Berne super says COVID tax losses won’t affect town staff or services

BERNE — After resisting questions from both The Enterprise and Berne residents for months, Supervisor Sean Lyons has provided insight into Berne’s finances, which have taken a hit from the coronavirus and will see expense reductions, but won’t require any cuts in town staff or services, he said. 

“We are currently estimating reductions in Highway revenue of 12% and reductions of General Fund Revenues of 2.5%,” Lyons wrote in a letter dated Aug. 12 and posted on the town’s website. 

Berne’s $2.6 million 2020 budget anticipated $1,064,000 in sales-tax revenue — constituting the majority of the town’s overall $1.4 million revenue, excluding property taxes. Sales tax is collected by Albany County and disbursed to municipalities based on their population. So far, Berne has received $454,145.64 in sales-tax revenue, according to Mary Rozak, director of communications for the Albany County executive. 

Rozak did not provide information about the town’s Consolidated Highway Improvement Program funding, which, like sales tax, accounts for a significant portion of the town’s highway fund. Lyons confirmed that CHIPs losses account for the gap between General and Highway revenue decreases. The 2020 budget anticipated $183,000 in CHIPs money, roughly a quarter of the highway budget’s $729,000 revenue projection. 

Lyons said that the town’s reserve fund, which totaled $450,000 in the 2020 budget, will not need to be touched in response to the pandemic. 

In his letter, Lyons said that Berne has so far collected 75 percent of its overall revenue. “An unexpected increase in revenue from recycling fees of over 400% and increases in Clerks fees and other income means that we will be very close to achieving all the revenues expected before the impact of the Covid pandemic,” Lyons wrote.  

Berne’s recycling fee boost computes to approximately $1,500 in extra money, Lyons confirmed for The Enterprise, adding that, while he’s still waiting for a report from Solid Waste Coordinator Randy Bashwinger to reveal the source of the increase, he believes it is the result of improved operations, such as “the attendants being more prudent in separating and recycling along with more effort into revenue collection.” 

Bashwinger is also the town’s highway superintendent and chairs Berne’s Republican committee. He was named Solid Waste Coordinator at the town’s Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting. Bashwinger’s new appointment was considered suspect by residents who were wary of the new board with a GOP-backed majority. Lyons has told The Enterprise that the change allows for a reduction in hours and saves the town nearly $4,000.

Bashwinger could not be reached for comment.

Sales-tax revenue took an enormous hit when the coronavirus halted most in-person commerce for several months, with that impact reverberating even after the majority of businesses in the county have resumed operations. 

July 1 was the first day of Albany County’s Phase 4 reopening — the last phase of the state’s reopening plan, though one that still restricted recreational areas like malls and amusement parks that attract massive crowds — and the county still saw an 9.7-percent decrease in sales-tax collection that month compared to the same month last year, stamping out any armchair theory that sales would soar back into the black as people sought to compensate for the months they spent sheltering in place. 

Still, July was a rebound from the preceding months, when sales-tax losses were often in the double-digits. In March, when the pandemic was first declared and the county began shutting down halfway into the month, sales-tax revenue increased only 0.7 percent compared to the nearly 7-percent increases seen in January and February; in April it was down 32.2 percent; in May it was down 29.5 percent; and in June it was down 15.6 percent. 

“The comptroller reported a much better July,” Lyons said, “and I can only assume that the trend will continue into August and September.”

A benefit to Berne’s fiscal standing is last year’s sales-tax revenue, which came in far above the town’s expectations. The 2019 budget anticipated $870,000 but Berne’s financial report on the State Comptroller’s website shows that the town received more than $1.2 million

Lyons told The Enterprise that the additional revenue “was rolled over into the sales-tax revenue of 2020, giving us a huge starting point and nearly covering our COVID losses. That along with budget cuts I am proposing will give the Town another good starting point for 2021,” he said.

Lyons wrote in his townwide letter that Berne’s third- and fourth-quarter expenses can be reduced by 11-percent without cutting services or staff. 

“Our team has identified areas in the current budget that are redundant,” Lyons wrote, “have been funded and the work or material items never procured or completed, or contain excessive contingent funds associated with the expenses … These reductions will cover the projected loss in sales tax revenue in the General Fund and allow for sales tax revenue collected in the third and fourth quarter to cover potential revenue losses to the Highway Fund.” 

Berne’s next board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 26 at the town’s senior center, where meetings had been held prior to the pandemic. The budget reductions are on the meeting’s agenda (erroneously labeled as 2019 budget reductions), which was posted on the town’s website on Aug. 25.

Lyons addressed the delay in providing financial information to those who had been asking by saying that he preferred to work with real figures over the cloudy projections that had been coming in over the past few months. 

Lyons told The Enterprise he was waiting for revenue data from the second quarter, “and it took me some time to come up with budget reductions that will not cut any services or employment. I am not eager to post predictions or hazy numbers just to say something. I want to compile hard facts and data, not feelings.”


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