The Niskayuna Town Board on Friday adopted a 2021 town budget that proposes across-the-board cuts and also raises property taxes about 1.8 percent, as the town faces the revenue losses municipalities across the country are seeing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The general fund and highway spending plan, adopted on the last day that the town by law could approve the next year’s budget, totals $16.5 million; the first tentative budget proposed was nearly $17 million.
The final budget trims what was originally a 2.8-percent tax increase down below 2 percent, and also draws less from the town’s fund balance. Spending is still up about $500,000 from this year’s budget, due mostly to contractual increases, and anticipated double-digit increases in health insurance premiums and state retirement system costs.
Town Supervisor Yasmine Syed said the final budget is the best possible given the town’s financial circumstances, though she acknowledged wishing it were better.
“I believe the amended preliminary budget will put us on a good path toward next year,” she said.
The tax rate for homeowners will rise from $2.68 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $2.726, and for commercial and industrial properties, the rate will rise from $5.85 to $6.01 per $1,000. Both are about one-cent per $1,000 less than the increases proposed in the first draft of the budget.
The budget was adopted 4-1 at a special meeting held by video conference, following a half-hour of discussion. Councilwoman Rosemarie Jaquith voting against it. Jaquith said she didn’t have enough information on the 4 percent across-the-board reductions in all spending that Syed proposed in an amended preliminary budget sent to Town Board members on Wednesday.
“Our residents should have some understanding of service cuts,” she said.
The initial tentative budget proposed by Syed called for using $1.6 million from the town’s fund balance to support next year’s spending and hold down taxes. But Town Board members said that was too much to take from the fund balance; the revised budget the board approved takes only $900,000 from the fund balance.
Jaquith said the town can’t continue to rely on taking money from its fund balance to balance the budget. “The continued use of fund balance is not the answer,” she said. She questioned how department heads would be able to deal with an across-the-board funding cut, since any expenses, such as salary and benefits and contractual expenses, are beyond their control.
Councilman John Della Ratta said he supported the budget only reluctantly. He said service cuts and slower personnel hiring will be needed in the near future, if the town wants to avoid an 8 percent to 10 percent tax increase in the next couple of years.
Councilman Denise Murphy McGraw said she opposes tax increases and reliance on the fund balance, but said the final budget was a significant improvement over the two earlier drafts of the budget.
“This budget in financial controls that were not there in the first two iterations,” Murphy McGraw said. “I am never in favor of raising taxes, but if we did not implement a more well-rounded budget…it wouldn’t have been a financially sound plan.”
Syed, who is the only Republican on the Town Board, said she agreed with the criticisms Town Board members offered, but said the budget puts the town on a better path than earlier drafts, given the town’s financial circumstances and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Your options aren’t even good this year,” she said.
Syed acknowledged there isn’t yet a detailed plan for how the budget cuts would be carried out, but said she is working with town Comptroller Ismat Alam, and will provide a plan for achieving the spending cuts to the board in December. Alam joined the town just this past summer, following the retirement of 32-year comptroller Paul Sebesta. All board members said they have faith in the work of Alam, a former city of Schenectady finance director.
“No one takes any joy in the budget we put together this year, least of all myself,” said Syed, who, as supervisor, is the town budget officer. “Nobody sitting here, including myself, is saying this is a great fiscal picture.”
In an effort to reduce 2021 salary costs, the board voted to offer a voluntary early retirement incentive to full-time town employees who are at least age 55 and have worked for the town for a decade or longer. Those who agree to retire will be offered a $10,000 payment on top of normal retirement benefits. The town has about 130 employees, a significant number of whom could be eligible.
“We need to do everything we can to give us tools to address the budget,” Murphy McGraw said. “It’s one more tool.”