SARANAC LAKE - The town of Harrietstown board voted unanimously Thursday to adopt a 2013 budget that will increase the town's tax levy by less then 1 percent.
The decision followed a 30-minute public hearing during which some town residents questioned the town's use of fund balance to keep its tax levy increase in check and raised concerns about the operating deficit of the town-owned Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear.
The $4.6 million budget carries a 9 percent, or $384,520, increase in spending over this year's budget. The amount of the budget to be raised by taxes is $1,982,403, an increase of 0.7 percent, or $13,393.
Tax rates for town residents inside the village will be roughly same as this year, $1.27 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Outside the village, the rate will increase 3 cents from $2.57 to $2.60 per $1,000.
Town Budget Officer Mike Kilroy outlined these and other details of budget at the start of Thursday's public hearing. Kilroy said the only thing about the budget that "can be tricky" is use of fund balance, basically unspent money from prior years, to keep the tax levy down. Kilroy used $273,500 in fund balance to offset this year's tax levy, which he said was a "conservative" amount that includes $140,000 from the general fund and $90,000 from the airport's fund balance.
"The most important thing to come out of this is, this is is just a budget," Kilroy said. "You know the phrase, 'Things happen.' It happens here, too. If anything, I go high on expenditures. That's the way I work. I'd rather have a nice surprise at the end."
Town resident Rich Shapiro, a volunteer and donor for Democratic supervisor candidate Tom Catillaz, said he was concerned about how much fund balance was being used to keep the tax levy in check.
"Since the total tax levy is just under 2 million, this raiding of the piggy bank is keeping the tax increase artificially low by about 13.1 percent this year," Shapiro said. "The question I have is, how much longer can we keep fudging the budget by using fund balance before it runs out?"
Kilroy countered that he's never let the fund balance in the town's general fund dip below $300,000 in the 20-plus years he's been the town budget officer. He said he only appropriates about half of that each year to offset the tax levy increase.
"It hasn't run out," Kilroy said. "You have to use fund balance to keep your tax rates level. Anybody that works in government should know that. You have to roll over fund balance."
But Shapiro didn't relent. He said Kilroy wasn't crafting a "legitimate budget" and was "fudging numbers on the high side.
"You know the tricks," Shapiro said.
"That's not an appropriate remark," Councilman Ron Keough fired back.
Earlier, Shapiro raised other questions about the budget. He asked if it was appropriate for some board members to receive town health insurance that costs more than their salaries, referring to Keough and Deputy Supervisor Barry DeFuria. He also questioned why one councilman, Bob Bevilacqua, is getting a $1,200 payment to not take town health insurance.
DeFuria said next year the town will consider doing away with health insurance for board members starting with the seats that are up for election in 2014. He said they didn't want to make that decision until they have a full board. The town supervisor's seat has been vacant since Larry Miller resigned in the spring.
Shapiro had also questioned why the town isn't making a bigger profit on its fuel sales at the airport, noting the 2013 budget shows a 21 percent increase in sales but only a 7 percent increase in profit. Airport Manager Corey Hurwitch said that's because the price of fuel is higher.
Town resident Jon Vinograd called the airport a "failing business" and a burden to Harrietstown taxpayers. He said its costs need to be distributed to the other municipalities and counties that benefit from the facility, and asked if the town plans to hold another regional meeting on the airport.
"I don't know if I can answer that," DeFuria said. "We had that last meeting, and it's just kind of - I don't want to say it's fallen apart, but with the four of us sitting here trying to get things done, we're still working on stuff. I'm not going to say it's not going to happen, but everybody seems to be a little busy."
Hurwitch argued that the airport, like a road, is a piece of infrastructure that brings people to the community. He said several of the community's large employers, like Paul Smith's College and Trudeau Institute, have spoken out in support of the airport.
"I like the idea of explaining it as infrastructure, but I know I need a road more importantly than I need an airport," Vinograd responded. "The board needs to move forward on this because by not moving forward, you're leaving us with the carrying cost, and that cannot go on indefinitely."
Catillaz was in the audience for the public hearing but didn't speak. He's running against Bevilacqua, a Republican, in the Nov. 6 election. The two are scheduled to debate at 7 p.m. Monday in the town hall auditorium in Saranac Lake.
Later during its regular meeting, the board added an additional $5,500 to the budget, including $4,000 for recreation programs and $1,500 for a screen for the town hall auditorium, before voting unanimously to approve the 2013 spending plan.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.