Niagara Gazette

November 7, 2013

Lewiston officials hope reserves will stave off townwide tax as budget work continues

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The Lewiston Town Board is one step closer to approving its 2014 budget.

Following its mandatory public hearing Thursday, the board announced it will hold a follow-up work session on the spending plan at 3 p.m. Tuesday, where the budget will likely be finalized for adoption.

"The employees all got a 3 percent increase in their wages," finance director Michael Johnson said. "The insurance is up, the state retirement system's up. With the exception of the council and the supervisor's salary, everyone was at a 3 percent raise."

As it stands currently, the plan calls for the town to spend about $17.2 million total next year, with $11.4 million of that figure dedicated to the town's four major funds, which are the general fund, the town outside the village, the highway and drainage departments and the water pollution control center.

Paying for these expenses, though, will require the town pulling more and more money from its savings accounts, as revenues are not projected to meet expenses in three of the four major spending categories.

The townwide budget, or "A" fund, is expected to use $200,000 from its reserves to cover a $3.4 million expense. The area outside the village will see $378,000 spent in savings to supplement its $3.3 million budget. The highway fund similarly wouldn't cover its $2.7 million in expenses, though it's much closer, only using $68,000 in reserves.

Only the water pollution center's budget line balances expected revenues with expenses.

The idea, Johnson said, is to avoid charging a townwide tax, which the board has strived to avoid despite Johnson occasionally saying in public the last three years — since the state implemented its property tax cap law — the town may need to consider it despite its unpopularity.

Instead, this time, he said the town needs to consider "new" revenues.

"This is as trim as we can get on this budget," he said. "And I would be very, very concerned for (2015, 2016 and 2017) because we've been fighting for no townwide tax for all this time. But the fund balances are dwindling down and we keep using them to try to offset a tax, so it's time for the board to sit down and try to find some new revenues."

Much of the budget's increase comes from circumstances beyond the town's control, Johnson said. Increasing almost $1 million from 2013 is the payments the town owes both the state and police retirement systems.

There's also an additional $100,000 set aside for worker's compensation, which is organized by the county.

"I've been working real close with the county on that to see who's on it, who's not on it, whether some people have been taken off that and hopefully, we're in a pool there, we talked about possibly trying to do something different," Johnson said. "But there's no way you can get that rate if we tried to do it on our own."

Though there's no townwide tax, there are areas of the town where residents are being charged. Special districts for water and sewers and fire protection have been set up and are widely funded by tax dollars. If the current plan is adopted, about $2.5 million would be raised in taxes to cover various activities, from fire fighting to garbage collection.

Much of the discussion from the public during the comment period focused on the status of the the town's legal fight against the proposed expansion of Chemical Waste Management. The town promised the creation of an environmental protection fund and "at least half" of the annually budgeted outside lawyer counsel amount as its dollar figure.

Several members of Residents for Responsible Government advocated the board to follow up on its promise while also pushing the three members in attendance — along with Deputy Supervisor Gary Catlin, who was sitting in for absent Supervisor Steve Reiter — to follow up with Niagara County and supplying an additional $32,000 for the payment of both lawyer Gary Abraham and a team of scientists dedicated to supporting the arguments against the expansion.

But attention wasn't entirely positive for the fight the town and county have pledged together. A pair of comments questioned the town's involvement in the matter. Ronald Craft, a village resident, said he's unsure of the lawyer expense, having no knowledge of Abraham's track record.

"When you start putting my money, I'd like to know where it goes, who's using it, who's taking it and what his batting average is," he said. "I don't know anything about the lawyer ... what's his batting average? Has he won any cases against CWM or any waste storage facilities? If I'm going to hire a lawyer, I'm going to make sure I know his batting average."

Other comments of the night focused on the town's continued involvement in Joseph Davis State Park. Paulette Glasgow questioned the town allocating more than $700,000 toward various needs at the park, which the town operates due to a contractual obligation.

But she had concerns the town could find better use of some of the money, especially a sharp increase in one of the dedicated budget lines.

"I understand we're contractually bound to maintain the state park," she send of one budgeted $225,000 expense for the park. "But someone needs to define the word 'maintain,' what it actually means. I would hope we have a more reasonable figure ... to decrease that figure by about $40,000."



Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.