Town raises budget by 2 percent

T wo weeks after approving a preliminary budget that called for a minimal tax increase, the town council made a number of adjustments last week to its 2013 fiscal plan that will push the tax rate much closer to the state-mandated 2 percent cap.

The current budget, including the adjustments made last Wednesday, is now projected to increase taxes by 1.99 percent. The preliminary budget had called for a tax rate increase of only .12 percent.

The increase is driven largely by a $25,000 adjustment to the townwide highway fund. The money will be used to purchase a new tandem truck. Officials chose to include the money in the 2013 budget because of new environmental standards that will go into affect next year and will increase the cost of a new truck. By purchasing the truck now, officials will avoid the new regulations and save money.

Officials also made a number of additional salary adjustments, totaling $4,379. The planning board was given nearly $1,369 in raises, ranging from 2.3 percent for code the enforcement officer to 43 percent for chair of the board and 54 percent for members.  Each of the town justices were given a $500 (8.58 percent) bump in pay; the recreation center leader was given a $1,000 raise (8.3 percent), the registrar a $360 raise (257.14 percent), and the employee charged with maintenance of the parks was given an additional $650 (14.28 percent).

The salary increases are in addition to a 2 percent raise given to the town clerk and budget officer, and a 3 percent raise given to the town highway superintendent.

The town also gave $5,000 to the Whitehall First Response after its president, Brian Brooks, asked for an allotment of $10,000 for the unit.

The unit didn’t receive any funding in the preliminary budget but did receive $3,500 this year. That money had been included in the 2012 budget and was intended for the Skenesborough First Response Unit but had been reallocated last November to the Whitehall First Response Team when it became apparent that Skenesborough would dissolve. The company also asked for an additional $1,500 to help establish the new unit, but never received it.

Brooks’ request sparked a bit of a firestorm after he said departments in other communities, such as Fort Edward, receive three times the funding Whitehall does.

In response, councilwoman Stephanie Safka asked what the populations of those communities were, implying that those towns are larger and thus the tax burden is spread out among more people.

Brooks said it didn’t matter because each “firefighter needs the same level of protection.” He said it costs $2,100 to outfit a single firefighter and didn’t think members should have to spent time fundraising when they spend much of their free time training and responding to calls.

“We forfeited $20,000 a year and now you are nickel and diming us,” Brooks said referring to the fire company’s decision to allow the town to move into the former Skenesborough Firehouse for no charge. “The fire company has bent over backwards to help this town move.”

Supervisor George Armstrong responded by saying the town’s agreement to pay $20,000 per year was nullified the moment Skenesborough dissolved and the village agreed to allow the town to move into the building.

“We only have so much money to spread around,” Armstrong said.

Although the council members agreed to give the first responders $5,000, it represents only a $1,500 increase from it received last year.

The revised budget includes $1,032,610 in expenses and $168,809 in revenues. The town will buy down the tax levy by using $32,400 from its unexpended balance, meaning the amount to be raised by taxes is $809,645.

The tax rate is projected to increase from $5.41 per thousand of assessed value to $5.52 per thousand, meaning residents can expected to pay $552 on a property assessed for $100,000, an increase of $11.

Prior to Wednesday’s public hearing on the budget, the town council passed a local law to override the 2 percent tax cap. Officials hope to keep the final tax increase below 2 percent but decided to pass the override law in case of unexpected expenses or increases in pension and medical benefits.

“We don’t want to use but it’s just in case we have to,” said Armstrong.

The law was approved by a four to one margin, with Councilman Richard LaChapelle voting against.

“If we are here (below the 2 percent cap), we should stay here. I don’t want to override the cap,” he said.

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