The North Castle Town Board compromised on a 2014 town budget last week that lowered the tax increase to just over 1 percent but not before nearly three hours of acrimonious debate.
Residents packed the town hall meeting room on Dec. 11, some to protest a suddenly revised budget submitted by Supervisor Howard Arden earlier that day which cut $640,000 in spending and would have given residents a .5 percent tax decrease. Five positions, that were originally part of the budget but had been unfilled in recent years–two parks grounds workers, two highway department employees and a senior recreation leader–were cut in Arden’s modified budget.
The supervisor, who called the revised spending plan “a unique and historic budget” for offering residents a tax decrease for the first time in memory, had proposed inserting $50,000 for seasonal employees to help the recreation and highway departments cope with the workload.
By the end of the evening, after lengthy and at times heated discussion, the board agreed by a 4-1 margin to restore $364,000, including three of the five positions–the recreation leader and one position each in highway and recreation. Councilwoman Diane DiDonato-Roth was the dissenting vote.
Arden had sought to save another $21,000 by cutting the four council members’ salaries, which was also restored. The hiring of two new police officers, which was approved during the same meeting, was not affected.
The board opted to use $360,000 toward road repaving in addition to $140,000 in state money. The town will save $401,000 in next year’s refuse and recycling contract.
Residents will now see a tax increase of 1.02 percent in next year’s $29.5 million budget. The previous budget would have hiked taxes 2.98 percent. The change lowers the tax increase to $30 for the owner of the average house in town assessed at $862,000.
“I think it’s a fair compromise,” said Councilman and Supervisor-elect Michael Schiliro. “I thought the original budget was good and adequate. We’re trying to find some common ground here. Howard’s made a proposal to make some of these cuts as you guys did. We’ve gone through this several times. We’ve listened to the people.”
In between the town board debate, several residents and two department heads urged officials to make restorations. Some residents argued that maintaining the cuts would jeopardize the quality of services delivered while the department heads said their staff would be unable to adequately provide the expected services.
Highway Department General Foreman Jamie Norris said in 1984, the department had 22 employees responsible for 80 miles of road. Today, there are 18 workers covering 94 miles of town road. Recreation Supervisor Matt Trainor said that as of Dec. 4 the recreation department had already taken in $900,552 for 2014 programs.
“The programs are growing,” Trainor said. “They’re getting bigger. More people are participating. We are trying to do more with the department and we need the help.”
Early on during last week’s meeting, Town Administrator Joan Goldberg said she was surprised by the abrupt cuts. She also said the changes wouldn’t help the highway department get out in front of a snowstorm or improve playground equipment that has been deemed as a Class A hazard.
Goldberg also suggested that an accident earlier this year where a highway department worker was injured when he was pinned between two pieces of heavy equipment could have been avoided with extra manpower.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t part of the process to cut the budget,” Goldberg said. “Our departments aren’t properly staffed. We cannot keep up with the workload in the parks department and in highway.”
Arden and Councilman John Cronin took strong exception to some of Goldberg’s statements. Cronin said seasonal hires would adequately staff the two departments but that the head of human resources, who was hired by Goldberg, failed to find enough people to fill the slots.
“I’m disappointed that you’re making these comments and where was the letter that was written about the unfortunate incident with the highway staffer?” Cronin said. “I’ve never seen that. I don’t know where it is.”
Arden explained that seasonal workers would save the town the cost of escalating benefits packages that come with hiring full-timers. A full-time worker’s benefits costs the town tens of thousands of dollars with sometimes as much as a 20-year commitment, an expense that has hurt municipalities nationwide.
“So having a little flexibility in the way these jobs get done makes a huge difference to the bottom line of the town,” Arden said.
However, Goldberg said municipalities aren’t permitted to keep seasonal workers on board for more than four months at a time. Councilman Stephen D’Angelo added that with the rebounding economy the pool of part-time help is shrinking because more people are looking for fulltime work.
Resident and former planning board chairman Bob Greene said the late changes were so significant that there needed to be more time for greater public review.
“When I looked at this (budget) I thought am I living in Detroit or am I living in North Castle?” Greene said. “I get it that efficiency is a good thing and that’s what we look toward our town board do to but there’s a concept of being penny-wise and pound foolish.”
Not all speakers were against what Arden and the outgoing majority proposed. Resident Sara Doto was one of a few who applauded their attempt to alleviate a bit of the tax burden.
“I think that shows us how much this board cares about the fact that they care about our tax dollars that we work very hard for,” Doto said.
Arden said he was surprised that people complained about a tax cut, adding that there was “no question” all of the town’s staffing needs would be met. He said he would have been happy to have received this budget upon entering office.
“I don’t think it was an austere budget before but we’re hearing from some folks they feel they need some additional bodies,” Arden said.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/