Budget Public Hearing gets Prickly

The public hearing on the town budget got contenious last week when Supervisor Ken Schmitt, left, got into a heated discussion with some residents. Credits: Bob Dumas

MAHOPAC, N.Y.— A public hearing on the 2017 tentative budget turned contentious last week when the Town Board was criticized for giving salary increases to some elected officials and for the way the budget was prepared.

The $27.1 million proposed budget calls for a 1.6 percent increase in the tax rate. According to town comptroller Mary Ann Maxwell, the budget as currently configured would mean that the average assessed home, which is $204,940, would have a tax bill of about $1,711, up $26 from last year. The tax rate would be at 8.35 percent, a 1.6 percent increase from 2016’s budget. It is, the comptroller noted, the lowest tax rate increase in the past 10 years. The tax levy also stays under the state-imposed cap, which was 0.68 percent this year.

Nonetheless, some residents were critical of the 4 percent raises given to the supervisor, highway superintendent, town clerk, and tax receiver. Town Board members will also see a 2 percent raise.

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“[Politicians] like to complain about unfunded mandates from the state, but the irony is that the Town Board members giving themselves a $20,000 perk is the one unfunded mandate the Town Board can actually eliminate,” said resident John Butler during the public hearing.

Butler was referring to the $20,000 salary paid to Town Board members. With the 2 percent raise, that would jump to $20,400 next year.

“I challenge this Town Board to put their money where their mouth is and eliminate this unfunded mandate and do it tonight,” Butler said.

Butler said he has noticed a “salary creep” for senior town officials over the past several years, prompting a combative exchange with Supervisor Ken Schmitt.

“The supervisor’s salary alone has increased by 16 percent since 2013, including another increase for 2017,” Butler said. “I think most working folks in town would consider that a pretty sweet deal.”

Butler also noted that in two recent audits by the state comptroller’s office, the town was cited for some procedural issues.

“In 2012, an audit by the comptroller’s office criticized the town’s management of water district no. 2, citing the inability to account for 14 million gallons of water and recommended the implementation of meter-reading capability to mitigate further problems,” Butler said. “There has been little to no compliance with the audit’s recommendations. In 2015, another audit criticized the purchase procedures [of department heads] or lack thereof.”

Schmitt told Butler that his information was flawed.

“You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts,” he said. “I am not sure where you got your data from, but you failed to mention that I voluntarily cut my salary by 4 percent during the very difficult economic times. But you didn’t want the public to hear that; you just wanted them to hear what you wanted them to hear.”

Butler pointed out that the supervisor’s salary was about $94,000 in 2013 and will be a little more than $112,000 in 2017, a 16 percent hike. He challenged Schmitt to tell him what he had gotten wrong.

“Since you are accusing me of lying, let’s be very specific about where I lied. Am I wrong about the audits?” Butler asked Schmitt.

“No, but we have taken measures to correct them,” Schmitt replied. “They were pointed out to us and they have been corrected. We made changes in the way we conduct business.”

Schmitt noted that the auditors also had positive things to say about the town’s finances.

“The auditors said the town is being run excellently and is in very good shape,” he said. “There were some minor things in a comprehensive audit; just a few minor things—nothing egregious.”

But Butler continued to press Schmitt about which of his statements was inaccurate.

“I think it’s unfair for you to say I was incorrect when you can’t cite one example,” Butler said.

But Schmitt ended Butler’s turn at the podium, saying the public hearing needed to proceed.

“We are not going to continue this dialog,” the supervisor said.

Resident Mike Barile was also critical of the raises. He said that while the Town Board members only got a 2 percent raise—$200—the bigger picture tells a different story.

“Let’s take the bottom-line weekly paycheck that the average taxpayer can understand,” Barile told the board.

Barile said that a board member’s annual salary, with the proposed raise would come to $20,400. He then said, based on his own experiences, a healthcare package would be worth about $26,400, but noted the town has better insurance than he has and is likely worth more. That, he said, would bring a board member’s annual compensation package to about a $47,000 a year.

“With 48 meetings a year, that comes to about $980 a week. [If you deduct] 15 percent for insurance [contributions], that brings it back down to around $895 a week,” Barile said. “So town council members are getting paid close to $1,000 a week and I think that is obscene. They call it public service.”

Barile also said the board should have a two-term limit, which would help to mitigate future pay raises.

Butler also criticized the way the budget was prepared, saying zero-based budgeting should be employed.

“That means all expenses must be justified, not just estimated based on a prior year’s budget,” he said. “This takes a lot of arduous and painstaking work on the part of every department manager but is the only way to identify where and how every penny of taxpayer money is being spent.”

Butler also called for a change in government’s administrative structure, saying it should hire a city manager.

“The residents of Carmel need a fundamental change in governance—specifically in the administration of town affairs,” he said. “The administration in this town cannot go on in this fashion for us to prosper. Toward that end, I am proposing a new form of administrative government and that is the [city] manager system. The Town Board would remain responsible for the legislative function of the town by establishing policy and passing local ordinances and having an overall vision of the town. The Town Board appoints a professional manager to oversee the administrative functions, implement its policies and advise it. The position of supervisor becomes a ceremonial title and is appointed by the board or is elected as an at-large council member with no executive function.”

Butler said that 40 percent of American towns and cities with populations of 2,500 or more use a city manager, opining that there would be no additional cost to the taxpayer due to “new efficiencies brought to the administration.”

Bob Buckley, chair of the town’s recreation commission, said he disagreed with the city manager concept.

“The question is, do you want a strong [supervisor] or weak [supervisor]?” he said. “When you have a city manager it means you have a weak [supervisor]; ineffective. They can’t really do what they need to do. The city manager takes over, bullies, and does what he wants to do and the board almost has to beg the city manager to get things moved along. All town business usually goes through the city manager. It takes away from the people who we elect to do the job.”

Buckley also supported the raises, saying they were well-deserved.

“Being an elected official doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get paid,” he said. “It’s not volunteerism. It’s important for the public to know you are not just sitting here at a meeting once or twice a week. You are often in the back having committee meeting after committee meeting, budget meetings. You are dealing with so many issues and you put in a lot of hours. I don’t expect my elected officials to be working for nothing.  Everyone thinks that it’s just about ribbon-cutting,s but there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes.”

Buckley said paying government employees well also thwarts corruption.

“You take care of the people you elect,” he said.

A vote on the final budget is slated for Nov. 16, four days ahead of the state’s Nov. 20 deadline.

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