Dealt the fiscal cards they needed, Bedford’s budget makers approved nearly $26.9 million in tax-cap-compliant 2013 spending Tuesday.
While the new budget hikes property tax rates by 80 cents, from this year’s $30.20 for each $1,000 of assessed value to $31, the average tax bill should arrive 84 cents lower, from $53.08 to $52.25 for a home assessed at $65,000.
“The Town of Bedford is in sound financial shape,” Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts said before the budget vote. “But each year it becomes an even greater challenge to work within the confines of a [tax] cap and still maintain the services that our taxpayers expect.”
Despite a half-million-dollar, or 2.8 percent, rise in the property-tax levy to $17.9 million—the total revenue Bedford must raise through property taxes—the budget comes in under state tax-cap restrictions that limit increases, broadly speaking, to 2 percent. A million-dollar rise in the town’s property values and an infusion of $325,000 in unspent, previously appropriated cash helped avert the need to override the cap.
Still, town officials did not know until this week, a day before the budget vote, whether they could remain within cap guidelines. The new budget, which does not require layoffs or major loss of services, relies instead on a multitude of spending cuts totaling almost a half-million dollars.
The last big piece in those nickel-and-dime economies fell into place only on Monday, when the New York State Health Insurance Program told the town its premiums next year for town employees would rise by only 8 percent, 2 percent less than the alternative possibility, for which town had budgeted. not the 10 percent NYSHIP had earlier held out as a possibility. That allowed another $67,000 reduction in spending, which cleared the way for a tax-cap-compliant budget.
“Honestly,” Comptroller Edward Ritter said later, “up until Monday, we wouldn’t have had a choice. We’d have had to override it.” Ritter said he only completed work on the budget Monday night. “I finished it up with the numbers from the insurance,” he said.
While next year’s budget honors Albany’s tax-cap edict, no one is guaranteeing the town can sustain that fiscal juggling act without substantial relief from a continuing string of state-mandated spending. Indeed, despite the last-minute expense paring this week to achieve compliance, the town board narrowly turned back an effort, seen as largely symbolic, to override the cap anyway.
Republican Councilmen Peter Chryssos and Democrat David Gabrielson pressed for the override, calling it a message to state lawmakers. They lost in a 3-2 vote, but Gabnrielson noted that “the [town] board has always put aside partisan politics and tried to find solutions that allow us to serve the people.
The tax cap, widely misunderstood, limits year-over-year increases in a local body’s property-tax levy to a percentage fixed by the state comptroller’s office. Generally around 2 percent, the final figure can be higher or lower, influenced by such factors as changes in the assessed value of property.
The local body—towns, villages, counties, schools districts and other taxing authorities—can vote to override the state restrictions. But that requires a 60 percent vote, either of board members or, in the case of school budgets, total voters.