How low can we go?

CHATHAM — Village officials offered taxpayers a chance to hear the bad news and debate what to do about it at a Village Board gathering last week billed as a “sustainability workshop.” What the board hopes to sustain is the solvency of the village.

Two village citizens who serve as the village Budget and Finance Committee, Michael Richardson and Jeffrey Novick, have analyzed the budget and revenue figures and concluded that the village faces a $70,000 deficit by the end of the current fiscal year next spring. They said the shortfall could be even larger, up to $120,000 or more, if the village attempts to replenish its depleted cash reserves.

The village is not the only municipality in the county grappling with a large budget shortfall. Copake faces a $100,000 cost to replace fuel tanks and also has unbudgeted employee healthcare expenses.

During the course of the evening workshop in Chatham held Thursday, July 28 in the large, second-floor courtroom, Mr. Richardson said that if the board did not begin to address the problem soon there would be no way to close the gap near the end of the year.

Mr. Richardson and Mr. Novick, who were appointed by Mayor Tom Curran shortly after Mr. Curran took office this spring, said the village finds itself in the current financial pickle because revenues, particularly the village share of the countywide sales tax, may be less than anticipated. Mr. Richards also said that spending this year is similar to last year, but last year the village balanced its books with $40,000 from “unappropriated” funds and included $30,000 in revenue from a tax on utilities that was never imposed. The decision last fiscal year to use so much of the village rainy day funds has left Chatham with only $17,000 this year to fill the budget gap and pay for emergencies.

The board has already increased garbage pick-up fees and cut some items from the Police Department budget, but the hole in the budget still looms large, with the village unable to ignore the problem. “We are not allowed by the state to have a deficit,” said Mayor Curran.

With the chairs in the room arranged in a roughly circular pattern to encourage discussion among the more than 20 people who attended, the mayor opened the forum to suggestions for resolving the dilemma. Village Trustee Lael Locke said as much as 38% of the property in the village is tax exempt, and she and others wondered whether some of the non-profit entities that own these properties could be persuaded to contribute to the village.

Mr. Richardson said it might be possible for the village to sell some of its land, but long-time Trustee George Grant said, “The real sellable lot we had was sold.” The village may have other land suitable for commercial or residential development, but that would provide only one-time relief for the village and any money from the sale of public land would not be available for this year.

The discussion eventually turned to one of the most contentious local issues, the cost of the Police Department. Funds for police comprise more than a quarter of the annual $1.2-million budget, not counting water and sewer, and while some taxpayers want the department to continue operating as it does, others believe deep cuts and the elimination of the department must be considered.

CSEA union representative Tim Vallee, a Town of Chatham resident, said he was concerned by talk of job cuts. “You have to maintain the services you have,” he said, going on to characterize the discussion about reducing the size of the village work force as “a well-staged conversation” that made it seem as if the budget had been adopted with board members knowing they would have to make cuts later.

When the board voted to pass the budget in the spring members did discuss the prospect that further cuts might be necessary, and at the workshop session last Thursday village resident Brin Quell called Mr. Vallee’s remark “outrageous.” She said the village budget debate had been public.

Ms. Quell proposed establishing Neighborhood Watch programs as one way to make up for having fewer police.

Resident Monty Schmitt suggested “outsourcing” some village services.

Mr. Richards said that Chatham, like Valatie, could get rid of its village court and have the town justices handle the case load. But he said that it would take the village a year to complete the referendum needed to make the change.

The village boundaries include parts of Towns of Ghent and Chatham, and the mayor said the village has asked both towns what they would charge to plow snow from village roads.

Overall, he said, “We don’t really have a plan yet” to determine how the village can reduce spending, but he said he does expect to have a better idea of whether the village can cut costs through consolidating services “by the end of the year.” 

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