The recent revelation that $167,500 of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a historic monument that was initially supposed to be funded by donations raises a host of questions about how Yorktown goes about funding special projects, aka capital projects—and the extent to which taxpayers have an opportunity to comment on these expenditures before they are approved.
The questions are particularly timely given the recent good news that Yorktown will receive an unexpected $1 million, and possibly more, from Enbridge because of delays in the pipeline project.
With hindsight, the same questions about how decisions are made to spend taxpayer money apply to the more than $6 million the town spent to create the Granite Knolls Sports Complex and to the undisclosed amount of money spent on plans for the controversial relocation of the highway garage.
Planning for special projects begins—sort of—with a document buried deep in the annual budget. It’s called the Five-Year Capital Plan. I say “sort of,” because it’s not uncommon for unplanned projects to suddenly get funded, some the result of emergencies, such as an unexpected bridge collapse, and others in response to pressure from a vocal group of residents, like saving the Zino Barn.
The 2019 budget includes a list of $23.6 million worth of proposed capital projects, everything from replacing the roofs at town hall and police headquarters to the purchase of trucks for the highway department, sidewalks on Veterans Road, improvements to the Holland Sporting Club, renovating the railroad station and unspecified drainage projects. Projects are shown as completed, approved, planned, in progress, in design, or simply an idea.
In addition to the Capital Plan, the 2019 operating budget, the budget that determines the town tax rate, also includes a $400,000 in “Contingency Capital Projects” budget line, but it’s not clear exactly which projects on the $23.6 million list will actually be funded in 2019.
When will the Town Board actually decide which projects on the Five-Year Capital Plan will move ahead in 2019? And, as the plan lacks a one-year capital budget, how will these projects be funded?
At what point in the process will taxpayers have an opportunity to ask questions about the proposed projects? While a public hearing is required before the Town Board can adopt the 2019 budget, once the budget is adopted, the board can modify the budget—and spend millions of dollars on non budgeted items without holding a public hearing. Think: Granite Knolls.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not questioning the wisdom of preparing a capital improvements plan. If anything, I’m a firm believer that the town NEEDS a carefully thought out five-year capital plan, coupled with a realistic one-year budget that identifies where the money for the projects will come from: the operating budget, the fund balance, an approved grant, or other sources. My concern, and the reason for bringing this issue to the public’s attention prior to this year’ s Dec. 4 budget hearing, is that both the Town Board—and residents—need to pay greater attention to this important, but mostly ignored, section of the annual budget.
The board also needs to clean up some of the anomalies in the 2019 Capital Plan; although prepared by the Planning Department based on input from the town’s departments, once the plan is included in the budget, it becomes an official Town Board document.
Why, for example, does the plan list projects that are already completed, like the new ADA parking improvements in the front of town hall, but omits the Mohansic Trailway? Why does it include $4 million for the relocation of the highway garage when a majority of the Town Board has indicated it has no intention of pursuing the project, at least for the near term? The purpose of a capital plan is to look ahead, not back.
And is the town really thinking of spending $600,000 to plant trees along Underhill Avenue? The plan says these funds are coming from Breslin Realty for tree mitigation but I suspect there may be too many zeros in the figure.
The current Town Board has taken several positive steps to increase the transparency of its activities, including televising its work sessions. But, watching the Dec. 4 budget hearing on television is not a substitute for attending the hearing and asking questions. Remember: it’s your money the board is spending.
So, I hope I’ll see you on the 4th. The hearing starts at 6 p.m., a time set by the previous administration that needs to be changed to a more convenient time next year if the members of the Town Board are serious about wanting to hear from their constituents.
Copies of the 2019 budget should be available at the Town Clerk’s office or on the town’s web site on or about Nov. 28.
Susan Siegel is a former town supervisor (2010-11) and councilwoman (2014-15).