2014: Taxes over cap maintain services

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

At the trailhead in Voorheesville, Kennsington English proudly displayed her age with her three fingers as she walked the Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail in June with her parents to celebrate the solstice. Vendors, displaying everything from reptiles to paintings, lined the light-dappled trail. The village had applied for a $1.2 million grant to make a visitor’s center — a replica of the original train station — that didn’t come through but Mayor Robert Conway said he plans to seek other grants and possibly use funds from the budget to move forward on limited improvements.

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

A quaint Victorian house peeks out between tank cars traveling through Voorheesville in February. Many of the cars are carrying crude oil from North Dakota, which became a concern this year in the wake of accidents and spills. A lack of federal action prompted rail companies to implement their own standards for construction, safety, and inspection — higher than those of the federal government. Trains were also an issue in Voorheesville as a grassroots group worked with the village board toward establishing quiet zones.

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Working together: In November, 10-year-old Marissa Relyea served gravy at the annual community Thanksgiving dinner put on by the American Legion Post. The place was packed, and filled with talk and laughter. The meal, as always, was free, but donations were accepted to benefit local food pantries, which continue to seek volunteers and contributions to meet ongoing needs.

VOORHEESVILLE — Voorheesville residents continued to enjoy the same quality of life as always, but paid a little bit more for it: 2014 marked the first time that the village exceeded the state-mandated 2-percent levy cap on property taxes, raising them 5 percent.

The village saw its hoped-for grant to develop a museum and additional parking at the rail-trail trailhead denied. However, Mayor Robert Conway said that the village still hopes to pursue this through other options in 2015.

Toward year’s end, the village began to see some slow progress toward the possible creation of a quiet zone that would stop the 70-plus trains that pass through the village each day from blowing their horns.

Tax cap surpassed

Voorheesville saw its taxes go up 5 percent, in a move necessitated, Conway said recently, in an effort to “continue to provide the services that village residents have come to expect.”

The village prepared for this by holding a public hearing and passing a local law early in the year that would allow it to surpass the state-mandated levy limit of 2 percent. Conway noted in February that the village has passed the same law in previous years but had never before actually exceeded the cap on the amount to be raised through property taxes charged on the municipality’s taxable assessed value of property.

“We’ve never done it … with careful budgeting,” he said at the time.

But with this year’s $2.05 million budget, remaining within the 2-percent limit would only “have generated about $8,000, and, when you’re facing increases in pension costs and health insurance costs, utility costs, and all those other things, $8,000 doesn’t go very far,” Conway said.

One factor in the decision to exceed the cap that Clerk-Treasurer Linda Pasquali noted back in April was the rise in the cost of street lighting; this contractual cost rose in 2014, she said, from $70,000 to $90,000.

“Even after the rise,” Conway said, “the village’s taxes are still one of the lowest in the area and even in the state.” The rate is about $1.26 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up about six cents from the year before.

The village has experienced “really no pushback” from residents, Conway said. “I think people realize that the village is run efficiently and can see the value of their tax dollars at work: The streets are plowed, the trash is picked up. We’ve been very careful with the money. I don’t think anyone sees their tax dollar being wasted, and I think that helps.”

Conway confirmed at year’s end that the board plans to freeze taxes for the next two years.

Controls in place

The results of a regular audit of the village’s finances by the Office of the State Comptroller were released in July. These included a check of internal controls over claims processing that went back as far as June 1, 2012. The auditors wrote in their report, “Except for minor deficiencies, which were discussed with Village officials, we found all claims were for appropriate Village purposes.”         

Auditors reviewed 50 claims totaling $82,144 and found that all were supported by itemized invoices or receipts and pre-numbered vouchers signed by an authorized official, with one exception. The exception was a $7,373 claim for utility services that was authorized by board resolution to be paid prior to audit and which was appropriately audited and approved by the board after payment was made, the report said.

The report concluded by commending village officials on developing and implementing the proper controls to assure that all purchases are reviewed and approved before being paid.

Rail-trail opportunity

In June, the village applied for a $1.2 million grant from the New York State Department of Transportation. These grants are administered by the DOT’s Transportation Alternatives Program and intended to help fund projects including the construction of bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

The idea was to develop the Grove Street trailhead of the rail trail with a rail museum and additional parking. These plans, it was hoped, would bring increased traffic to Voorheesville’s downtown business district.

The trailhead at the intersection of Grove Street and Voorheesville Avenue opened in December 2013 as the starting point of the three-mile section of trail now open in New Scotland. It is now open only for foot traffic, but will eventually be upgraded for bicyclists. The entire rail trail is nine miles long and extends from South Pearl Street in Albany and through Bethlehem and New Scotland.

Village residents learned in August that the grant application had been denied.

Mayor Conway said then, “Had the plan been approved, the improvements could have increased the demand for local businesses.”

He indicated at year’s end that he still plans to seek other grants, and possibly use funds available within the current budget to move forward on limited improvements. “We still think there’s opportunity there for the village, and we’re going to continue to pursue that.”

Conway noted that the village did receive a small grant of $8,500 in November from the Hudson River Valley Greenway for the Main Street Master Plan Project, to help identify design opportunities and zoning code improvements. Conway said in December, “This dovetails with the rail trail. We hope to tie the two together, using the rail trail as a driver to bring business into the Main Street area.”

New trustee

The village board of trustees got a new member in Florence Reddy, who replaced David Cardona. Cardona lived in the village for 17 years and served on the board for a decade before resigning in October, citing personal changes and the purchase of a new home in Guilderland. Serving on the board was “a very rewarding experience,” he said, citing leaving his board position as the hardest part of leaving the village.

Longtime village resident Reddy was appointed by the mayor the day after Cardona’s resignation. She is an office manager with Prudential Manor Homes in Delmar and the co-owner, with her husband, of Reddy’s Deli in Guilderland Center. The mayor said in October that, as a small business owner, Reddy will “bring a different perspective to the board.”

She is also the first woman to serve in over a decade, since Camille Jobin-Davis left her position as trustee in 2002.

Quiet zone progress

The village is finally moving ahead with an engineering study of the cost and feasibility of creating a quiet zone in the village, Conway said at year’s end. A grassroots group of villagers has pushed for the zone for over a year.

“We have secured about $27,500 from the county to fund an engineering study of implementing that. And we just recently finally had some contact with CSX to move that forward,” Conway said. He expects the engineering study to be done within the first several months of 2015.

The study will look at implementing a quad gate system. Under this system, four gates would lower at a rail crossing instead of the normal two, completely blocking the crossing, Conway explained, making it impossible to zigzag around the gates. With this system in place, engineers would not need to blow the horn on approach to the crossing, as currently required.

“With 70-plus trains a day, this would dramatically reduce the noise,” Conway said.

After the village received an estimate for the quad gate system in December 2013, CSX upgraded two crossings not related to the quiet zone, Conway said, and these upgrades could possibly reduce costs associated with the quiet zone.

The current engineering study will give the village a more accurate estimate and make it possible to start to determine if residents are able and willing to take on the cost of creating the quiet zone.

In the New Year, the challenge for village officials will be to freeze taxes while continuing to explore avenues for driving local business or improving residents’ quality of life such as the trailhead project and the quiet zone.

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