Board told it can’t undo botched tax rate

CHATHAM–Town residents showed up at the January 3 Town Board meeting to question why the town is raising property taxes by 14.1% this year. They also wondered why the town mistakenly calculated the rate increase at 4.8% during its budgeting process in November.

Resident Karla Kavanaugh asked why there were no “red flags” during the budget talks, with so many people reviewing the numbers, including the town assessor, town supervisor and all board members.

“All those eyes and no one could see the difference between 4 and 14?” Ms. Kavanaugh said.

Jeff Lick, a member of the town Planning Board, said the error demonstrates a “serious lack of control” in the budget process. “It doesn’t surprise me that a mistake was made,” he said. “The Town Board presents the budget in a very confusing way, across 12 pages. Meanwhile, every public corporation and non-profit has to provide their budget numbers on one page.”

Town Supervisor Jesse DeGroodt announced the math error in late December, saying the town accidentally used a larger number when calculating its tax base. The “miscommunication” between Mr. DeGroodt, who also serves as town budget officer, and Town Assessor Daniel Horst caused the percentage tax rate increase to appear about one-third smaller than reality. The mistake was that the officials included the value of property in the village when calculating the tax rate for taxpayers who live outside the village.

At the meeting, Mr. DeGroodt said unfortunately the town has no legal recourse to adjust the property tax increase. “The best we can offer at this point is that we simply have a better budget next year,” he said. “I think our assessor–who is in his first year–knows what number we are looking for now.”

Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea said he has “scoured” the real property tax law, but adjustments cannot be made because the budget is sound.

“The budget process was done correctly. The underlying line items are all what they are supposed to be,” he said. “The issue is a mathematical error in how the numbers were calculated and then communicated.”

Board member Bob Balcom (D) who, along with Maria Lull (R), voted against the budget last fall, said the overall tax levy that the majority of the board approved has not changed. “What has changed is the calculation of the tax rate,” he said.

Mr. Balcom said that this meeting was the first time the board has gathered since the snafu was discovered. “We haven’t discussed this yet,” he said, “But we will.”

Mr. DeGroodt emphasized that any town budget is “a plan” rather than spending set in stone, suggesting that the town can still look for ways to cut back in 2013. “We didn’t spend all the money when the clock turned to January 1,” he said.

But several board members said cutting back would be difficult. The extra funds are needed for two major road paving projects. “That extra $125,000 in our budget is going to hurt,” said Mr. Balcom. “If we try to take that out.”

“As far as I can see, we’ve cut things down as far as we can,” said board member Jean Rohde.

“Without layoffs,” added board member Henry Swartz. Ms. Rohde (R) and Mr. Swartz (R) voted in favor of the budget in November, along with Mr. DeGroodt.

Mr. Lick, the Planning Board member, said he thinks the Town Board needs an “outside, independent committee” to help with the annual budget process “because this is embarrassing.”

He said the town ought to have a five-year budget plan to deal with the major expenses ahead.

This week the board also took care of its annual organizational duties at the meeting, unanimously approving various committee appointments and fixing salaries for appointed officials and town employees. Top annual salaries include the Deputy Highway Superintendent at $50,632, Recreation Director at $41,587 and Zoning & Code Enforcement Officer at $35,360.

Highway Superintendent Joe Rickert announced that 16 road signs were stolen in late December, which will cost the town a “good amount of money” to replace.

“We need to ask the community to be more observant and to call the police [although not 911] if they see any signs being stolen,” Mr. Rickert said. “If you notice anything else missing, please call me or post it on our Facebook page.”

 

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