Depending on how you look at it, Yorktown’s preliminary 2013 budget, adopted last week, either raises or lowers a homeowner’s property taxes.
It also increases spending, even as it reduces the overall town tax levy, funds four years’ worth of police pay raises and lifts a three-year freeze on the salaries of department heads and elected officials. Still a work in progress, the $51.5 million preliminary budget will have a public hearing in two weeks, Dec. 5.
Supervisor Michael Grace presented his fiscal vision for next year, called the tentative 2013 budget, to the town board in a 5 p.m. work session. The document that emerged reflected compromises and concessions hammered out over more than two hours of contentious, sometimes heated review.
The basic town tax rate, funding such essential services as police, roads and library, was set to rise to 7.72 percent going into the review; instead, it came out pared to a 4.18 percent hike, despite a small rise in spending.
That basic rate supports only the “big three” of Yorktown’s budgetary compartments: the general, highway and library funds. A welter of special-use districts, financing such things as parks and open-space acquisition, directly affect the size of a homeowner’s tax bill.
As a result, Grace said, despite the hike in their basic rate, most Yorktown homeowners will see their 2013 property tax rate go down, not up. The town garbage-pickup district, for example, serves all Yorktown homes, though not businesses. It realized a one-time $800,000 savings by switching carters last month, which will cut every household’s refuse-collection bill by 13.4 percent.
Leveraging other changes, up and down, in the town utilities’ tax bite, Grace said, a homeowner receiving water and sewer service would see an overall 2.5 percent cut in the rate next year. Even residents outside the water/sewer-district boundaries would enjoy a tax-rate reduction, albeit less than quarter of a point.
Yorktown’s 28 special-use districts, while clearly providing some relief in the budget process, also figured in early controversy as the board took up Grace’s proposed 2013 spending plan.
Historically, each use district had been asked to chip in a small percentage of its total budget to defray the expense of providing administrative, staffing and other support. For years, that contribution had been fixed, with little more than a shrug, at 5 percent. Grace contends that ignored the reality of ever-growing costs. He proposed an increase to 7 percent, sparking a showdown with Councilman Nick Bianco, who called the hike “grand larceny in the first degree,” among other crimes.
Grace, the first-term supervisor, told Bianco, a board member since 1996, “You’ve been charging the [specialized-use] districts too little for too long.”
But Bianco, insisting that “we’re taking too much money from the special districts,” refused to drop his opposition to Grace’s 7 percent figure. In a protracted debate marked by repeated interruptions and raised voices, the men dug in and determinedly defended their positions.
Councilman David Paganelli reviewed the budget’s math realities, then asked Bianco whether he would “take 6 percent to cover [the districts’] expenses.”
The math realities, underscoring Grace’s need to uncover additional revenue, included finding a half-million dollars to bankroll a five-year contract the board signed in May with the town’s Police Benevolent Association (PBA). Resolving negotiations that had been deadlocked since 2009, the new agreement required the town to finance four years worth of salary hikes in a single year.
In addition, Grace wanted to boost the salaries of department heads and elected officials, frozen since 2008. He found himself at loggerheads not only with Bianco but also Councilman Vishnu Patel, the board’s lone Democrat.
“If you want to make more money,” Patel advised his fellow board members, “go to work on Wall Street.”
Grace, who said there is a “big disparity in department-head compensation,” argued that Yorktown needed a more-competitive pay scale to maintain its vitality.
“For the long-term stability of the town, you have to properly compensate department heads and elected officials,” he said.
In the end, Grace limited raises for public officials to those of elected officeholders who cannot vote their own raises: Town Justices Salvatore A. Lagonia and Gary J. Raniolo, to $30,864, and Town Clerk Alice Roker, to $92,000.
Bianco, acknowledging he lacked the votes to block the raises, dropped his opposition. Then, after huddling privately with Grace, he announced, “I’m going to accept the 6 percent [special-use-district assessment] in the spirit of compromise.”
He later made the motion to adopt Grace’s modified spending plan as the town’s preliminary budget, subject to revisions after the Dec. 5 public hearing. The board voted, 4-1, to adopt, with Democrat Patel maintaining his opposition.