All the spending and extreme tax decreases are a dangerous gamble in the best of times

To the Editor:

In discussion of the 2021 Berne budget, there are legitimate, documented expenses potentially representing hundreds of thousands of dollars that need to be more seriously considered. Past attempts to develop a five-year budget plan to better identify future needs were very deliberately derailed by the superintendent of highways and the supervisor at the expense of the taxpayer.

Raises, stipends, longevity bonuses and the associated increased costs and benefits provided to employees based on those increased salaries cannot be reversed. The union agreement locked the town into permanently increased costs that must now also increase year to year. All the spending and extreme tax decreases are a dangerous gamble in the best of times. I see the potential for extreme financial stress a couple years down the road.

When we were attempting to formulate a five-year plan and the 2020 budget for Berne, we asked the deputy highway superintendent to do an inventory of town assets including vehicles and equipment.   That inventory (posted online), includes an estimate of the remaining service life of each item.

I must note that you cannot accurately predict when old equipment will fail, exactly what the nature of the failure will be, or how much it would cost to restore that asset to working condition. But I have great confidence that what the deputy superintendent of highways put together here was an excellent gauge of the condition of these vehicles and equipment one year ago and the items where he estimated “1yr” (last year) are priority items that need to be seriously discussed and the needs should budgeted for in the 2021 budget.

The superintendent has implied on social media that the Democratic majority would not approve equipment and vehicle purchases he desperately needed. That is simply not true.

The information he provides on social media is of very little integrity. Everything he requested since I have been in office was very objectively evaluated.

The people need to know that we took the needs of the highway department seriously and approved most everything that was requested after careful consideration and based on opinions provided by the deputy superintendent. Listen to the meetings on tape and review the minutes. Never assume the superintendent of highways is telling the truth.

His recent request was another $250,000 plow truck that the current board denied as the fund balance would be dangerously low as a result of another significant purchase like that. That was an appropriate decision.

A Bobcat skid-steer loader was purchased instead at under $100,000. Now, the purchase of one truck or piece of heavy equipment would leave that fund dangerously low. It should be left at a level that can better accommodate emergencies.

Taxpayers should not be lured into complacency by claims of huge fund balances. The numbers sound big, but look at the cost of trucks, and heavy equipment for perspective. Two trucks could cost over a half million dollars. Mr. [Randy] Bashwinger said he needs two or three. What if we also throw a new grader into the equation?

So people should know that if the meetings and minutes are reviewed one will see that, from my experience, the Democratic majority basically gave the superintendent what he requested after very objective and reasonable discussion, usually with the deputy superintendent (who can be trusted)

In fact, I made a motion to purchase a new bucket for the Gradall because that obvious need was not being addressed by the superintendent. He is distracted by all his other positions and jobs that occupy his daily routine.

We were advised last year, by the superintendent of highways, that the town’s buried fuel tanks had lived out their anticipated service lives and one was very close to failing the regularly scheduled pressure test.   Estimates of $150,000 to $200,000 were talked about.

The superintendent said an estimate would be provided but I am not aware that any such estimate was ever provided. Board members need to consider this, another potentially significant expense, in the 2021 budget process.

There has been no board discussion of this expensive item. I see the potential need for $700,000 or more in expenses in the replacement of highway equipment and assets, but we are reducing taxes?

The fuel tanks at Switzkill Farm also outlived their anticipated service life and began leaking last year.  They failed this year and it appears they will not be replaced as there has been no discussion or proposal I am aware of.

I am told the plan is to ignore the problem. This would make the facility unusable and lead to deterioration of this asset. The upkeep of this property needs to be budgeted. The buildings need to be heated or they cannot be used and will deteriorate. The deterioration and associated lower value of town properties will hurt the taxpayer.

Proposing a 13-percent tax reduction during uncertain times is irresponsible and dangerous in my opinion. It is a dangerous gamble at best. I was very concerned last year exceeding -3 percent. 

If this -13 percent is a mistake, and I believe it is, a resulting need to raise the taxes back above the cap the following years has consequences. In the best of conditions, taxes should be lowered incrementally year by year, reflecting the same limits as the tax cap in my opinion.

Lowering taxes 13 percent and showering everyone with raises under the current, uncertain conditions is erratic. I think we need to be extremely cautious steering the budget. I believe we should be fiscally conservative when spending tax dollars and I don’t think what is proposed is fiscally conservative.

I am not an accountant or budget expert by any means but I am careful with money. I am extremely disturbed by the way tax dollars are being spent in 2021

In 2019, during the approval process for the 2020 budget, the superintendent and the supervisor very deliberately derailed the five-year plan we were attempting to put together in the interests of budget stability, failed to meet their statutory obligations in the budget process, and refused to work cooperatively with the consultant the town hired to help with the 2020 budget process and five-year plan. 

These people are playing political games with your tax dollars.

Joel Willsey

Berne Town Board

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