Bedford will continue to fund an open-space acquisition program but at no immediate cost to taxpayers and with only a third of today’s spending, the town board voted Tuesday.
The board also agreed to ask residents next November whether the program, overwhelmingly approved in a 2000 referendum, should continue in leaner economic times.
In a concession to fiscal challenges already threatening to scuttle the decade-old program, the town’s open-space contribution will drop next year from about $500,000 to well under $200,000. And the money, previously generated by a 3 percent taxpayer surcharge on the general fund and highway budget, will come in this instance from the fund balance, a budget-reserve kitty.
The board’s unanimous vote followed a on a series of local laws to reduce or eliminate funding for the open-space program. Both hearings attracted a standing-room audience to Bedford’s town hall.
Speakers alternately hailed the open-space program as an important conservation tool and plus for property values or dismissed it as a luxury the town can ill-afford in a time of strained finances and threatened municipal layoffs. A shows three job cuts.
Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts acknowledged the town’s economic struggles, saying, “These are difficult financial times for Bedford and no one knows it more than this board.” But she insisted that now “is not the time to give up on our vision for our community.” Roberts said the preview budget’s proposed layoffs were unrelated to open-space funding.
The supervisor, unopposed in her re-election bid earlier this month, then proposed the reduced funding and suggested financing the 1 percent contribution with unspent dollars already in the town treasury.
Councilman Chris Burdick, , supported Roberts’ proposal, saying the fund reserve was meant to be a source of rainy-day money. “And boy,” he said, “do we have a rainy day.” Burdick also produced a check that represented his voluntary family contribution to the open-space fund. He suggested that others in the affluent town could make similar contributions to maintain robust land acquisitions in the face of tight finances and a state-mandated cap on property taxes.
Even at a full 3 percent, the open-space levy means a relatively modest tax bite of only $50 to $60 for average Bedford homeowner, town finance officials estimate. But the overall half-million-dollar-or-so annual contribution would count against a new state limit on the amount by which a town can raise property taxes. Councilman David Gabrielson, also returned to office on Election Day, said the tax cap had made the town board’s job “immeasurably more difficult.”
While the board, exercising an available option, voted to override the state limit, it also pledged to try to stay within the state’s 2 percent cap on increases in the property-tax levy. The board voted the override, Councilman Peter A. Chryssos said, because “we didn’t want somebody else telling us what to do.”
Under today’s circumstances, Chryssos dismissed as “immaterial” the open-space fund’s overwhelming public support in a referendum 10 years ago. Still, he called Roberts’ proposal a “good compromise” and called on residents to see “what we can all give up . . . to get through this difficult period of time.”
“It’s these difficult times that pit us against each other,” he said, an apparent reference to the jobs vs. land-acquisition divide evident in the public hearing.
But, Roberts said, Tuesday’s hearing was “not about jobs. . . . The question on the table is about open space and its importance to our community,” she said.
Councilman Francis T. Corcoran also rejected suggestions that land acquisition was an extravagance the town could not afford. “This has never been a luxury,” he said. “It’s about enhancing the value of the community. To me, it’s about economics.”
A Katonah resident and planning board member, Deirdre Courtney-Batson, rejected all-or-nothing solutions. Telling the board she had “voted for all of you,” Courtney-Batson warned, “Let me be blunt about this. . . . If you either cut jobs or completely eliminate the open-space fund in order to meet that cap, I will be sorely disillusioned and disappointed.”