Westerlo tentative $2.9 M budget cuts $200K, anticipates nearly 6-percent tax hike

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Westerlo laid off two highway workers earlier this year in an effort to reduce expenses for the 2021 budget.

WESTERLO — Just as Westerlo’s 2020 budget looked radically different from its 2019 budget, the 2021 tentative budget features big changes, too, with a revenue loss of more than $200,000 and a nearly 6-percent property tax increase that covers what couldn’t be saved through expense reductions. 

The tentative $2.9 million budget is a first draft of the town’s final budget, which must be adopted by Nov. 20 after a series of town workshops where Westerlo residents and officials can offer their opinions. Budgets in small towns are crafted by town supervisors who by law serve as a town’s chief fiscal officer.

While last year’s budget makeover was related to Supervisor William Bichteman’s taking over for long-time supervisor Richard Rapp, and Bichteman’s subsequent structural overhaul of what used to be a notoriously opaque budget creation-and-workshop process, this year’s budget alterations are largely an effect of the coronavirus pandemic, which sank the state economy and cut into the county sales-tax revenue on which small towns like Westerlo rely so heavily. 

“Our [tentative] town budget reflects what’s happening,” Bichteman told The Enterprise. “There’s no doubt that the coronavirus has impacted our town and certainly you can’t deny the downturn in the state’s economy or the corresponding sales slump. And the budget basically looks at that with a conservative eye and estimates a fair value for what the sales-tax revenue will be for the 2021 year.”

Westerlo’s county sales tax revenue is projected in this year’s tentative budget at $950,000, though what’s included in the budget is not the total amount Bichteman expects Westerlo will receive. Bichteman told The Enterprise in June that, typically, 15 percent of the county sales tax revenue is diverted to the town’s reserve fund.

Last year, Westerlo’s budget anticipated approximately $1.25 million in sales tax revenue.

“The numbers that are represented here,” Bichteman said, “are approximately 10-point-something percent less than what we budgeted last year and that is in line with what the state has budgeted for the first quarter themself as far as sales revenue, and it’s in line with what the county has projected as well. 

“I don’t think we’re a long way away from anything here,” Bichteman went on, “That’s pretty much what it is. We have managed to, through various cuts in our budget, reduce total appropriations from what it was last year by almost $135,000. And even at that rate we’re still looking at a tax increase of slightly less than 6 percent.”

Westerlo’s tentative 2021 budget has appropriations at $2.9 million after cutting $133,945 from the 2020 budget’s $3.1 million appropriations line. Last year, sales tax was projected to fund 40 percent of the town’s expenses.

Cuts in the 2021 tentative budget include two highway department layoffs that had been authorized in June, which Bichteman said would save the town around $77,000. Other cuts include reductions in employee mileage reimbursements, office supplies, museum contractual expenses, and more.

Bichteman was the first of the four Hilltown supervisors to talk about the pandemic’s impact on local finances, broaching the issue in May with a presentation that laid out the town’s worst-case scenario.

At that time, Bichteman warned of a potential county sales-tax loss of 35 percent and town property tax hikes of up to 12 percent. 

Some residents and town officials criticized Bichteman — who had already been controversial for his typically gruff way of responding to dissenters — as an alarmist or for overstating the severity as a way to leverage the town board to vote for cost-saving measures that Bichteman preferred, critics said, regardless of the town’s financial standing.

The most controversial of these were the highway department layoffs. Those positions were targeted by Bichteman who argued that they were “superfluous.”

After the board voted to authorize the layoffs in June, it was revealed that Bichteman had misstated the number of residences served by the highway department, a figure he used to illustrate how much the highway department expends to serve each household. Further, Highway Superintendent Jody Ostrander, in a terse statement to The Enterprise, said that he didn’t agree with Bichteman’s assertion that the department was overstaffed.

Bichteman told The Enterprise that the discrepancy came from his indirect method of counting residences based on comprehensive-plan surveys that had recently been mailed out according to tax roll information, which would have excluded properties owned by the same person. Ostrander, meanwhile, had his workers count the buildings on each road.

Both sides assumed that only people living on the town roads use the town roads.

The highway layoffs had been voted against by Councilwoman Amie Burnside and Councilman Richard Filkins, both Republicans, and both of whom would later present to the board a schedule of other expense reductions the town could make, which some saw as a theatrical protest of the cuts proposed by Bichteman, a Democrat.

More recently, Bichteman proposed a merger of the planning and zoning boards — which would have been done by dissolving the zoning board and expanding the number of members on the planning board from five to seven to make room for some former zoning board members — as a way to cut costs and improve the efficiency of project reviews. 

The planning board’s chairwoman, Dotty Verch, who ran against Bichteman for supervisor on the Republican line last year, suggested during a meeting that Bichteman was attempting to remove her from her position, according to meeting minutes.

Bichteman told The Enterprise that, because the idea lacks popular support, no vote will be held on the matter for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, other Hilltown supervisors did not seem to share Bichteman’s concerns about town finances in the wake of the pandemic, signalling to their constituents an optimism that’s now backed up by tentative budgets that show equal or lower property tax rates, and few to no layoffs. 

In light of other towns’ budgets, those who more or less characterize Bichteman as a would-be autocrat likely have all the more reason to criticize Bichteman’s continued hardline approach to coronavirus finances.

When asked about anticipated criticism and the difference between Westerlo’s tentative budget and those of the other Hilltowns, Bichteman said, “I don’t think [dictator’s] a fair characterization at all. I’m totally goal-oriented and I look at problems in a non-political light, and that offends some people, I guess.

“I look at things as a positive or negative: Does it or doesn’t it help?” Bichteman went on. “Solutions are solutions; you define the problem, you plot the solution, and you engage. And those things seem pretty simplistic.”

Bichteman told The Enterprise that, after introducing the budget on Oct. 6, he went through the budget line by line for residents and provided an explanation for each change, which he did last year to bipartisan praise.

“There’s some things that change from one year to another,” Bichteman said of budget figures. “Some [changes are] a rearrangement of allocation of workforces, like, for example, we moved some areas that were normally in the highway budget into the general-account budget because they belong there … There’s things that we had before that were in the general-account budget that moved back to the highway department budget. 

“The amounts that were spent [in those accounts] this year and last year remain the same,” Bichteman went on, “they’re just in different places in the budget because they’re more appropriate there. So for those types of things there’s some explanation [required], especially for someone who just looks at the budget in comparison to last year.”

Of creating a budget after last year’s deep clean, Bichteman said, “It was a lot easier to do it this year than it was last year because the groundwork had been set up, and, more importantly, the accounting system the town has worked better this time. As they say, garbage in, garbage out. 

“If you don’t have things coded properly … it’s hard to use those and rely on them budgeting for the next year,” Bichteman said. “The town has worked hard to basically code the expenditures in the right place and [have them] attributed to the right areas … so that those budget numbers going forward are in line.”

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