The Orangetown Town Board adopted its 2013 budget last week.
Once Orangetown Finance Director Jeff Bencik went back through the numbers, he pointed out that while the operating budget increased by 4.66% from 2012, the tax levy increase as measured by the state came in under the 2% cap with an average rise of 1.66% for Orangetown residents.
The five members of the Orangetown Town Board all praised the work put into cutting down the budget to get under the cap, which included a reduction of over $1 million in spending from 2012, but disagreed on how they reached that point Monday.
Councilmen Tom Diviny, Denis Troy, Paul Valentine and Tom Morr, all Republicans, released a joint statement Monday, the complete text of which is attached to this report.
"It is with great pride and a sense of accomplishment that we are able to announce the Orangetown Town Budget will be under the state mandated tax cap for the budget year 2013," They wrote. "Please remember that when the 2013 budget was first discussed the Supervisor's office spoke of a possible 15% tax increase. Please also remember that the Supervisor's initial budget was submitted with a 9.2% tax increase."
Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart argued that the statement does not correctly portray the collaborative process among the entire council in making changes to the budget all through the process.
"I’m thrilled we’re under the two percent cap," Stewart said. "It’s preposterous for four members of the town council to characterize our final budget as anything other than a collaborative project, which I worked on from the beginning to the very end. I hired the finance director who brought it to the finish line. I supervised the finance department. I did an analysis of al of the cost-cutting ideas. I eliminated ones that made no sense and were hurtful to the town, like announcing we are closing the sewer department.
"To tell the story as if I had no part in it is clearly a politically motivated, underhanded and vicious attack."
The 15% increase mentioned in the statement from the four Councilmen came from a memo produced by former Orangetown Director of Finance Charlie Richardson, detailing what the budget would look like if the town made no cuts at all from 2012. By all accounts, that was never considered to be a valid option by any members of the town board.
There were no concrete proposals until Stewart submitted his tentative budget Sept. 24 with a 9.19% increase in operating budget (which is now at 4.66%). A more detailed look at the proposal can be found here, including Stewart's comments about his view of the budget at that stage.
"The town board is officially encouraged and welcomed into reviewing, breaking out the red pens and pencils, dissecting and commenting," Stewart said. "We are working toward Oct. 23, when we have a draft (of the 2013 budget) due and hopefully Nov. 7, when we would approve a final budget."
Diviny and Valentine presented a series of suggestions at a meeting Oct. 10. Among them were not allowing the Orangetown Police Department to buy any more cars, which was among those included in the final budget. Diviny also argued that it was important to bring the number of police officers back up to 83 to ensure that it did not drop below 80 during 2013.
The argument that sprung up at times in recent meetings and became more focused Tuesday is how much of the cutting in the budget from that point came from Troy, Diviny, Valentine and Morr and how much came from Stewart. This came despite a budget process that was very open to the public.
"I am very disappointed that people said this wasn't a transparent process," Valentine said during the meeting Nov. 13. "I don't know how you could get it more transparent unless Andy personally delivered the budgets to everybody's houses."
Stewart and Diviny continued to argue the point in the comments on Monday's post on Patch regarding the 2013 budget.
Stewart and the rest of the council did disagree on a number of issues during the process. At one point Diviny said it would take a miracle to keep Broadacres Golf Course open, but eventually the other four members of the board voted against Stewart's proposal to close it.
Even as the final adjustments to the budget were made Nov. 13, Stewart was the lone vote against using an additional $250,000 in reserve funds, bringing the total to $1.75 million.
The board did vote unanimously to override the state-mandated two percent tax cap Oct. 23. When the board again voted unanimously to adopt the 2013 budget, it was believed to be over the cap, approximately a 4.8 percent tax increase. That number was later revised down to 4.66 percent.
Getting Under the Tax Cap
Monday's announcement raises the question of what changed from the time the budget was adopted. In terms of the actual financial plan for 2013, nothing did, except for the way it is being interpreted.
The 4.66 percent increase signifies the operating budget from 2012 to 2013. The 1.66 percent increase represents how the state views the Orangetown budget for the purposes of the cap.
At least part of the difference is caused by exclusions, items that are in the budget but not counted against the cap. This includes issues such as tax settlements.
For example, when the town board voted to reduce funding for four South Orangetown libraries by 10 percent, it did not have an impact on the operational budget, but it did lower Orangetown's tax increase in relation to the cap.
"The number that everyone has historically focused upon is the 4.66%, which is the operational budget," Orangetown Director of Finance Jeff Bencik said. "What the state tax cap is meant to do is to make an apples to apples comparison of anything the town has control over."
Stewart chose Bencik as the new director of finance in early October, so he had to jump into the middle of the process and this is his first time working with the cap. The tax cap itself is relatively new, having been voted in just last year.
"We spoke to the comptroller's office three or four times before we came out with this," Bencik said.
Bencik and the members of the board stressed that the tax increase will not be the same for everybody. It will vary depending on what part of town they live in.
"Each tax location is going to be different," Bencik said. "For the town as a whole, taxes are going up an average of 1.66%."