Saranac Lake village taxes could drop

SARANAC LAKE – The village tax levy is expected to remain flat or could even be reduced in the upcoming village budget.

Due to what village officials described as a “calculation error,” the state-imposed tax levy limit for the village in the 2014-15 fiscal year will be zero percent.

“It might be less than that,” village Treasurer Paul Ellis said Monday. He added that Mayor Clyde Rabideau “has been very adamant” about keeping the tax levy under the cap.

Cap error

Ellis explained that the first year of the state’s property tax cap legislation took effect, there were certain expenses that could be excluded from the calculation of the cap. Based on information he reviewed from the state Comptroller’s office, Ellis said he believed the village could have a 3.5 percent tax levy increase and still comply with the law.

“(Mayor) Clyde (Rabideau) still wanted to keep it at 2 percent,” Ellis said. “I said we could carry over 1-and-a-half percent to the following year. In doing the calculation, I used spreadsheets on the state comptroller’s website that said we were able to carry over the 1-and-a-half percent.”

However, state auditors came in last summer and told the village it wasn’t allowed to carry over the additional amount.

“They said there were certain limitations to the carry-over, and we weren’t entitled to them,” Ellis said. “I said, ‘We took this right from your website.’ Didn’t matter. That means we have to return to the taxpayers that portion we were not entitled, which is about $50,000.”

Numbers, cuts

Ellis filed the tentative budget last week. It’s likely to change before May 1, when the budget has to be adopted by the village board, but the amount of the budget to be raised by property taxes stands at $3,548,382, the same as the current tax levy. Overall spending in the general fund sits at $5,053,866, a 1.2 percent decrease.

“In order to meet increased costs in employee benefits, energy and materials, significant cuts had to be made to (the) budget,” Ellis and village Manager John Sweeney wrote in a budget message to Rabideau and the village board.

“Basically, the cushion that we used to anticipate the unknowns has been removed from the budget,” Ellis told the Enterprise. “To comply with the tax cap I had to cut deeper, and that’s why there’s an overall reduction in expenditures.”

The treasurer said the cuts aren’t limited to one department.

“They’re spread across the budget,” he said. “Almost every line item has been (reduced). Some might be $20 less, some might be $1,000 less. It’s a leaner budget.”

Sweeney said the only position that would be eliminated is the recreation director position held by Charlie Martin until he resigned last year. Part of the recreation director’s job was managing Mount Pisgah Ski Center.

Last fall, the village hired Garrett Foster to run the ski center for the winter. Sweeney said the village is considering extending Foster’s contract to do more work at the mountain. He said there would be “a little bit” of savings from the move compared to refilling the recreation director job.

Village Police Chief Bruce Nason had asked for funding for another officer in his department, but the request didn’t make it into the tentative budget, Sweeney said.

Asked if any of the budget reductions will impact snow plowing, street maintenance and other services the village provides, both Ellis and Sweeney said it depends on the weather.

“Things are starting to get squeezed,” Sweeney said. “This year, with the amount of salt and sand we used, if we have another year like that where we have to budget for additional funding for basics like tires, sand, metal to fix things with – that’s when you’ll see a reduction in service. If not, we can survive through this year and see minimal changes.”

“Generally, I wouldn’t expect the public would see any significant difference in the level of service,” Ellis said.

Expenses, projects

No pay increases have been factored into the budget yet as the village is still negotiating with the two unions representing most of its workers.

The tentative budget would double Rabideau’s salary from $5,000 to $10,000. The board voted in 2012 to increase the salaries of the mayor, beginning in 2014, and all four trustees, beginning in 2016. Board member pay hasn’t increased since 2000.

Among some of the expenses in the tentative budget, roughly $75,000 has been set aside for improvements to the Saranac Lake firehouse on Broadway. That includes $30,000 for a new boiler system and $40,000 to repair the building’s floor so it can support a new aerial ladder truck.

Another $40,000 has been budgeted for a new police vehicle, $20,000 each for sidewalk repairs and asphalt for road work, $18,000 for a new vehicle for village staff, and $15,000 to build a garage at Mount Pisgah to store a groomer.

Health insurance costs are, once again, slated to increase next year, Ellis said.

“We’re trying to slow the rate with a high-deductible plan, but with the Affordable Care Act, the insurance carriers are building in cost factors to make sure they have the reserves for it,” he said. “We’re seeing larger than normal increases because of the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.”

Tax rates

Tax rates paid by individual property owners would vary based on the differences in the taxable assessed values of the three towns that lie partially in the village, Ellis explained.

Residents of the Harrietstown section of the village would see their tax rates drop. Under the tentative budget, their tax rate would be $11.36 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s roughly a quarter less than the current rate of $11.61. The owner of a $130,000 home in this section of the village would see their tax bill drop from $1,510 to $1,477.

The tax rate in the North Elba and St. Armand sections of the village would increase 50 cents, from $11.61 to $12.12. The tax bill for the owner of a $130,000 home would go up $66, from $1,510 to $1,576.

Water, sewer

Water and sewer rates would rise roughly 4 percent each. Although the budget for the water department, as of right now, is 0.41 percent below last year’s, Ellis said rates would still go up, primarily due to a continued loss of revenue stemming from the switch to water meters.

“Customers are conserving water more, which results in less billable water volume and therefore less revenue,” Ellis wrote.

The same is true in the sewer fund. Spending is down 1.2 percent, but the continued loss of revenue due to metering means rates have to go up, Ellis said.

Meetings, hearing

The board held its first budget work session last week. Another was planned for tonight, but it has been canceled.

A public hearing, which has yet to be scheduled, has to be held before the board can consider adopting the budget.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or