Berne works out new employee contract while residents question town’s fiscal health

Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger

Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger

BERNE — While some residents demand information about the town’s fiscal standing under the cloud of the coronavirus, the Berne Town Board is in the midst of negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement with the United Public Service Employees Union, which Supervisor Sean Lyons says will likely bolster highway workers’ compensation. 

Because the contract is still under negotiation, its details are not obligated to be made public, but Lyons said that, in addition to wage increases, there will be enhanced protection of worker health and safety, including allowances “for safety shoe and safety prescription eyewear.”

In a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s only Democrat and a frequent voice of opposition to the other members, wrote that “good employees deserve raises and benefits but there are fiscal limitations that must be considered … This agreement is fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable in my opinion.” 

Willsey was also concerned that the board was going to vote at its July 8 meeting to authorize the contract without any public discussion; his belief stemmed from the meeting agenda, which stated that the board would “authorize” the contract, instead of Lyons’s intended language, “approve.”

“I am not sure of defined stages,” Lyons told The Enterprise in an email this week, “but negotiations are ongoing and in the stage where the board reviews the proposed amendments, additions and alterations to the current (now expired) Collective Bargaining Agreement.

As in the past, Lyons said, he, as supervisor, and his deputy, Dennis Palow, met with the United Public Employees Union representative and the town’s union representative “and negotiated the proposed amendments, additions and alterations to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that the board is now reviewing.”

In addressing fiscal responsibility, Lyons praised the work of the town’s highway workers and said that increased wages will help retain their services for the town.

“I believe our highway workers,” Lyons told The Enterprise, “go above and beyond their duties even though their pay and benefits lag behind other smaller less capable highway department workers and it is [the town board’s] responsibility to ensure they are being paid a fair wage with incentives to keep their skills with the Town of Berne and not look elsewhere for employment.”

Berne’s 2020 budget allocates $224,328 across five operators (breaking down to $44,865 per operator) who are paid equally for 2,080 hours of work per year, in addition to $48,048 disbursed to the highway department’s foreman. The budget also includes $37,000 for two “temporary help workers,” and allows $53,600 in overtime pay. Employee benefits for all of Berne’s highway workers total $221,312. The department maintains 79 miles of road.

 

Other Hilltowns

Knox, with 36 miles of road, pays $316,000 for personal services, has five full-time workers, and all highway employees receive $148,700 in employee benefits. Westerlo, with 51 miles of road, pays $330,000 for personal services, has seven highway workers, and offers $340,050 in employee benefits.

However, Westerlo recently laid off two highway workers following town board conversations instigated by Supervisor William Bichteman’s dire revenue projections for the remainder of 2020, and all of 2021 (though Bichteman has acknowledged that those layoffs were not strictly a result of diminished revenues). 

Immediately after Bichteman broached the conversation in May, the majority of the Westerlo Town Board demurred in response to layoff suggestions; however, by June, the board voted, 3 to 2, to authorize the highway superintendent to lay off two of his seven workers, with tiebreaker Matthew Kryzak — who initially sided with the board’s Republicans in asking for caution — stating that he changed his mind after reviewing the sales-tax numbers from the county.

Sales-tax revenues, administered by the county based on municipal population, is the heart of Hilltown revenue, funding anywhere from 26 to 46 percent of each town’s expenses for 2020. Berne has 41-percent of its $2.6 million 2020 budget funded by sales tax. 

In June, Knox Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis told residents that the numbers he received from county and state officials suggested, at that time, a 30-percent loss of sales-tax revenue in the second quarter, a 15-percent loss in the third, and a 5-percent loss in the fourth.

Given Berne’s $1,064,000 sales-tax projection, Lefkaditis’s numbers suggest a revenue loss of $133,000. 

On Monday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said that, between January and June of 2019, Albany County brought in $139.1 million in sales-tax revenue. Over that same time period this year, that number has dropped by roughly 11.17 percent, or $15.5 million, to $123.6 million.

But according to Willsey and Berne resident Barbara Crosier, who also wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Berne’s sales-tax revenue projection was overstated to begin with. 

Crosier, who is married to Berne’s former supervisor, Kevin Crosier, a Democrat, writes of the Republican-backed board members, “They have already eliminated all services and they will have eliminated the entire fund balance that it took Supervisor Crosier and the Democratic town board 16 years to save. The town will be bankrupt.”

Lyons denies that the sales-tax projection is inaccurate, but he declined to explain to The Enterprise this week how he determined this year’s projection of $1,046,059, pre-COVID. 

The Enterprise asked Lyons about Berne’s financial standing in April, and he responded that Berne is “well prepared to absorb any shortfalls predicted from the COVID-19 pandemic without increasing taxes. I will be bold and say taxes are in Berne will continue to flatline and the potential still exists for a tax decrease in 2021.”

However, he has never dissected the town’s budget for residents, the way the supervisors of Knox and Westerlo have, telling The Enterprise upon questioning that more information will come at a later time.

“I am preparing a Letter to the [Enterprise] Editor in response to the direct criticism towards Me and my work as Supervisor,” Lyons wrote to The Enterprise in an email on April 30, “[and] the outrageous claims of our towns financial situation and claims of skyrocketing taxes.”

His letter was never received. 

This week, Lyons said he needed more time to provide financial information. 

“I feel good about the budgets this year, next year, and the years to follow,” Lyons said. “I would like to provide you more detail into the false claims of Berne’s financial health and your questions below, only it will take me more time than I have now.”

As the budget pertains to compensation increases through the pending contract, Lyons said that he and the senior account clerk have done projections in a digital spreadsheet “to realize the budget impacts relating to future labor costs in the budgets and found [wage increases] to be well within the means.”

“There is no official documentation with this,” Lyons said, “but once we get further along I will certainly make those numbers available to the public if need be.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo has published its reopening plan on its website. Governor Andrew Cuomo will determine the first week of August whether schools will reopen statewide. 

  • Berne’s town attorney Javid Afzali informed the town board at its July 22 meeting that the controversial Switzkill Farm property may have been acquired illegally because the 2014 town board did not allow for a permissive referendum following the purchase authorization. Then-supervisor Kevin Crosier tells The Enterprise that no referendum was required.

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Schanz said she is grateful for what she learned from the audit and new procedures have been put in place.

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