YORKTWON, N.Y. - Our water district is in trouble. Money trouble. It doesn’t have the money it needs to maintain an aging water distribution system. It’s a problem that started in 2013.
Between 2013-2016, the district experienced a staggering operating deficit to the tune of $3.6 million. To fill the gap, previous town boards:
• Tabled scheduled infrastructure projects and repeatedly transferred the money budgeted for those projects to other budget lines that were in a deficit.
• Used the district’s once healthy fund balance, aka its rainy day fund, to cover the remaining deficit instead of using the fund balance to finance infrastructure projects that would have resulted in long-term benefits for the district. Between 2013-2016. just over half the fund balance, 59 percent or $3.6 million, was taken from the fund balance to cover the deficit.
By the time a previous Town Board acknowledged the district’s financial problems in 2016 and raised water usage rates, the increase turned out not to be sufficient to cover the district’s structural financial problems AND finance the postponed infrastructure projects that had already been put on hold two or three times.
The district even had to borrow $1.1 million in 2017 for an unexpected capital expense that couldn’t be postponed; the borrowing added a $65,750 debt service expense to subsequent budgets.
How and why did this financial crisis happen? Could it/should it have been avoided?
The water district has two sources of revenue: the water tax that shows up on our April town tax bill and is based on the assessment value of our property, and the water usage charge reflected in our water bill and which is based on our actual water consumption.
In late 2012 when the new Town Board was preparing its first budget—the 2013 budget—it used the little understood 2 percent tax cap to perpetrate a tax shell game on Yorktown taxpayers, a game it continued to play for the next six years. The game was called lowering some tax rates while raising others.
The 2013 budget reduced the water tax, paid by only some taxpayers, by an unprecedented 40 percent, while it increased the town tax, paid by all taxpayers, by 4.38 percent—the largest town tax increase in 16 years.
The 40 percent decrease in the water tax immediately created a $900,000 shortfall in revenue while the expenditure side of the budget remained the same. And although the tax was increased by a few pennies in subsequent years, the increase was never enough to cover increasing expenditures. The result: repeated deficits.
With operating deficits continuing to grow and the fund balance shrinking, the members of the 2016 Town Board finally acknowledged what they had done; in March, they voted to increase the water usage rate by 25 percent. At the time, former Supervisor Grace publically acknowledged that he had probably made a “mistake” in 2013 when he failed to increase the usage rates at the same time he reduced the water tax.
While the 2016 increase in usage rates stopped the hemorrhaging, the increase can’t generate enough revenue to cover basic recurring expenses AND fund the infrastructure projects that need to be done.
Which brings us to the May 21 hearing on the proposed increase in the usage rates.
No one likes seeing their taxes or user fees increased. But if we want dependable safe water when we turn on the faucet, there’s really no choice. The water district needs more revenue and the fairest way to raise that revenue is by increasing the usage rate with water customers paying for the water they use.
On the bright side, because as homeowners we control the amount of water we use, we can also control our water bill. The less water we use, the more money we can save. Thank about that when a running toilet is ignored.
Susan Siegel is a former town supervisor (2010-11) and councilwoman (2014-15).