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Massena approves tax cap override

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MASSENA - Exceeding the state’s property tax cap may be inevitable this year, according to town officials.

The Massena Town Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve an override to the state-imposed property tax cap following a public hearing. Massena would only be able to collect between $40,000 and $50,000 more in property taxes this year than last before reaching the cap, according to Bookkeeper Nancy Fregoe. Supervisor Joseph D. Gray’s proposed 2013 budget raises the tax levy by $725,000.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect we can zero this budget out,” Councilman Albert N. Nicola said. “Unless we eviscerate the entire town of Massena, I don’t think it’s feasible to think that we can.”

Mr. Gray said he saw exceeding the property tax cap as “inevitable,” while Councilman Charles A. Raiti spoke of the difficulty of making the necessary cuts to substantially lower taxes.

“That’s not bare bones. That’s cutting arms and legs off,” Mr. Raiti said.

Councilman Robert Cunningham had previously voted against setting a public hearing for the override. After reviewing the numbers, he realized the council would have a difficult time realizing $100,000 in cuts, let alone the nearly $700,000 necessary to meet the cap.

“I guess I have to flip-flop,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Town board members heard both sides of budget arguments during a nearly three-hour budget workshop and regular meeting on Wednesday. During the workshop, officials from the Massena Public Library, Massena Meals on Wheels and Massena Senior Citizens urged the board to not cut any deeper into their town funding.

On the flip side, businessman Edward Kaneb Jr. spoke of the crippling effects a tax increase could have on Massena’s businesses during the public hearing.

“People don’t want their taxes raised but they also don’t want their services cut,” Mr. Raiti said. “That’s the quandary this board is in.”

The town board did not agree on further cuts to the organizations that attended Wednesday’s workshop. Officials have also not yet set a fixed number for a lower tax increase they would like to strive for, and may do so at a subsequent workshop.

Much of Wednesday’s budget workshop discussion centered around MPL funding. A week ago, council members had requested the library board come back Wednesday with more cuts than the $13,000 decrease Mr. Gray proposed in his budget.

Wednesday night, library board members came back with a spending plan which used $619,980 in property taxes for revenue in 2013, $86,897 less than in the 2012 budget. But Mr. Macaulay pointed out that the library’s expenses were only dropping approximately $30,000 from last year, and suggested the board may need to cut deeper than that. MPL officials used fund balance left over from a leaner-than-expected 2012 to offset the decrease in property tax revenue.

“I don’t think it’s overly aggressive,” Mr. Macaulay said.

Mr. Macaulay had previously suggested the library board make $120,000 to $130,000 in cuts, including eliminating personnel and reducing hours. But MPL board members told the town council they could not, and would not, cut any more Wednesday night.

“To realize the savings you’re looking at, you’re looking at a half-time library,” MPL Board President Mark Englert told the council.

Board member Emily Hutchison urged the town board to allow the library board to proceed with the cuts it has proposed, to give it more time to plan greater changes in future years. If the library proceeded with Mr. Macaulay’s proposed cut this year, it would mean the elimination of all part-time employees and one full-time staffer, she said.

“We felt everything is cut down to the brass tacks that we can,” Ms. Hutchison told the town council. “We are not willing to voluntarily start laying people off. There’s nowhere else you can cut without laying staff off.”

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