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Gray details Massena budget proposal

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MASSENA- No tax increases is “all but impossible” for the town this year, according to Supervisor Joseph D. Gray.

Mr. Gray detailed his 2013 spending plan to the Massena Town Council on Wednesday. The proposal includes increasing the property tax levy by more than $725,000, leaving two vacant positions at the Massena Public Library unfilled and cutting funding to most outside agencies, including the Massena Humane Society, Meals on Wheels and the Greater Massena Chamber of Commerce.

The proposed tax rate increase for those inside the village is $1.33 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, from $3.46 to $4.79, a 38.4 percent hike. For those outside the village, there is a proposed $1.32 increase, from $4.41 to $5.73, a 30 percent climb from the 2012 rate.

That means a property owner in the village with a parcel assessed at $90,000 would pay $119.70 more in town taxes than in 2012, while one outside the village with a parcel assessed at $90,000 would pay $118.80 more.

“We have come to this point, in my opinion, by our continual pursuit of annual budgets with zero tax increases. That goal, as noble as it may be, is made all but impossible by factors outside the control of this town council,” Mr. Gray said in his budget narrative to the town board. “In short, we continue to lose sources of revenue, we have depleted fund balances and we have failed to increase taxes to keep pace with the cost of doing business.”

The youth services librarian position and a vacant clerk position at the Massena Public Library would not be filled under Mr. Gray’s plan, cutting the library’s expenses by $13,000 from its approximately $751,000 budget this year.

“I feel bad doing that as the new library board and its new director have done a great job adjusting their budget and actually reduced their request. My proposed cut has nothing to do with their performance, which has been stellar,” Mr. Gray said. “As a result of these cuts, the library may have to adjust or decrease hours of operation. I hope it does not come to that.”

The court stenographer position would also be eliminated, a savings of $6,500, because the town can digitally record proceedings, Mr. Gray said.

“I don’t think there’s an absolute need for that position,” Mr. Gray said.

Agencies like the Massena Humane Society, Massena Meals on Wheels and the Greater Massena Chamber of Commerce were cut by at least 10 percent in Mr. Gray’s plan. The chamber will see its funding reduced by 40 percent, or $6,000, from $15,000 to $9,000, while the humane society would see a $6,000 cut, from $53,500 to 47,500.

“These are good agencies that do great work caring for our citizens, animals and our business community. I take no pleasure in reducing their allocations,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Gray suggested funding to outside agencies may have to be cut entirely in future years.

“We can no longer continue to ask taxpayers to support non-governmental functions,” Mr. Gray said. “In future years, I expect the local government funding to these agencies will continue to decrease and eventually be eliminated.

“My wife and I will be increasing our personal contribution to some of these agencies, and I encourage Massena residents to do the same to help them make ends meet,” he added,

While the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena will see its funding doubled, from $30,000 to $60,000, Mr. Gray cautioned the agency on Wednesday.

“The BDC is being put on notice that this commitment means that we will expect significant results over the next 24 to 28 months. Those results will be measured and analyzed,” he said. “This community has spent tens of thousands of dollars chasing economic development progress, and we have not seen a great return on that investment over the past few decades.

“The improvement in attitude and business practices by the BDC’s current board of directors is what convinced me to take one more shot on getting this thing right.”

In previous years, town board members pledged to attempt to eliminate the tax rate increase in the supervisor’s proposal. Officials said they were not yet sure how much they could whittle down Mr. Gray’s proposed increase this year.

“We’ve got to ask questions and see what we have to do,”Councilman John F. Macaulay said.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Councilman Charles A. Raiti added. “Revenues are going down and expenses are staying steady.”

“The chickens have come home to roost,” Mr. Raiti said.

Mr. Raiti said Massena will not be alone in having a difficult town budget this year.

“Councils and governments are turning over every stone more than they’ve ever turned them,” Mr. Raiti said.

Mr. Macaulay said Massena’s economy and fortunes have changed greatly in the last five years. The town government may have to adjust as well, he said.

“Massena had champagne tastes on champagne incomes,” Mr. Macaulay said. “Now we’ve still got champagne tastes on beer incomes.”

Mr. Macaulay said the town had to increase taxes dramatically over a decade ago, then was able to keep rates level in recent years. This may be another year of a sharp increase, he said.

“That’s no consolation,” Councilman Albert N. Nicola responded.

“No, I know,” Mr. Macaulay said. “This is going to be very difficult.”

The council scheduled several workshops in the next several weeks to review and potentially amend Mr. Gray’s proposal and plans to finalize a budget in November.

Several factors led to the proposed tax increase, Mr. Gray previously said. The 2013 budget reflects no revenue from casino gaming compact funds, causing a heavier reliance on property taxes. Massena had received anywhere from $182,819 to $555,613 in gaming compact revenues from 2007 to 2010. The town ran out of that money in 2012 because of an ongoing dispute between the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Mr. Gray’s proposal also cuts down on the amount of unallocated fund balance used to offset a property tax increase. The town is expected to use more than $600,000 of its largest source of unallocated fund balance this year, dropping the amount available to an estimated $779,347 at the end of the year, compared with $1,391,633 at the start.

The state recommends municipalities retain enough unallocated fund balance to cover at least two months of operating expenses, which in Massena’s case is approximately $700,000, according to the town’s bookkeeper, Nancy A. Fregoe. Because of that, Mr. Gray proposed using $50,000 of the $779,347, a fraction of the amount used in 2012.

“That’s the biggest single reason why we’ve got an increase in taxes,” Mr. Macaulay said Wednesday.

Mr. Gray’s budget narrative also blasted state government for refusing to pay owed casino gaming compact monies.

“Residents who are unhappy with their property tax increases should send a letter to Gov. Cuomo and demand he give Massena its compact money,” Mr. Gray said. “In fact, I will help you write the letters and give you the governor’s email or mailing address.”

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