By Colin Hogan
Schroeppel residents are facing a steep hike in the town’s property taxes in 2015, which some town officials are saying is the consequence of years of balancing the budget with fund reserves.
The $2,437,528 spending plan for 2015 will rely on $961,510 in anticipated non-property tax revenues, with the remaining $1,476,018 to be raised from the town’s tax levy. In previous years, the town used its reserves to help offset the tax levy, but officials say this year there simply aren’t enough reserves left to use, leaving a heavier burden on the taxpayers.
According to Deputy Town Supervisor and town board member Steve Hutchins, prior administrations used up more than $1.7 million in reserves to balance the town’s budget over the last five years. Now, he says, without any reserves left, the taxpayers will have to shoulder the burden themselves.
“(Property owners) are going to see a tax bill in January they’re not going to like,” said Hutchins. “The past administration spent every penny of reserves to keep taxes level. Now that there’s no reserves, guess where taxes have to go? Up.”
Hutchins, who assumed office this year, said he is “appalled” by how previous town leaders continued to deplete the reserves without making necessary tax increases, leaving the tax rate “artificially low.” He said tax increases could have been nominal and much more manageable for the taxpayer if they had been done responsibly over time.
According to the budget, Schroeppel’s tax rates for 2015 will be $3.0688 per $1,000 of assessed value for properties within the Village of Phoenix and $5.1566 per $1,000 for properties outside of the village. Those represent a more-than-30 percent jump in rates compared to 2014, when they were $2.2543 and $3.8630, respectively.
The average property owner in Schroeppel could see his or her town taxes go up anywhere from $75 to $250 as a result of the rate change, Hutchins estimated. A home assessed at $100,000 would see roughly a $130 increase, he said.
Hutchins said, in spite of their need to use reserves, town officials had actually lowered tax rates in 2012 and 2013, leaving a larger gap to close in 2015.
While the impending tax increase will keep the town operating, it won’t solve its reserves problem. Hutchins said the new revenue will cover the basic costs of operating the town, but most likely won’t add to the reserves. New York state recommends municipalities maintain reserves equal to about 10 percent of their budget.
“The budget we passed is bare bones. It’s the cost of running the town,” Hutchins said. “Those are the costs of having a highway department that plows our roads, and to keep the lights on in the town hall, and to have things like a community services program. This is what we need to budget just to have those basic things.”
This year, the town hired a new comptroller, Robert Peters, who has helped with the budgeting process. Hutchins said, with Peters on board, he hopes the town will begin formulating a plan to begin adding to its reserve funds again.
“We hired a new comptroller who is very good at what he does,” Hutchins said. “We’ll be working with him over the next 12 months and, yes, we will determine a plan to put reserves back in the budget.”
The 2015 spending plan doesn’t come without cuts, either. Hutchins said more than $200,000 in services and programs were eliminated from next year’s budget. After the board held several meetings with department heads, Hutchins said some items they intended to fund next year — such as $25,000 for bathrooms in a park, a used crusher for the highway department estimated at another $25,000 and funds for additional personnel in the community services department — all had to get turned down.
While Hutchins knows the hike will be unpopular with residents, he said he and the rest of the board are willing to take “a political hit” for making the necessary adjustments.
“Realizing there was no fiscally responsible way the town could provide the minimum level of services and programs within the 2 percent cap (on tax levies, mandated by the state) and maintain current levels of vital services and programs expected by the community, taking a political hit for exceeding the 2 percent cap is the price this board is willing to take in the adoption of the 2015 budget,” Hutchins said.