First-year town super takes a new approach with $1.6 million budget

The Enterprise — Tim Tulloch
Reaching for savings: Town Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis reviews the numbers in his 2017 budget, his first as town helmsman.  The town board has given its preliminary approval to  the $1.6 million spending plan  but will give it  a closer look at a budget workshop — open to the public — Nov. 1.

KNOX — The top line in the $1.6 million  preliminary budget proposed by Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis — and approved  by the town board at its Oct. 11 meeting  for further vetting at a town board workshop set for Nov. 1 — calls for a 16-percent cut in town spending compared to the 2016  budget,  which was the 42nd and last budget submitted by the man Lefkaditis succeeded, Michael Hammond.

For 2017, the town’s tax rate, Lefkaditis says, should remain the same, about $1.98 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

In dollar terms, the 2017 budget, which Lefkaditis calls “realistic,” funds town operations to the tune of about $743,000 for the general fund and  $871,000 — or about 60 percent of town expenditures — for the highway fund.

The Hammond 2016 budget  appropriated $1.9 million, with $472,000 going to the general fund. As of the end of August, the town  had spent  $351,000 of that amount.

The bulk of the spread between the 2016 and 2017  budgets is found in the area of highway department funding. In 2016, the road warriors were allocated  $1.127 million; in Lefkaditis’s  2017 budget that number drops to  $871,300, a cut of almost 23 percent

At the Oct. 11 board meeting, Highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury seemed unbothered by the reduction in his budget. Pressed by Deputy Supervisor Amy Pokorny to tell the board if  he could work with the lower funding level, he said it looked OK to him.

Lefkaditis told The Enterprise that he had spent “three or four hours” with the highway head discussing the proposed 2017 funding level.

Salisbury told The Enterprise  that he and Lefkaditis “just took an average of 5 0r 6 years, and added some here, subtracted some there.” He affirmed that his 2017 budget allotment “looks like less but really isn’t.” By this, he meant, he’ll be spending the same amount for the highway department as in previous years.

Of his winter reserves he said, “Our winter budget is the same as it has always been” and that the town already has on hand 90 percent of the  road salt it will need for the season.

“We’re realizing huge maintenance savings, too,” Salisbury said, because the equipment is so new, thanks  to roughly $608,000 in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency secured in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene  and used to purchase new equipment. Further savings, he says, come from less need to rent equipment and pay rental fees, and from the turnaround agreement with Caterpillar that allows the town to trade in equipment after only one year of use.

Lefkaditis said he believes that “for whatever reason previous budget-making  used to inflate numbers” when estimating year-ahead spending. In fact, as of Aug. 31, the highway department operations had cost the town $389,676, or only about 35 percent of the $1.127 million in funding it was allocated in the 2016 budget. An almost snowless winter may account for some of that.

Lefkaditis told the town board in March that, since little snow fell this past winter, Knox paid $23,000 less in wages than in each of the last two winters. With the mild weather, the town paid for 700 instead of 1,900 gallons of fuel, he also said.

Leftover highway funding  will go into the town’s fund balance, which currently stands at a little over $1 million.


Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Budget veteran:  Long-time Highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury has seen many budgets over the years and likes to make sure he is covered for contingencies, like an extra-snowy winter.


Contrasts in budgeting

Hammond told The Enterprise that his approach to budgeting was to “meet the needs of the year and provide for unexpected emergencies, especially in the highway department.” He said  he liked “to keep money in abeyance for, say, a big snowstorm, things like that.” He also aimed, he said, to always “maintain a healthy balance” in the town reserves, both in the general and the highways funds.  Under his direction, he said, the town had gone from being  “red-flagged” by the state to being declared “very healthy.”

Pokorny, in a letter to the Enterprise editor, contrasted Hammond’s budget approach with that of Lefkaditis, describing the Hammond’s  as “conservative,”  using “generous appropriations to cover unexpected expenses.”

She wrote that Lefkaditis “has cut appropriations to more closely reflect spending patterns in past years.”

Lefkaditis  confirmed to The Enterprise that this was his approach in coming up with a “realistic” number for the highway department.  He also said that his proposed budget contains a line that assigns a buffer of $50,ooo to the highway department to cover unexpected costs.

“The town budget has to reflect true costs,” the supervisor asserts. “And department heads have to have realistic numbers to force town government  to spend within limits and help me drive taxes low.”

Lefkaditis  says he believes that, although it’s possible to simultaneously  “increase services and reduce taxes,”  tax-cutting  is something that will have to wait until  his second year in office, “after I get this year under my belt.”

As for more services, he says, “The demographics of the town are changing; more young people are moving in.  But I hear from both young and old there isn’t enough to do in this town.”

He says his budget contains added money for “celebration.”

Savings spelled out

The supervisor said he is “relentless” in trying to find ways to save the town and its taxpayers money.

As result of  renegotiating the premium the town pays for its workmen’s compensation insurance, he says, its total cost will go from  $69,000 to $47,000.

The town’s seven full-time employees, all in the highway department, will have “better health- care coverage at less cost to the town” he declares, producing a “a minimum of $12,000 in savings” over the course of the year.  Switching the town’s payroll service from “the Cadillac plan” will save a further $3,000, he says.

He says he negotiated down  the interest rate the town pays on the larger of two Bond Anticipation Notes — the one that helped finance the modern town hall, adding, “I love to negotiate.”  He told the town board at its last meeting that $ 3,3000 in interest would be saved this year..

The proposed increases are modest: $1,000 more to senior services, $2,000 more to youth services, and $1,200 more to the Berne library which many Knox residents use. Knox has no library of its own, and directors of both the Altamont and Berne libraries in March presented the Knox Town Board with data showing the town does not contribute money to those libraries to match their use by Knox residents.

Pay raises include a 25-cents-per-hour increase to the wages of highway and transfer-station employees, for a range from  $12.98 to $21.49 per hour;  $800 more to the full-time highway superintendent for $56,678 annually ; $300 more to the part-time town clerk for  $12,985 yearly;  $200 more to the registrar (an additional post held by the town clerk) for $1,138 annually ; and $300 to the party-time town court officer for $2,200 annually.

“This is a balanced budget,” Lefkaditis, a hedge-fund manager, says of his first wrangling of the numbers. “No money should be needed from the fund balance...Every department is allocated a buffer for unexpected expenses.”

Looking ahead, Lefkaditis says the town  has to maintain healthy reserves to meet contingencies down the road. Among them, he says, are the coming need for a new snowplow, the rising cost of health insurance, repairs to the transfer station and highway garage, and the impact when the  landfill  Knox uses on Rapp Road is full.

Though the supervisor has had a contentious relationship with the other town board members in his freshmen year, Lefkaditis gives every indication of wanting to stay in his post beyond  his current two-year term.

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