immediately,” she said, adding that the town was on the verge of receiving a code violation for the disrepair of the steps from its own building inspector.

The board was expected to meet for initial public budget workshops Oct. 6 and 7 and further workshops are expected. A public hearing is planned for early November and the final budget must be approved by Nov. 20.

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