A divided Town Board passed the 2011 town budget Thursday night in a 3-2 vote at a contentious meeting without a public comment portion.
The lack of a public comment portion came as a shock to one board member, Liz Orzel Kasper, and to a dozen members of the public hoping to comment further on one of the most contentious portions of the budget, senior programs.
But the group made themselves heard as some board members voted, making it clear they were supporting the board minority, Kasper and board member Jonathan McKinney.
Voting for the budget was Supervisor Joe Landry and board members Julie McDonnell and Denise Murphy McGraw.
McDonnell explained her vote for the budget, calling it fiscally responsible. The budget includes a tax increase of just under 3 percent.
But McDonnell also attempted to wade into the issue that brought the group of seniors to the meeting — senior programs.
She said the budget provides new opportunities to do more for seniors.
“We need to do a better job at the senior center,” McDonnell said. “In the past few weeks, we have heard privately from many seniors, the people who actually attend the center on a regular basis and have lunch there. These seniors have not been treated with the respect they deserve and apparently …”
She was interrupted from the gallery with boos from the group.
“Excuse me,” Landry said into the microphone, “We have somebody speaking, please give them the floor.”
“… and apparently,” McDonnell continued, “many others have been driven away because of the way they have been treated by our town staff.”
McDonnell called that unacceptable, to more groans from the audience.
Kasper, earlier in the meeting, challenged McDonnell and others concerning the individuals they say have been critical of the senior program.
“One question that has never been answered,” Kasper, a senior herself, said, “is ‘who are the people who don’t like the program?’ ”
The approved budget calls for a tax rate increase for homeowners of just over $2.32 per $1,000 of assessed value, while businesses would see a tax rate increase of $4.74 per $1,000. Total appropriations are now proposed at $13.01 million.
Seniors have been concerned about the programs and the senior center since the 2011 budget was released.
They packed the Town Board meeting last month to ensure current part-timers, including Sue Leonard, remain. Leonard oversees senior activities and senior trips.
They also contend changes to the program are not needed and it’s been working fine. The budget includes $32,000 for at least one extra part-time position. But the budget also cut a full-time receptionist.
Thursday night’s meeting, officially a special meeting, became contentious at the outset, once Kasper realized there would be no public comment during the meeting. She attempted to move to instate one, saying it was a special meeting and that they always have public comment at such meetings.
But Landry responded that they don’t, that it wasn’t on the agenda and pressed forward with resolutions. After the meeting, he noted the board always has two public comment sessions per month and the next one is at the next meeting Nov. 23. “We’re just voting on the budget tonight,” Landry said afterward.
According to meeting minutes posted on the town website, every year since 2001 there has been a public comment portion of the meeting in which the board adopted the next year’s budget. Thursday night was the only such night without a public comment portion.
Resident and senior Mary E. White attended hoping to read a letter to the board about her concerns and respond to Letters to the Editor on the issue.
“In these difficult times, it seems imprudent to enhance a program that satisfies seniors and is working well,” White read from the letter later to a reporter.
She also called Leonard “an exceptional person” that they are fighting to ensure stays. Landry has said the current part-timers would not be affected.
Also Thursday night, Kasper and McKinney decried what they said was a budget that relied on borrowing to pay for needed items, including roads.
McKinney argued the town was ignoring its infrastructure. He noted a pending DEC crackdown on the town’s storm sewer system that includes a mandate for a five-year plan to improve it.
“The vote is: Are we going to invest today in more programs, more people you aren’t asking for? Or are we going to start to look at our infrastructure, put off our instantaneous gratification and build Niskayuna for the future. That’s the future, is investment.”
In his own comments before casting his vote, Landry said the budget continues to deliver services that residents expect and keeps costs down.
He also argued that critics of the budget didn’t offer solutions Thursday night.
“It is easy to be a critic,” Landry said. “It is much harder to come up with creative solutions and resolutions. Tonight, I am still listening to criticisms, but no real solutions. No creative amendments were offered. No new ideas brought forth. It is not easy to govern, and responsible governing needs creative solutions.”