Chatham village adopts budget with 4.6% tax hike

CHATHAM–After two previous versions were modified following heavy criticism from the public, the village board passed a $1,263,840 budget for 2010-11 at an emergency meeting Monday afternoon, May 17.

The budget contains a 4.7% increase in the tax rate to $5.97 per $1,000 of assessed value, or a hike of about 27 cents. Spending from the general fund will increase by 2%.

The Village Board originally proposed a budget with a 12% increase at a special budget hearing Tuesday May 11. That meeting drew a large crowd by village standards, with residents and business people expressing concern and dismay at the size of the increase, all of which led to a postponement of a vote on the budget and a promise by Mayor Paul Boehme that the board would look at ways to shave more from the proposed spending plan.

On Thursday May 13 the board met again for the regular monthly meeting and planned to adopt a revised budget proposal with an 8.6% increase in the tax levy. But an even larger crowd attended that meeting, and once again people voiced frustration with the lack of cuts in the budget and the proposed tax increases to accommodate high retirement and benefit costs for village employees mandated by the state.

“I cannot afford to absorb a small increase,” said one audience member at the May 13 meeting, referring to the way the board had described the proposed 8.6% growth in the tax rate. Another Chatham resident at the meeting said that she received a very small pay increase in her salary and worried her family would not be able to afford living in the village. “I don’t think we are going to make it,” she said.

One budget line that drew a lot of people’s attention was the village police force. One resident at Thursday’s meeting described the size of the village police force  as “inordinate” compared to the size of the village. The village has four full-time officers but hires many part-time officers. The budget for the department is over $350,000, more than a third of all expenditures from the general fund.

The board also claimed Tuesday that the village paid the cost for extra village police coverage during the Columbia County Fair. But at the Thursday night meeting village resident Jim Simmons said he spoke to representatives of the Agricultural Society, which runs the fair, and was told that the village is reimbursed by the society for the village police hours during the fair. At the special budget meeting on Monday board members acknowledged they were wrong about what they said on Tuesday, saying the village did receive about $3,800 from the fair to pay for part-time police.

“We made a mistake,” said Mr. Boehme, who added that the reimbursement had only started “in the last few years.”

The $3,800 for extra police is included in the 2010-11 budget.

After the May 13 meeting the mayor said they would go back a look for further cuts. “We’re going to get it down if we can,” he said on Thursday.

The village fiscal year begins June 1, and the village budget is supposed to be in place by May 1. On Monday, May 10, Village Clerk Carol Simmons said she had called the New York State Conference of Mayors and was told “you have to have a budget.” Trustee Lael Locke said she talked to an attorney at the state Department of State, who said if the village did not have a budget in place the state would force the board to usedthe initial budget proposal with the 12% increase.

Asked what the board cut to bring the budget increase down, the mayor said Monday that board members “cut down general expenses.” They also moved money from the water budget to the general fund. No major staffing cuts were made in the departments. Ms. Simmons said later in the week that the general fund appropriations had remained the same after the first round of changes but that the board had moved the $27,000 rental fee received from AT&T for antennas on a village tower from the water budget to the general fund. That revenue allowed the board to reduce the tax rate from 8.6% to 4.6%.

On Monday the board voted quickly to adopt the budget and then opened up the floor for discussion to the standing-room-only crowd. The mayor said that though the budget was passed the board will continue to look for ways to cut spending.

The village is getting help from village resident Michael Richardson, a labor relations consultant who works for towns and villages around the state. He offered the village his services for $1.

Several people in the crowd renewed their call for cuts to the police budget, but board members resisted, saying cuts that could affect public safety could not be made hastily. But the trustees said that the Police Department would be included in future efforts to find savings.

“We have a whole year to look at the police department,” said trustee George Grant, “If there are savings to be realized, they will be passed on to the taxpayers.”

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email .

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