Citing unfunded mandates and costs handed down by the state, the Clay Town Board voted Monday, Oct. 1 to adopt a local law to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap.
The property tax cap was enacted last year by New York state. According to the law, schools and municipalities can only increase property taxes by 2 percent over the previous year. If a town, village or school board’s budget does call for a tax increase of more than 2 percent, the entity must first pass a local law to authorize that increase after holding a public hearing. Otherwise, the municipality faces penalties from the state.
Town Supervisor Damian Ulatowski emphasized that the law was just a precaution, as he hoped that his budget would stay within the confines of the tax cap.
“I’ve put together a very strong budget,” Ulatowski said. “It’s very close to the tax cap. But you never know what will happen when I look at pension costs. Those are passed on by the state to municipalities, and we have no defense whatsoever, no relief, and neither do you.”
Those pension costs, Ulatowski said, could force a tax increase above the proscribed 2 percent.
“I’m confident we will be at or just below 2 percent,” he said. “The board works diligently to attain that and to curb costs as much as we can. But there are things I cannot foresee and things I cannot get relief on from the state. This hearing is for that eventuality.”
The hearing drew some questions from the crowd.
“Why can’t state pension costs be brought under this cap?” asked Ed Paulini. “We’re stuck here. All we see are increases, increases, increases. How are we supposed to absorb all this stuff? How about seeing state people pay own pension costs instead of us paying for it?”
Another resident asked for an explanation of the tax cap itself.
“What’s the point of putting on a cap?” she asked.
“I think the governor’s thought process is to try to expect each and every one of us to limit the ever-escalating cost of real estate taxes,” Ulatowski said. “Keeping it down as low as 2 percent, it forces boards like this and every other municipality to really sharpen their pencils and be sure they’re delivering the best possible product that they can.”
Ulatowski emphasized that the town of Clay had been doing just that long before the tax cap legislation was enacted.
“I think you know that for the past 10 years, as long as I’ve been on the board, this board does a very, very good job to try to minimize costs,” he said. “We’re not afraid to attack the big issues that maximize taxes, one of them being the abolishment of the police department a while back, which drastically reduced your taxes to the tune of almost 20 percent. You know, the past two years, they haven’t come up 20 percent. And we’re still doing everything we can to try to keep costs low.”
However, Ulatowski said, some costs are out of his control.
“There are some costs for which I can do nothing —wages, benefits, retirement costs, fuel costs, asphalt, salt,” he said. “I can’t do anything about them. But I will try to get as close to or under that 2 percent as I can.”
In addition, at Monday’s meeting, town clerk Jill Hageman-Clark presented Ulatowski’s budget to board members. This is the first opportunity board members have to see the preliminary budget, which is not yet available to the public. It will be presented to the public at a future date.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.