Westerlo’s overhauled $3.1M budget squeaks beneath state tax cap

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

Acting Supervisor William Bichteman speaks with a citizen in the town hall gallery at the Nov. 19 Westerlo Town Board meeting. 

WESTERLO — Acting Supervisor William Bichteman’s first budget was adopted with a unanimous vote by the town council members on Wednesday, Nov. 6, at a special meeting at the town hall. 

The new budget accounts for an additional $119,000 in appropriations, bringing its total to $3,074,203. Estimated revenues are listed at $1,448,723, the majority of which comes from property tax levies, which went up by 2-percent and now rest at $1,351,230 — a hair beneath the state-set levy limit of $1,351,336.22. Sales tax distributed by the county is up $30,000 at $530,000.

But most stark of all is the budget’s architecture, which received a major revamping by Bichteman, who was appointed acting supervisor last January after longtime supervisor, Richard Rapp, resigned. Bichteman was elected supervisor earlier this month.

“The criticism I always heard as a resident and a councilman was that the budget wasn’t clear enough and there wasn’t enough explanation for changes,” Bichteman told The Enterprise.

In years’ past, the town budgets frequently overestimated cost increases and were riddled with coding errors — for instance, Bichteman noted that there used to be a “bridges” line, even though the town does not oversee a single bridge.

Bichteman, who owned and operated a construction company for 25 years, sought to address these issues, and more. 

“We ran report after report after report,” said Bichteman, who explained that, rather than build the new budget off fuzzy numbers and codings from the 2019 budget, he looked at the actual cost increases for various lines year to year in an effort to formulate a more accurate projection.

Additionally, lines were consolidated to streamline the accounting process and further simplify the arcane document. 

 “Within these, even though the number is larger than it was before, it covers a bigger area,” explained Bichteman. “One of the things is the office-supply section … we had each individual part of the town clerk’s office, the courthouse, the assessor’s office. They all had an item for office supplies, but they all were purchased through the same person and they all ended up in the same storage room.

“If you want to keep track of your budget and track your costs and have a relative number,” Bichteman continued, “you have to consolidate the cost centers because it makes it an accounting nightmare when they get a bill from Staples … because what happens is you have to divide that bill — ‘This goes to court, this goes to this, this goes to that’ — as opposed to charging it all to one item.”

The consequence of Bichteman’s vast restructuring is a budget that, while clearer and more accurate, can indicate to laypeople massive spending changes that don’t actually exist. Take, as an example, the personal-services line under the “Town Clerk” section, which went from $70,000 to $91,900 despite no actual change in salaries for employees in that category.

“Why that was budgeted at $70,000 is a mystery to me,” said Bichteman. “The budget for 2019 was understated.”

Further, building contractual fees more than doubled from $42,500 to $113,980, but Bichteman explained that the increase is because items like high-speed internet were not included in the 2019 budget.

“Again, you can’t interpret that as an increase in the line,” said Bichteman. “You have to look at the budget in total.” 

There are real changes too, though. A new part-time position of supervisor clerk’s assistant was added to the supervisor’s office with a salary of $22,400. Meanwhile, at its Nov. 19 council meeting, the town appointed Justin Maxwell as sole assessor, and Maxwell is expected to hold more office hours than the former assessor, Peter Hotaling, which prompted Bichteman to change the assessor clerk’s hours as well so that the two aren’t in the office at the same time, all the time. 

The election line will go from $7,000 to $12,000, reflecting a change in cost that Bichteman attributes to New York’s relatively new election reforms, including early voting, which were signed into law last January.

“That was never part of our budgets, before,” said Bichteman. “We don’t control that number; that number is controlled by the [Albany County] Board of Elections who bill towns for that individually. That being the case, we’re going to have to pay for [early voting].”

Expenses for part-time laborers under the “Buildings and Maintenance” section are down because many of the town’s renovation projects — which, rather than being completed by contractors, are carried out by town employees — have been finished.

“Part of that has been the town highway garage,” said Bichteman. “We’ve re-sided and reinsulated portions of that building and so this year’s budget number, including capital-outlay costs, is reduced because we’re not going to spend as much money going forward.”

After the county announced its move to full-time emergency medical services staff, many in the Hilltowns worried that their town’s meager budgets would be crushed under the weight of that funding. The worry was short-lived for the upcoming year, however, because the sheriff’s office then contributed another $150,000 to cover costs for the municipalities its EMS serves, revenue recovered from charges for ambulance calls. Still, county EMS costs are expected to go up steeply in future years.

Westerlo’s EMS budget had $150,365 allocated toward EMS in 2019 and lists $218,600 for 2020.

“We used to have a separate line … for ambulance fund and that’s what we funded our ambulance with,” explained Bichteman about the change. “But that, if you look, is no longer in here. That’s been eliminated [and combined with EMS] because we no longer have an ambulance service anymore.”

At the close of 2019, Westerlo’s volunteer ambulance squad is dissolving due to the growing age of its members and a lack of new volunteers.  

“So you take that out of there and it becomes the real cost,” Bichteman explained, “and, in fact, it actually costs us less money now than it did before.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Esports, or competitive video gaming, is a $1 billion dollar industry that Berne-Knox-Westerlo teacher William Dergosits wants to bring to the school. He says it may open doors for students academically, professionally, and socially — especially for those in what he calls the “hidden demographic.” 

  • TJA Clean Energy, which was planning to propose a solar farm in Berne that spans up to approximately 25 acres near the intersection of Switzkill and Canaday Hill roads, says that the town’s newly adopted industrial-scale solar-energy facility regulations “throw a wrench” in the development process. The town’s law restricts the size of solar facilities to 10 acres. ​

  • Kindness was evident as well as enthusiasm on the dance floor Friday night. It was the fifth Hilltown Dance and its organizers are hoping more adults with disabilities will attend the monthly gathering.

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