Taxes up, but under cap, in adopted Hilltown budgets

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel   

Southward view of the Hilltowns from Switzkill Farm, in Berne. 

HILLTOWNS — As the economy circles, the four Hilltown budgets are holding mostly steady for 2023. 

Westerlo and Berne each cut around half-a-million dollars from their spending, though in Berne that represents reductions in town services to keep taxes down (perhaps unsustainably), while Westerlo’s budget shows debt appropriations making up the bulk of the cuts, with taxes increasing by 1.9 percent to keep up with operational expenses and increased salaries. 

In Rensselaerville, spending is down by around $20,000, while in Knox, spending is up by about $75,000 — small changes relative to their roughly $3 million budgets. Each of those two towns, with bipartisan boards, has kept its townwide tax rate about the same as it was in 2022, with tax increases seen instead in fire districts, which, according to Rensselaerville Fire Chief Robert Tanner, is on par with increased training and equipment costs for districts statewide. 

Each of the four Hilltowns stayed under the 2-percent state-set tax-levy limit. Their biggest source of revenue, county sales tax, is distributed according to population.

According to the 2020 federal census, Rensselaerville has the smallest population at about 1,800 while Knox and Berne hover around 2,700, and Westerlo is the largest with over 3,000 residents.

Sales-tax revenues are projected by each supervisor to stay the same or increase, with Westerlo anticipating an $85,000 increase to its million-dollar baseline — a projection Supervisor Matthew Kryzak called conservative. State highway aid, another big portion of each Hilltown budget, is also expected to be the same as or slightly better than this year.

Both despite and because of the overall spending decreases in Berne and Westerlo, those towns saw some degree of controversy as they worked toward adopting their final budgets this month. 

In Berne, where all of the town board members are backed by the GOP, some residents were critical of cuts to services and the town’s heavy reliance on its reserves. According to Berne’s most recent annual update documents, for 2021, it will use up the majority of its existing reserves by 2024, leaving questions as to whether it will continue to cut services, increase taxes, or find some other, likely non-continual funding source in the not-so-far future. 

Townwide, Berne currently taxes its residents at a rate of about 50 cents per $1,000 of assessessed value — by far the lowest rate in the Hilltowns. The roughly $2.5 million 2023 budget is half-a-million dollars smaller than this year’s $3 million budget.

In Westerlo, another board made up entirely of Republicans, concerns came from board members who felt that certain salary increases were inappropriate, two of whom — Josh Beers and Peter Mahan — ended up voting against the $3.3 million budget while the other three passed it.

Kryzak’s first public draft of the budget had raised salaries in the clerk’s office by $14,500, which he said was to account for an increased workload in that office. That number was negotiated down to an increase of $8,300 in the final budget, though Mahan and Beers remained unconvinced that the increases were necessary. 

Mahan wanted the office to rely more on part-time employees, while Kryzak maintained that full-time employees were ultimately cheaper for the town, as they reportedly result in less turnover and time spent training, according to meeting minutes. Council members Lorraine Pecylak and Amie Burnside, who were skeptical of the original increases, favored the adjusted increases after meeting with the town clerk, the minutes state. 

A separate resolution was made for the salaries, with Kryzak, Pecylak, and Burnside voting in favor of the increases, and Beers and Mahan voting against.

Mahan and Beers were similarly critical of the rate offered to town attorney George McHugh, who is slated to receive a total of $28,000 in 2023, up from $24,000 this year. Kryzak argued that the increase was necessary because of the additional work McHugh is expected to perform as the town ramps up its grant-seeking, among other things. As with the clerk office salaries, the board voted separately on this issue, with the same 3-to-2 outcome. 

The disagreement comes down, essentially, to a difference in view on the role of local government — somewhat unusual considering that every board member was voted in on the same party line. 

At an October meeting, Beers, a business owner, repeatedly invoked “the taxpayers” and his duty to their pocketbooks, while Kryzak, a business executive, pushed back by arguing that the town has a responsibility to its residents through services. 

“Those are things that we should do,” Kryzak said in October, of the town organizing recreational community events and putting out a newsletter. “... If we’re not doing or providing things for the community besides a transfer station permit and plowing the road — you have to have some semblance of community. Most towns that are successful and not suffering from rural decay try to invest in activities in their town to try to keep young people in their town.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Hébert Joseph, who chairs the Rensselaerville Democratic Committee, will be challenging Conservative Chris Smith, owner of Berne’s Maple on the Lake, to represent Rensselaerville, Berne, and Westerlo in the Albany County Legislature.

  • After Albany County withdrew its offer to purchase Switzkill Farm in Berne because it became apparent that the property needed substantial investment, it offered to help “secure” the buildings on the property to prevent further deterioration while the county focused on other projects, according to county spokeswoman Mary Rozak, but Berne officials “didn’t want any part of that.” 

  • A man riding his snowmobile with friends on an abandoned ski slope in Berne was critically injured after he lost control of his vehicle. Because deep snow prevented an ambulance from reaching him, the local fire departments relied on all-terrain vehicles and utility task vehicles to make the rescue, with assistance from Albany County and the Helderberg Ambulance squad. 

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