Funding woes meet budget realities

By Joan Lawrence-Bauer
With projects delayed and frustration mounting, some taxpayers have begun to wonder where their ever-increasing tax dollars go. 

As the region approaches the first anniversary of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, residents of Margaretville and Fleischmanns in particular, face stalled reimbursements for cleanup and recovery costs and big hits to their village budgets, in addition to town, and county costs. 
Schools are more challenged than ever with their budgets and a two percent tax cap that isn’t really a two percent tax cap, has changed the budget-making landscape for everyone. 

The structure and vocabulary of the property tax system make it nearly impossible to follow the money.  Figuring out where it all comes from and then determining where it all goes, is a task actually undertaken only by the very few professionals who deal directly with the budgets: primarily treasurers and clerks. 

Complex issues
Even the elected board members responsible for adopting the budgets have significant difficulty in explaining them once they are adopted. 

Because property taxes cover the cost of local government and education, a Margaretville or Fleischmanns resident interested in understanding their tax bills would have to attend no fewer than five public budget hearings each year.  County, town, village, school and fire districts are all taxing entities that make up budgets and have public budget hearings. And most of these entities have public meetings to develop the budgets long before they have public hearings on their proposals.

It is not hard to figure out why most budget hearings have virtually no one attending them.  The only budgets on which taxpayers can directly vote are school budgets and even in those, there is so little discretionary spending that voting them down rarely saves much money and always hurts the students and the community.  With village budgets adopted early in the year, school budgets closer to the middle and town budgets at the end of the year – to say nothing of county and fire district budgets, anyone who really wants to know more could attend 10 to 20 meetings a year and still not have all the information they need.

Services wanted
But understanding budgets and tax dollars will be the key to survival and taxpayers who tend to expect increasing levels of service even as they expect their taxes to go down, are learning to be more realistic.

Over the next year, the News will be doing a series of articles to educate and empower taxpayers.  Knowing that our elected and appointed officials do the best they can under difficult circumstances, the goal of this series will be to follow the numbers, not personalities or agendas.  We will explain what comes in, what goes out and how spending and taxing decisions are made. 

We will look at budgets from throughout our service area at all levels of government and at all of our schools in a way that should help taxpayers to better articulate their priorities and concerns as they work with their elected officials. 

Other issues
In addition to looking at the budgets, the News will look closely at the tax bases in our communities. 

A look at the tax rolls is another indication of just how complicated the system is.  Every parcel of property appears on the tax rolls with up to four different lines of assessment:  County, town, village and school – and those assessments may be adjusted for exemptions such as STAR, veterans or other categories. 

We will ask questions and invite our readers to ask questions.  What happens when a single taxpayer (New York City) in a single village (Margaretville) challenges a $53 million assessment?  What impact does that have on a village budget of less than $1 million a year and on the other taxpayers in the village.  If taxes go to operating costs, what about capital projects, contingency funds, federal and state contributions and of course, who bears the cost of natural disasters?

Editor’s Note: The News is happy to welcome back veteran reporter Joan Lawrence-Bauer who will kick off this series and also contribute other stories of interest. 

Lawrence-Bauer has deep roots and extensive business experience in the region.  Long-time readers will remember her as an award-winning journalist.  She spent 15 years working for the State of New York at Belleayre Mountain and as a lecturer at both SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Ulster.  

Marketing work
She was the marketing director for the Emerson Resort and Spa and has served as a spokesperson and advocate for both the Belleayre Resort proposal and the Belleayre Mt. Ski Center. 

She was a long-time member of the MARK Project Board of Directors and served as its executive director form 2004 to 2008.  She has served on the Margaretville Hospital Board and on the boards of both the Delaware County Industrial Development Agency and the Ulster County Development Corporation. 

In the interest of full disclosure, readers should also know that Lawrence-Bauer’s daughter Kate Van Benschoten is a member of the Margaretville School Board and the Middletown Planning Board and her son-in-law, John Van Benschoten, has served as mayor of Margaretville and is currently a member of the village board. 

When Lawrence-Bauer is reporting, the News will disclose any potential conflict of interest that might impact her viewpoint or reader viewpoint on the topics she’s covering.