SARANAC LAKE - Village Treasurer Paul Ellis says he's prepared a list of cuts to the tentative village budget for 2013-14 that would get it under the state's property tax cap.
When it was filed earlier this month by Ellis and village Manager John Sweeney, it contained $9,382,898 in spending in its general, water and sewer funds; that's an increase of 8.3 percent, or $725,353, over the current budget. The amount of the budget's general fund to be raised by taxes was $3,685,794, an increase of 7.83 percent, or $267,760, over this year's levy.
However, Ellis told the Enterprise Friday that the village Board of Trustees has directed him to identify cuts that would bring the levy increase to the projected tax cap for the village, which works out to 3.82 percent.
Paul Ellis, Saranac Lake village treasurer
(Enterprise file photo)
"The directive I've been given by the board is we will comply with the tax cap," Ellis said. "The board has been adamant that we come to them with a plan that does that. The board has been given a list of potential cuts that would bring us within the tax cap. They could pick from that list; they could decide to not pick from that list and go for others."
A public hearing on the tentative budget will be held at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the village offices on the second floor of the Harrietstown Town Hall.
Ellis said the biggest factor driving the spending increase is rising employee benefit costs.
"Retirement and health insurance costs continue to grow at very large rates of increases," Ellis said. "Despite the village now having a high-deductible plan, our regular insurance plan experienced a 10-and-a-half percent increase. Retirement contribution rates have increased again. When I first arrived here in 2008, the village's retirement bill was about $205,000. This coming December it will be approximately $611,000."
The tentative budget includes 2 percent raises for members of the Service Employees International Union, which represents most village workers, as per a contract negotiated two years ago. Ellis said village administrators would also get 2 percent raises. The village is in mediation on a new contract with its other union, the Saranac Lake Police Benevolent Association, which represents village police officers and sergeants.
The pay for Mayor Clyde Rabideau and village board members would be unchanged next year: The mayor would get $5,000, and each of the four trustees would see $2,500.
No village employees would be laid off to bring the budget in line; however, Ellis said a police officer position currently held by Patrolman Kelly Allen, who is retiring, would be eliminated once it becomes vacant. Rabideau has talked about hiring up to two part-time police officers. If that happens this year, Ellis said the cost would be covered through savings in overtime.
A list of capital projects and acquisitions that would be funded in 2013-14 is included in the tentative budget, although Ellis said some of those requests have already been cut and others were included in the list of possible cuts he presented to the board.
Some of the projects still in the budget include $20,000 for upgrades to village sidewalks, $22,000 for engineering work on the current village sand pit, $30,000 for pre-engineering work on a fire station and $20,000 for a marketing contract with the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.
Some of the items Ellis has recommended as potential cuts include $60,000 to repair the roof on the village mechanic's garage, $33,000 on engineering for new athletic fields at the former village landfill (which Ellis said could be covered by a state grant the village and town of North Elba received) and $5,000 to study returning the village beach to Lake Flower. Also, $10,000 had been set aside for the village to host a "signature" summer event in July, but that's now on the list of possible cuts.
The tentative budget shows water and sewer rates would also increase next year by 10.15 percent each, which reflects a $162,396 increase in the water budget and a $206,960 increase in the sewer budget. Ellis said he's trying to bring those increases down to just under 9 percent.
The increases in the water fund were attributed to a loss of revenue due to the ongoing change from flat-rate to metered billing.
The village also plans to do water transmission and distribution projects on Broadway, upper Main Street and Brandy Brook Avenue. It's working with the state to add $750,000 to its existing water project financing to pay for that work, which would add another $25,000 to the village's bond payments for next year.
The sewer fund increase is also tied to the switchover to metered billing, because the village's sewer bills are linked to the flow rates on property owners' water meters, Ellis said. He said the sewer budget also includes $20,000 for an engineer to study the possibility of treating the sludge at the village wastewater treatment plant so it can be used as compost or pelletized fuel, and the possibility of using methane gas to heat or power the facility.
If the tentative budget is adopted as is, which isn't likely, residents of all three towns in the village - Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand - would see the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property value increase from $11.10 to $12. That means the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $90 more in village taxes. The owner of a $200,000 home would pay $180 more.
Ellis said if the board cuts the budget down to the tax levy limit of 3.82 percent, the tax rate would be $11.56 per $1,000. The owner of a $100,000 home would pay $46 more in village taxes, and the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $92 more.
Ellis said he thinks the board can get the budget in under the cap "without causing too much long-term impact.
"I'm very happy with this budget, but I do think there's going to be tighter and tighter constraints on future budgets," Ellis said. "The tools that myself and other business managers have across the state, we're running out of them because of the tax cap, health insurance costs, retirement costs. Throw on top of that the need for infrastructure improvements across the state and the country. We need to be more proactive in setting more funds to the side to handle some of these projects in the future so we don't have to go out and borrow all the time."
The village board has already held at least two budget work sessions. Ellis said it will likely hold more before it adopts the budget, which has to be done by May 1.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.