By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — At first glance, the Somerset town board’s proposed 2013 town budget seems a bit unbelievable.
Compared with the numbers in the current budget, the 2013 property tax levy is 20 percent lower, and the general tax rate is 48 percent lower.
That’s unexpected, considering the town’s largest source of non-tax income, Payments in Lieu of Taxes from Somerset Power Generating Station, fell by over $500,000 in the past year.
Town Supervisor Daniel Engert is upfront in pointing out that townwide reassessment has a lot to do with this budget story.
This year, the town’s first revaluation project since 1999 uncovered almost $33 million more in taxable property value, and brought the town’s equalization rate up to 100 percent. All other things being equal, the more value there is to tax, the lower the tax rate is.
Revaluation doesn’t explain the bottom line entirely, though, Engert said.
The 2013 tentative budget shows town government spending is being reduced across the board.
In the face of a fiscal crisis triggered by the power plant PILOT reduction, Engert said, town employees and contractors pulled together and identified spending lines to cut without decimating any town services: speculative economic development activity, equipment and supplies, some employees’ man hours.
Town department heads were asked for, and delivered, year-over-year budget cuts of 15 to 20 percent, Engert said.
Townwide, only one employee, the supervisor’s confidential aide, may receive a $100 per month pay raise; everyone else, including union and non-union employees, elected and appointed officials, will go without.
The town assessor’s post, currently vacant, will be reduced to part-time.
In the highway department, two full-time employees vacated jobs this year and the haven’t been replaced. Instead, Superintendent Ken Bigelow will try to recruit two laborers to work part-time as needed.
Even the private, non-profit Barker Volunteer Fire Co. pitched in, by agreeing to a fire protection contract rate cut in 2013. It’ll give its full range of services to townspeople for $209,500, or $15,500 less than it’s being paid this year.
“Everyone in the town is stepping up,” Engert said. “Our department heads rose to the challenge and found areas where we can do more with less; so did the fire company.”
The town board is adjusting its perception of can-do as well. In the 2012 budget, it allocated $200,000 for “economic development” spending, specifically measures to market and make ready for development the Lake Road property that Verizon once eyed, then turned down, for data center development. In 2013, the development budget lines have been slashed to $43,000, enough money to cover the town’s obligations only in the event it wins a grant to make an undisclosed private parcel “certified shovel-ready.”
The board remains determined to recruit new businesses to the town, and lessen financial dependence on the power plant, Engert said; but the gist now is to find partners who can help cover the tab for that.
By the numbers, the proposed budget shows:
• A year-over-year projected-spending cut of $742,000, or 20.6 percent. Total appropriations are estimated to be $2.86 million in 2013.
• A year-over-year tax levy reduction of $625,000, or 19.4 percent. The tax levy is the amount of money being raised from property tax to support town operations.
• Tax rate cuts in most funds and special districts. As the budget stands, the general town tax would be 88 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, down from $1.69 this year; and the highway tax, currently 8 cents per $1,000, would be eliminated. The lighting district tax would be cut to 45 cents per $1,000, from 60 cents. After modification of its refuse disposal contract with Modern Corp., to have recyclables picked up every other week instead of weekly, homeowners will see their annual disposal fee slashed by $53, to $112.
• The fire district tax, applied to all properties outside the village of Barker, would be raised 8 cents per $1,000 of property value, to 44 cents. Terms of the revised PILOT for the power plant caused erosion of total taxable value in the fire district, according to Engert.
• Total taxable value of the town is $139.2 million after revaluation. That’s $33 million or 31 percent more than in 2011.
Engert suggested many property owners will see a true tax cut in 2013 despite reassessment.
Anecdotally, he said an owner whose assessment was raised as much as 40 percent will still pay less in town taxes than this year, because the 2013 levy and combined rates are so much lower.
A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Somerset Town Hall.