MILTON -- The Town Board on Friday adopted a $7.7 million budget for 2019 that will cut taxes for many residents, though it also generated controversy related to past budgeting errors.
For the coming budget year, village of Ballston Spa and town of Milton residents will pay the same general fund tax rate -- 66-cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That is up by 1 cent per $1,000 from the current budget year.
But the spending plan eliminates the town-outside-village property tax, which was an additional 16 cents per $1,000 for property owners living outside the village, to cover town services only provided outside the village, such as building inspections and property assessment. Those services will now be paid for from sales tax and other revenue. Village residents also pay a separate village property tax for services provided by the village.
The $7.7 million spending plan is down $73,000 from the current year's budget, a reduction Town Supervisor Scott Ostrander credited to conservative budgeting by department heads.
The budget was adopted in a 3-2 vote by the Town Board, with Barbara Kerr voting against it because of the town/village rate issue.
"My main concern is that the rates are the same," she said. "I don't think the village residents should pay the same as the town's; they're not getting all the advantages of town services."
Ostrander, however, said the benefits balance out because the village and town receive separate disbursements of Saratoga County sales tax revenue, and village residents benefit from the sales tax revenue received by both municipalities.
Portions of the village of Ballston Spa lie in both Milton and Ballston, but most of it is in the town of Milton.
A state audit in 2015 found Milton's financial records were poorly kept and faulted the town for using its share of the county sales tax in ways that disproportionately benefited Ballston Spa residents, because the village receives its own payments. Ostrander, who became supervisor in January, said he's been working to address the issues raised in the audit.
The elimination of the town-outside-village tax will remove $157,310 in revenue from the 2019 balance sheet, but $847,114 will be raised through the new townwide tax, about $30,000 more than in the current budget year.
Town Board member Benny Zlotnick said he voted against the proposed budget because he hasn't received an adequate explanation of how the town is addressing the revenue shortfall discovered last year, when auditors found $411,000 in sales tax revenue was double-counted in each of the three previous years. Correcting that error caused the town's fund balance to drop from $1.7 million in 2014 to $540,000 in 2016. Outside auditors are still determining the final 2017 fund balance figure, but the town's bookkeeper has pegged the number for the general fund surplus at about $220,000.
"We don't have last year's audit yet, so I don't see how we can move forward," Zlotnick said. "We haven't heard how we're going to get out of the hole we're in one year."
Ostrander said there isn't really a hole in the budget, once it's understood that the $411,000 shortfalls in earlier years were the result of an accounting error. Because the money was spent during those years, even though the revenue wasn't real, the fund balance had to be tapped to correct the books, he said.
"We think we've stabilized [the fund balance], and we want to grow it going forward," Ostrander said.
He said town department heads were asked to be conservative in their spending, but the 2019 budget nevertheless includes money for parks equipment upgrades, the start of a heating/air conditioning upgrade at the Milton Community Center, and a new records management system. During 2019, Ostrander said, he wants the town to also develop a plan to repair or replace the town hall, highway garage, and other facilities.
"The 2019 budget is fiscally sound, operationally efficient and fair to the taxpayers," Ostrander wrote in a budget statement. "We will continue to make significant progress in creating a long-term, sustainable economic base for the residents of Milton."