Niskayuna residents are asking the Town Board to be more open and direct regarding the town’s budget, both before it’s passed and when any modifications are made afterward.
The push for transparency comes after residents questioned why they heard no more information about a state comptroller report the town received in May that faulted the town for budgeting practices in its 2021 budget.
“I think there is an incredible lack of transparency,” said resident Peter Struzzi. “They deliberately adopted a budget that they knew was out of sync. When they were confronted with it they – I won’t say dismissed my comment – but basically said it’s in the budget go find it. It set the tone and the tenor of how they operate.”
Struzzi had spoken during the town’s August meeting about the issue. For the 2021 budget, the town issued a “2021 budget challenge” to all departments, asking department heads to find ways to cut 4% of their department costs. The goal was to make up for an over $650,000 gap in appropriations.
However, the practice is not accepted by the state comptroller’s office as an effective way to conduct budgeting, according to the report.
“This is not an appropriate budgeting method and the board actually adopted an out-of-balance budget with the intention of balancing it in the future by implementing cost-saving measures,” the report states. “Officials should have identified specific cost-savings measures that could be achieved during the budget development process and made the corresponding modifications to the budget prior to its adoption.”
Former board member Rosemarie Perez-Jaquith said board members were only told 48 hours before they voted on the budget and after public hearings had already taken place that this budgeting measure was taking place. It’s one of the reasons she voted no on the budget, she said.
“So, the public couldn’t even weigh in on this 4% challenge, this 4% cut across all lines,” she said.
Resident Linda Rizzo didn’t even know about the report, and only learned about it when she attended the August board meeting and Struzzi supplied her with one of the copies he brought to the public meeting.
“You don’t make cuts in essential departments” like the highway, water or police departments, she said. Any potential cuts should have been discussed before the budget was voted on, she said.
The town was required under general municipal law to post notice of the report 10 days after receiving it. Documents show the town received the report on May 7. The Gazette, the official newspaper of record for the town, received no notice between May 7 and May 17.
Now, with next year’s budget preparations underway, residents want the board to share more details about the process.
“They should be much more open and transparent,” Struzzi said. “They are as opaque as anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s real simple – be open about it. If there’s issues we’re all big people, we’re all taxpayers, let’s face the issues together. Don’t try to hide it in anticipation of being reelected.”
Rizzo said she doesn’t want to see the board use any more of the fund balance to cover any gaps between revenue and spending. If it is used, she suggested that board members should vote against the budget.
“If there are proposed cuts those should be identified with particularity ahead of time,” Jaquith said.
Jaquith also said all board members should be required to attend the public hearings on the budget.
The town comptroller could not be reached for comment.