Board split on Berne budget after failure to send public notice

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Checking the law: State law requires towns to adopt their budgets by Nov. 20, Berne town attorney William Conboy told board members during the Nov. 13 meeting. Conboy, foreground, explains to Supervisor Kevin Crosier and the rest of the board that the failure to publish a notice of public hearing for the budget in an official newspaper is an “irregularity” that couldn’t be fixed with another public hearing in time for the deadline.

Click here to view a copy of the 2014 Berne budget.

BERNE — The town board voted, with the sole Republican abstaining, on Wednesday to adopt a $2.29 million spending plan with a flat tax levy for 2014 despite having no legally required notice of a public hearing in the newspaper.

A town is required by law to inform the public about a required hearing by posting a notice at a town signboard and in its official newspaper at least five days before the budget hearing. If the town board doesn’t adopt a budget by Nov. 20, according to state law, the preliminary budget with its revisions becomes the budget for the next year.

The notice was posted on the board in town hall, the town’s attorney, William Conboy, said as he explained the situation and recommended the town board go ahead with adopting the budget as final during its Nov. 13 meeting. Town Clerk Patricia Favreau said she thought she had e-mailed the notice to The Enterprise but has no evidence of it.

“If someone comes along and tries to invalidate it on that basis, then we’re going to be in a position where yours truly will be saying, ‘Nov. 20 came and went and, in fact, the preliminary became the final budget by virtue of the fact that no other final budget had been adopted.’ So it’s covered either way,” said Conboy.

Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin, the only Republican on the board, abstained from voting on the budget. The four Democrats adopted it.

“I can’t adopt a budget that nobody knew about,” Conklin said during the meeting.

Philip Stevens, who lost as a Republican candidate for town council to Democratic incumbents this year, suggested the town put a notice on a television program in the future, to inform more people.

“I also recommend the town utilize its website for those people who are looking at it, in the future,” said Conboy.

A public hearing was held for the preliminary budget on Thursday, Nov. 7.

“The budget should have been advertised,” said Stevens at the beginning of the meeting, sitting next to Republican Committee members Kenneth Crawford and Peg Warner in the gallery.

“I think this board has shown very many times that it’s a closed session and it’s not open to the public,” said Warner just before the board voted. She referred to increases in salaries and the purchase of the new library building without public referendum.

The state’s Town Law requires a public budget hearing to be held on or before the Thursday after a general election.

The 2014 spending plan

The $2.29 million budget for next year includes for the first time a separate, $67,870 fund for the sewer-district users of the wastewater system project begun this year and it decreases the general tax rate by two cents.

According to the budgets, the town’s total assessed value grew by half a percent over last year. The tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value for 2014 is $4.7961, down from $4.8203.

 “The final budget number is the same,” Supervisor Kevin Crosier concluded after Conboy’s explanation. “It hasn’t changed,” he said of the preliminary budget compared to the adopted budget.

Crosier showed The Enterprise after the meeting the revisions made to the preliminary budget. With an additional $40,000 in state money from the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program, the same amount in property-tax revenues was shifted from the highway to the general fund, Crosier said, for paving projects at the senior center and the new library.

The plan uses $366,694 from the town’s fund balance, down about $3,000 from last year, and levies $789,795 in taxes for the town and highway, the same number as last year.

With the town’s new Municipal Information Systems (MUNIS) software, Crosier said, the 2014 budget has more detailed lines, showing how money is allocated within a given section.

The $22,400 for the town’s attorney remains the same, but almost half of that is designated for a deputy town attorney. The town board has yet to appoint the deputy, who Crosier said would be Conboy’s son, William Conboy Jr.

The younger Conboy has attended recent town board meetings and works in a law firm with his father. Crosier said the deputy attorney would be responsible for any legal work needed by the building department, and the zoning and planning boards.

The new library on Helderberg Trail has office space for the town, which helped with the purchase of the former church. Crosier attributed most of the $30,000 increase for buildings to extra utilities costs associated with the new location.

“It’s not going to take much to heat that place because it’s super insulated,” said Crosier of the church-turned-library building.

The town’s expected spending on records management was increased by $2,000 to $5,775.

“We hire a company to do our records for us, to put them on so that they’re searchable documents, and $4,000 of that is for General Code,” said Crosier of the codification company. “They come in and review the town’s ordinances to make sure that they meet the new criteria for the legal standards and they put everything so it’s a searchable document for the town.”

Like all towns, Berne is paying for increased costs billed by the county for the elections. The appropriation is $11,600 this year.

“That’s the number. I have no control over that,” Crosier said.

Warner, chairwoman of the town Republican Committee, questioned the “police” section of the budget during the Nov. 13 meeting, saying that it, along with large figures for “operator” in the highway fund and “traffic control” were confusing.

“You have an item for police for $74,000 and I was told a year ago that was for the EMT but you have an ambulance for $55,000 in this year’s budget,” said Warner. “So you have two items for the same thing?”

“Could you wait a minute? Just hold on; let’s try to do one thing at a time,” said Crosier.

“No, you’re not going to shut me up,” said Warner.

“We’re trying to explain it to you,” said Crosier.

Crosier said the labels for the budget are dictated by the state comptroller’s office. The “police” line, he said, is for paramedic services through the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. The ambulance provides transportation, he said.

“If we had to pay for our own paramedic for the town of Berne, it would cost you a quarter-million dollars a year to have one person for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Crosier said during the meeting.

The “constable” line Warner asked about last year has been eliminated, Crosier said, because the sheriff’s office is serving papers previously covered of by those funds.

A $6,000 increase for the town park, Crosier said, will go towards finishing an addition on the back of the pavilion for bathrooms and a kitchen.

A $10,000 part-time clerk position in the highway fund is no longer there.

“As we get going along… Andrea will be able to take back over that job again,” said Crosier of the town’s senior account clerk, Andrea Borst, who was new to the full-time position last year.

A $500 increase to the planning board clerk’s salary, at an hourly rate, is in anticipation of a greater workload.

“The one thing about a budget, it’s nice, but they’re only projections,” Crosier told The Enterprise. “You use all the data that you collect going back. You look backwards. You look forwards.”

Asked how the town is able to keep taxes from testing the cap on levy increases, Crosier said the town scrutinizes all of its purchases and buys off of state and county contracts for lower prices.

“So now, everything comes through,” said Crosier. “You have to have a purchase order ahead of time. It has to be approved. You’ve got to look at county contract, state contract.”

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