SENECA FALLS — After a two-hour work session Wednesday on the 2020 town budget, Town Board members added and subtracted dollars from the tentative budget.
The net result of the changes for taxpayers is negligible. The general fund tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value will go from $8.71 to $8.76, but the highway tax rate will drop from $1.31 to $1.29.
Also, after an executive session, they voted 4-1 to place Information Technology Director Marshall Foster on a paid leave of absence until Dec. 31. An interim IT person will be sought to serve until the end of the year while the town explores a possible shared service arrangement for IT services with Seneca County for 2020.
Supervisor Greg Lazzaro opposed the move. The board also reduced the allocation for education, training and equipment, such as a data storage piece of hardware, from $27,000 to $12,000.
Town Senior Account Clerk Bev Warfel began the session by saying the community center has a cash flow problem that will likely require an “influx” of revenue in the first quarter of 2020. She also said the highway department budget could be in a deficit situation in January “or at least be cash poor,” suggesting that budget could also use added revenue.
Board member Doug Avery came with a list of “points of discussion” to generate conversation. They included the IT reduction and proposing a model contract between the town and outside agencies that receive town money to assure that the community receives a benefit or service for the money.
“We can’t give a ‘no-strings’ donation. There has to be some return,” Avery said. The board agreed to use the contract for all outside agency funding requests.
With supervisor-elect Mike Ferrara actively participating, the board made these changes to the tentative budget:
• With the contract of Town Attorney David Foster expiring Dec. 31, the board has decided not to re-appoint him but issue a request for proposals from law firms or individual lawyers to provide legal services on a part time basis. That will save money.
• Defeated a proposal from Lazzaro to use fourth quarter of 2019 revenue from Seneca Meadows Landfill, estimated to be $1 million, to help reduce the tax levy and tax rates. There was a second, but after debate, a majority remained committed to using the landfill revenue for infrastructure upgrades.
• Reduced the allocation for the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum from $25,000 to $20,000.
• Kept the allocation for the Seneca Falls Visitors Center at $100,000 to help pay for heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades and flooring repairs. The center board had asked for $179,000.
• Allocated $15,000 to the Seneca Falls Historical Society, down from the $25,000 requested.
• Agreed to give $3,000 to the Ludovico Sculpture Trail, despite the fact that the trail board has litigation pending against the town over an eminent domain issue.
“I see no one is proposing program cuts or cuts in the court or police or using attrition to reduce staff. There are tough calls that need to be made. The department heads are not looking out for the town. They just want more and more,” Lazzaro said. “In five years, we’ll lose landfill money. I think the people should be allowed to have a referendum on whether to have a town police department.”
He also suggested a hiring freeze, focusing on infrastructure needs, budgeting some to front the money required for the state’s recent award of a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant and budgeting some for the Visitors Center upkeep. Lazzaro said property owners do not like paying $8 to $9 tax rates.
“We are lower than other communities around us. The landfill revenue makes taxes artificially lower. If we use landfill revenue to lower taxes, we’ll have to ask people to pay for infrastructure in the future,” Avery said.
“We should do more with less,” Lazzaro replied, citing paying $18,000 to $20,000 for town court security.
“I think people get good services for their taxes, which are comparable,” said board member David DeLelys.
Water and Sewer Superintendent Joe Tullo and Police Chief Stu Peenstra both objected to Lazzaro’s comment about department heads not caring about the town. Both said they have been diligent in budget preparation and there is no fat in their budgets.
“We care about the budget and the community,” Peenstra said.
“All I’m saying is nothing ever comes down and taxes go up. Programs are growing too fast,” Lazzaro said.