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Massena mayor under fire for steep tax levy increase in tentative spending plan

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MASSENA - Massena Mayor James F. Hidy’s tentative $15.5 million budget that calls for a nearly 10 percent tax levy hike for 2014-15 came under heavy fire Tuesday night from two former village officials, a current village trustee and a landlord.

Former Mayor Charles R. “Charlie” Boots, Matthew LeBire and former Trustee Andrew Szarka all spoke out against the tentative spending plan, saying that his proposed 9.7 percent tax levy increase was unreasonable.

“The 9.7 percent is certainly not a figure the people of Massena are going to swallow. You can’t possibly ask the people of Massena to pay another increase like this. I believe - correct me if I’m wrong - each year you’ve presented your budget, there’s been a substantial increase of at least 4 percent. Am I correct or incorrect?” Mr. Boots said.

“Looking back, that’s probably a correct statement,” Mr. Hidy answered.

“So if we say 4 percent, that would be in the first three years 12 percent and now this one - that would be an almost 22 percent increase while you’re in office for four years. Something’s got to be done,” Mr. Boots said.

Mr. Hidy attributed the large hike to health insurance and workmen’s compensation increases. “That would be 4 percent of this year’s increase,” he said.

“What do you suggest we do? We’ve got an aging infrastructure that’s out of control. Costs have risen tremendously. Again, looking at the health care costs and the workmen’s comp, you take that out of the equation, it’s still passable,” he said. “But unfortunately Mr. Former Mayor it’s there, it’s a reality and there’s not a damn thing that you can do about it.”

Mr. Hidy’s budget proposal would keep salaries for the mayor and the trustee at their current rates, with the mayor earning $17,000 per year and trustees each earning $6,000 per year.

Mr. Boots said he was upset to see the mayor giving himself a $2,000 raise in 2014-15, but Mr. Hidy stressed that was not the case, and his position was supported by Trustee Timothy J. Ahlfeld.

Mr. Boots and Mr. Szarka both questioned the $17,000 salary for the mayor’s post.

“If you look back in the history of the people who have sat at that table that you people are sitting at now, there isn’t anywhere near this amount of money that was given to any mayor. None. Not at all. And I objected last year, I strongly object this year,” Mr. Boots said.

“I’m standing here and I’m wondering about the 9 percent increase and I’m wondering about what sort of instructions you gave to your department heads that resulted in this,” Mr. Szarka, who recently returned to Massena after living in Texas for the past few years, said.

“When I came on the village board in 2004 I didn’t even know there was a salary for village trustee. ... I took part in the vote to raise the mayor’s salary and the village trustees before I left in 2008. When I returned I was absolutely shocked that you once again raised your salaries. ... It’s called public service and I would hope that when you work on the budget you try to follow what we citizens are doing. When we have an increase we tighten our belts and we start cutting. You used the phrase ‘services village residents have come to expect.’ I think if you talked to village residents, they’re going to start answering that we have come to expect decreases and it means that our tax rate will decrease. A 9 percent increase is just appalling. I nearly fainted when I heard that.”

Mr. Szarka repeatedly asked the mayor to detail cuts he had made during the budget building process. “Come in to my office, sit down with me and I’ll share it with you. There were several things,” Mr. Hidy responded.

The former village trustee repeatedly asked the mayor to detail one of the major items he had reduced in the budget and to share the instructions he had given department heads when they were drafting their spending plans for 2014-15, but he did not get a response. “I’m not going to go back and forth,” Mr. Hidy told Mr. Szarka.

Trustees Francis J. Carvel and Timothy J. Ahlfeld addressed the tax levy increase as well, albeit with differing perspectives.

“Nine percent is too high. The pot is getting smaller and smaller and smaller every year. There’s less and less of my money to decide how I want to spend it,” Mr. Carvel said.

The village retiree said his wages haven’t increased since he left the municipality’s payroll seven years ago. “You have to look at this whole area. There’s only so big a pot of money in this area and if we keep on grabbing more out of that pot, there’s not enough to go around for everybody else afterwards. So somebody else suffers out of that deal. We just can’t continue on with these types of increases in taxes.”

He said village taxpayers will be irate if they face a nearly double digit percent increase in their village tax bills. “We, as a board, have to make some real tough decisions. We really have to take a hard look at this,” Mr. Carvel said.

Mr. Ahlfeld noted there were limited areas of the budget where significant savings could be achieved by cuts, and he inferred cuts in those areas hadn’t been deemed palatable by his fellow board members during budget discussions in years past.

“We can do something with recreation. We’ve got a Boys and Girls Club coming here. What does the recreation department do for us? It does a lot. However, there’s a Boys and Girls Club coming in here now. Are they going to be able to help us with some of that? Maybe there’s some cost savings there,” Mr. Ahlfeld said. “I’m definitely willing to think outside of the box, but the problem is I’m one of five and I can count pretty well. So I’m not going to sit here and beat my head until it’s flat if I’m the only one.”

Mr. LeBire pleaded with Mr. Hidy, telling him that he understood the difficulty of putting together a budget, but hoped that the mayor would do anything possible to avoid the large tax increase.

“I would like to thank Mr. Boots for his comments and hopefully mine will not be met with the same tone. Hopefully they’ll be a little more respectful. I understand you’re saying that decisions are tough and there’s not a lot of choice, but taxpayers can’t take it. So get in there and find something,” he said. “I don’t want to see cuts made but when you run a household budget, you look and you have so much money for so many expenses. When you run out of money, you make tough choices. Make the tough choices, that’s all I’m asking.”

Mr. Hidy said in March that he was expecting his proposal to exceed the state’s property tax cap, meaning that in order to be adopted it must be approved by four of the five board members. He also said a few weeks ago that when he and Treasurer Julie Sharlow began working on the budget they were initially faced with an 18 percent tax levy increase.

For taxpayers in West Massena, which is in the town of Louisville, the proposed levy increase would translate to a tax rate increase of 5.99 percent or 91 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. For residents residing in the town of Massena, that increase would be a slightly higher 8.22 percent or $1.19 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

With the increases, village residents in the town of Massena would see their tax rate increase from $14.48 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $15.67.

Later in Tuesday’s meeting the board established a budget work session schedule with the first session taking place at 5 p.m. on Monday.

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