Beach study, water-sewer rate hikes questioned in Saranac Lake

SARANAC LAKE – Increasing water-sewer rates and a recommendation to cut $5,000 to study returning the village beach to Lake Flower were questioned during a public hearing Monday night on the tentative village budget for 2013-14.

Shawn Boyer, who’s been leading the effort to bring the beach back to Lake Flower, asked trustees to reinstate the $5,000. It had been included on a list of cuts recommended by Treasurer Paul Ellis to get the village’s tax levy under the state’s cap.

Boyer said his group has more than 3,000 members and that the $5,000 is just a fraction of the overall village budget.

“We need a very important study done for this to possibly occur,” Boyer said. “I think (returning the beach) would be a huge asset to the community.”

The only other person who spoke during the hearing, Gauthier’s Saranac Lake Inn co-owner Doug Brownell, asked the board “when and if the water and sewer rates were going to stabilize, and not increase another 10 or some percent on top of last year’s 29 (percent) on the water.”

Water and sewer rates would increase by 10.5 percent each if the tentative budget is adopted as is. Ellis has said he’s trying to bring the increases down closer to 9 percent.

Following the public hearing, during the board’s regular meeting, Ellis responded to Brownell’s concerns. He said the increase in water rates was tied to a loss of revenue due to the ongoing change from flat-rate to metered billing.

“Half the community at one time was flat rate, and over the past couple of years as we’ve worked through the meter project, as people have come off the flat rate and moved over to the metered rate, it was obvious that flat rate customers were paying a higher share of the budget,” Ellis said. “Now that we’re on metered rate, it’s created a situation where people are paying for what they use, and that’s resulted in us having to increase water rates to compensate for the loss of water revenue.”

Upgrades to water infrastructure in recent years – including the transfer of the village’s water source from McKenzie Pond to new wells- have also increased water rates, Ellis said. Next year’s water budget is increasing because of costs associated with projects planned on Broadway, upper Main Street and Brandy Brook Avenue.

The beach study funding didn’t come up during the meeting, but the Enterprise asked Mayor Clyde Rabideau about it after the meeting.

“I fully support the $5,000 in the budget for helping with the beach study,” he said. “I think we gotta put the issue to bed. I do think it would be an economic stimulus. We would have to find parking, hopefully on that side of the street with the acquiescence of the (Department of Transportation). There’s a lot of other work to do, but you’ve gotta take it one step at a time.”

Rabideau said he’ll propose keeping the $5,000 in the budget when the board holds its next budget workshop, sometime in April.

When the budget was filed earlier this month, the amount of its general fund to be raised by taxes was $3,685,794, an increase of 7.83 percent, or $267,760, over this year’s levy. However, Ellis told the Enterprise last week that he’s given a list of cuts to the village board that would bring the levy increase to the projected 3.82 percent tax levy limit for the village. The state’s tax cap has been generally referred to as a 2 percent cap, but it contains certain exclusions that let municipalities set their limit above 2 percent and still be in compliance.

Rabideau said meeting the tax cap is challenging, but he said the board has done so for the last four years, even though the state’s tax cap legislation wasn’t enacted until last year.

“We’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions,” Rabideau said. “We’re having to restructure some of the things that we do, and the pain will increase every single year ahead, but that’s the mandate from the state of New York to make it affordable for New Yorkers on a local level.”