Berne’s $2.3M tentative 2021 budget has major tax decrease, salary increases

BERNE — Property taxes are down and salaries are up in Berne’s tentative 2021 budget.

The highway superintendent is slated to get a 12.6-percent raise; the building inspector, a 23-percent raise; and the code-enforcement officer, a 24-percent raise.

The tentative 2021 spending plan shows a property tax decrease of more than 13 percent, dropping from approximately $4.17 per $1,000 in property value to approximately $3.16.

A tentative budget is a first draft of what will eventually become the town’s adopted budget and may be changed drastically before adoption. The tentative 2020 budget, for instance, showed a property tax reduction of 9 percent but the adopted budget only reduced taxes by 3.5 percent.

This major decrease in property tax comes despite a nearly $156,000 drop in county sales tax revenue — down from $1,064,000 — which experienced a decline after New York State’s pandemic-related shutdown.

Supervisor Sean Lyons could not be reached for comment, but the potential 13-percent tax decrease is likely a result of the $2,846,758 budget’s reduced expenses compared to 2020’s $3,069,383 budget (which saw expense reductions late in the year in response to the pandemic’s effect on expected revenue).

The budget totals include special districts which are self-funded by taxes in those districts.

The 2021 reductions are widespread, with money taken away from nearly every budget account, though it can’t be determined which cuts are related to the reduction in revenue and which are a result of Lyons’s identification of excessive funding, which he said was the primary target in this year’s expense reductions. Some 2020 purchases may have been one-time expenses that appear as reductions in a line-to-line comparison.

The Switzkill Farm account has been reduced by nearly $7,000 through the elimination of the chairman’s $2,000 salary, money for various equipment, and safety supplies, among others, leaving a total balance of $10,300.

 Switzkill Farm has been a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans in the town since its purchase in 2014, with Republicans bemoaning the expense of maintenance and Democrats defending its cultural value and potential for revenue generation. The town board, which became a Republican majority for the first time in decades this year, has signaled a desire to abolish the Switzkill Farm board and create a more comprehensive parks board.

There does not appear to be any funding for a new board in the tentative budget.

Other areas of significant reduction are: 

— maintenance supplies for buildings ($11,000 reduction)

— computer equipment ($11,257 reduction)

— the highway buildings account ($10,266 reduction)

— the town park account ($19,300 reduction, with $10,500 of that coming from recreational equipment, a likely one-time expense)

— refuse charges ($29,274 reduction)


A number of town employees and officers have received raises.

The four town board members will receive a modest salary increase of $109.25, bringing each of their salaries to $3744.25. The supervisor’s $19,266 salary has not changed.

Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who led the town GOP when Lyons and the other Republican-backed board members were elected to office, will receive a $6,765 raise, bringing his salary to $60,035.

Town Clerk Anita Clayton, who was elected as a Democrat, will receive an additional $1,283 yearly, bringing her salary to $44,058. Building inspector James Bushnell will receive an additional $5,928, bringing his salary to $25,688. Code enforcement officer Chance Townsend will receive an additional $7,800, bringing his salary to $40,300.

The four members of the zoning board will receive an $18 raise, while the zoning board chairman received a $24 raise.

The four members of the planning board and two alternates will receive a $53 raise (though the budget only lists one planning board alternate, the town is advertising for two), while the chairman will receive a $65 raise.

In August, the town board approved a new labor contract for the highway department which gave the workers a 10-percent raise over three years, in addition to new longevity bonuses up to $1.08 per hour. Lyons was criticized heavily for these raises, which some residents saw as inappropriate in a time of economic decline.


Berne is currently being audited by the state comptroller’s office, and there’s reason to believe that the audit relates to the formulation of the 2020 budget. 

The comptroller’s office would not confirm for The Enterprise what triggered the audit, but Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat, told The Enterprise that it stems from a series of emails and documents he sent to the comptroller’s office that laid out various flaws with the budget creation process, including:

— Failure by Lyons to allow the board to vote to approve a preliminary budget as required by law; 

— Modification of the tentative budget without town board review just before it was deemed preliminary, and;

— Statutory failings by Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger.

Municipal consultant Michael Richardson, whom the town hired to help with the budget, told The Enterprise last year that Lyons and Bashwinger were “not at all” cooperative.

Richardson, 67, said it was the only time he’s experienced resistance from a town that’s contracted his services in the many years he’s been a municipal consultant.

In defending himself against allegations of impropriety, Lyons appears to have lied.

Responding to a letter to The Enterprise editor written earlier this year by Willsey who brought up the same points listed above, Lyons wrote, “The board [Democrats] had one month to review, comment and attend two review meetings to approve changes to the tentative budget and did not ask one question or attend any of the two workshops, therefore with no approved changes the tentative budget became the Preliminary on October 30.”

No minutes are posted online for any budget hearing between Sept. 30, when the tentative budget was presented, and Nov. 1, after the preliminary budget had been presented. Meetings had been scheduled for Oct. 16 and Oct. 23. 

The Enterprise requested any minutes that may exist of an October budget hearing from Clayton but did not receive a response.

Councilwoman Dawn Jordan, a Democrat who did not seek re-election last year, told The Enterprise that, in fact, she and the other two Democrats on the board at the time had attended October’s first workshop meeting last year while Lyons did not.

“Mr. Lyons canceled his attendance at the first budget workshop meeting at the last minute, leaving [Deputy Supervisor] Dennis Palow in charge,” Jordan wrote in an email. “Had Mr. Lyons given us the opportunity to reschedule that first workshop so that he could attend it, we would have done so. 

“Mr. Palow as deputy supervisor has no financial officer duties, and is not the person who puts together the tentative budget,” Jordan went on. “There were multiple mistakes including addition and number transfer errors, lines left out, lines changed, etc. and Mr. Lyons as the chief financial officer and creator of the tentative budget was the only one from whom we could acquire the answers we needed.”

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