Westerlo Town Board authorizes laying off two highway workers 

WESTERLO — During a special meeting on June 11, the Westerlo Town Board voted, 3 to 2, to authorize Highway Superintendent Jody Ostrander to lay off two highway workers at his discretion. The highway department employs seven full-time workers in addition to Ostrander, and maintains 51 miles of road, according to the town board. 

Ostrander could not be reached for comment.

These will be the first layoffs Westerlo makes after Supervisor William Bichteman announced three weeks ago that the town will likely experience significant loss of revenue following three months of nationwide shutdowns meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Westerlo has a $3.1 million budget this year, with 40 percent funded by sales tax. Westerlo has $750,000 it can spend from reserves, Bichteman said in May.

He told The Enterprise this week, however, that reducing the fund balance is “unwise.” 

“We accumulate money each year that goes into the fund balance,” Bichteman said, referring to the money the town does not budget for when anticipating sales tax, which Bichteman said last month is typically around 15 percent of the true sales tax revenue. “And we are kind of perpetually taking fund balance monies and using them against the tax levy for the following year … This year, we will not accumulate that money at all. So if we take there and take that shortfall, which is estimated to be just under $300,000 … and we use fund money to cover that, the total deficit of the town is not $300,000, it’s $500,000.”  

The supervisor of the neighboring Hilltown of Knox said that Knox has close to $2 million “cash in the bank” and could “weather multiple COVID-19s” without affecting services or increasing property taxes. Knox has a $2.2 million budget this year and gets about 46 percent of its budget from sales tax.

Similarly, the supervisor of suburban Guilderland, with a $36.2 million budget this year, 35 percent of which comes from sales tax, said that the town has millions of dollars in reserves so won’t need to make drastic cuts.

While the Office of the State Comptroller does not provide specific guidelines for towns to determine an appropriate fund balance, it does highlight the dangers of an “excessively high” or an “excessively low” fund balance. 

High fund balances, according to information compiled by Associate Examiner Dan Acquilano, are vulnerable to fraud if not carefully monitored and controlled. Low balances, on the other hand, can put the town in a position where it needs to rely on short-term borrowing to bridge unforeseen deficits, which can send that town into a financial spiral.

Several complicated factors go into a town’s “reasonable” fund balance size, Acquilano wrote, including timing of receipts and disbursements, budget volatility, and contingent appropriations.

“OSC does not recommend any one method or amount,” Acquilano wrote, “these decisions are the responsibility of each local government based on its own situation.” 

 

Proposed cuts

Although the board ultimately decided to vote on the highway workers separately, Bichteman initially proposed that a part-time employee in the assessor’s office and a part-time employee in the clerk’s office be laid off as well, and that a full-time position in the clerk’s office be downgraded to a part-time position. 

Bichteman, along with Councilman Joseph Boone and Councilman Matthew Kryzak, voted in favor of the authorization. Councilwoman Amie Burnside and Councilman Richard Filkins voted “nay.” 

The vote on the other positions will take place next week, since the motion required is more complicated than that for the highway workers and needs to be drafted ahead of time.

Bichteman said in the meeting that cutting two highway positions will save the town $77,000 — only a portion of the $192,500 that Bichteman said is the minimum expense reduction he feels the town needs to be secure.

“The decision to lay off two highway employees was not taken into consideration lightly,” Bichteman said before the vote. “We as a board have discussed it, and I have had several meetings with the highway supervisor to discuss the ramifications.”

Bichteman went on to say that the highway budget, which is about 40 percent of the total town budget, serves 26 percent of the town’s population. He also said that “a careful analysis of the hours worked versus the actual work-week hours over the past year” show that only up to 80 percent of the hours were productive, with the rest devoted to comp time, personal time, vacation time, and sick time. 

“Considering the foregoing,” Bichteman said, “it can be concluded that a staff reduction is justified, even without a need to close the budget gap.” 

While Bichteman had laid out other savings opportunities in past meetings, like delayed construction projects, he said that most of those expenses would need to be reinstated at some point, and that the town needs to make cuts that can be maintained over several years.

 

Budget scramble

Bichteman prompted discussion around the town’s finances at the board’s May 19 regular meeting, when he painted a stark, though uncertain portrait of the amount of money the town could potentially lose in sales-tax revenue, and where the town can make cuts to bridge that gap in its $3.1 million budget, which was adopted last November.  

At the time, Bichteman warned of a 70-percent decrease in revenue, based, he said, on conversations he had with county officials about sales-tax numbers, which have plummeted since the coronavirus pandemic forced states to shut down all non-essential services. 

Sales tax is collected by the county and disbursed to municipalities based on their population. Westerlo, with a population of less than 3,500, was expecting to receive $1.25 million in sales tax from the county this year.

Bichteman had stressed that his numbers were “basically darts at this point” and the situation would likely change, but that he wanted to prepare the town for a worst-case scenario. 

Things have brightened since then, in terms of both outlook and severity, though the situation is still neither clear nor positive. 

Albany County Commissioner of the Department of Management and Budget, Shawn Thelen, told The Enterprise that sales-tax revenue in Albany County will have dropped about 30 percent by the end of the second quarter — for April, May, and June. He did not discuss projections further out. 

Knox Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis projected sales-tax revenue loss of 15 percent in the third quarter and 5 percent in the fourth during the Knox Town Board’s regular meeting on June 9. He told The Enterprise that he based those projections on information he received from the Department of Budget and Management, as well as the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. 

If Lekaditis’s numbers hold, Westerlo will lose about $161,000 in sales tax revenue — far less than the nearly $400,000 Bichteman warned about last month.

But in his response to Enterprise questions, Thelen underscored the uncertainty of projections so far.

“We are all hoping for a speedy recovery,” he said, “but the fact of the matter is there are around 40 million people who have filed for unemployment [in the United States]. Therefore, we have modeled many situations and projects. At this time, we are still gathering information as it comes in daily to update these as we go.” 

 

Perspectives

Kryzak, who was hesitant last month to cut highway positions, said he had “buried his head in the sand” while attempting to defend workers from layoffs, but has since come around to the idea, and even said he’d “gladly resign” if the decision turns out to be a poor one.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Kryzak said, “I’ve looked at the numbers … and the more I look at the numbers, there’s no other choice but to get on board with making the town fiscally sound. If we don’t do anything, we’ll be out of money by November. And that leaves us November and December with our fund balance.

“And potentially, if we get a bad storm, that’s going to be another twenty, thirty, forty-thousand dollars on top of all that, which leaves us dead in the water with no money in January and February. No money to pay anybody, no money to plow roads, no money to buy salt. 

“So with the data that’s coming out of the county,” he continued, “with the data that Bill’s put together, the writing’s on the wall. We’re trying to get creative here but I think the only fair solution, the solution that will move the needle … is that we’re going to have to do layoffs.” 

Kryzak also said a resident had convinced him that, with layoffs inevitable, making decisions sooner allows former employees more time to collect the additional $600 weekly unemployment payments the federal government is offering until the end of July. 

Burnside, meanwhile, expressed indignation over the removal of highway employees before other town employees, with the highway workers, she’s said in the past, crucial to the safety of the town. 

“I am not comfortable at all cutting out highway people,” Burnside said. 

Her sentiments mirrored those of Republican Party Chairwoman Lisa DeGroff, who endorsed both Burnside and Kryzak in their campaigns for the town board last year. 

“I am unequivocally, absolutely opposed to any kind of staff reduction as far as our highway department goes,” DeGroff said at the May 18 meeting. “Period. I know you’re looking at that being a ton of money, but we have seen natural disasters come up all over the place where our town highway department has had to step in. Just a simple thunderstorm can wreak havoc in the town.”

Filkins, also a Republican, urged the town board to delay its decision until the situation is more clear.

“I don’t want to lay anybody off,” he said. “I’d rather wait two months and see what happens then, after we get the second-quarter numbers in, and go from there … After the second quarter, we’ll have a better idea of what’s going to be showing up in the third quarter because, by that time, a lot of things in the town and the cities and stuff are going to be opening up. And hopefully we’ll see an increase in people going to the city, buying stuff, going out, doing things. I’d like to just wait and see.” 

Boone, a Democrat like Bichteman, explained to the board how he views his role as councilman, and how his duty in that role means making decisions on behalf of the town that may make him unhappy.

“I think I have come down to realize that my job,” Boone said, “when those people who have voted me into this position, this privileged position in which I sit, they are asking me to do the work of the town that will benefit the town, the whole of the town. And yes, that includes the seven highway guys that work just down the road here.

“But unless something drastically changes and we are blessed with some sort of influx of residents that no one is foreseeing or predicting, I think when it comes down to the numbers and how they work and how they’re presented, cuts have to be made.” 

 

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