It’s been a long journey for the village’s 2021-22 budget. A difficult financial year marred by the ever-present coronavirus pandemic extended the village’s normal budgeting process, resulting in multiple draft budgets as officials dealt with sinking nonproperty tax revenues and increased expenses.
With a public hearing scheduled for April 13 and a state-mandated requirement to adopt a budget no later than May 1, the village is shopping the budget around to local community organizations to garner support and feedback.
The League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, a longstanding nonpartisan community institution, questioned village staff and trustees during an information session March 26 as the group formulates its annual budgetary consensus statement. Scarsdale League President Leah Dembitzer said the group would reveal their statement at the April 13 public hearing.
League: Considering this complex year, how did you find the challenge of engaging the community in this process? What do you think worked well? What was a challenge? What are your thoughts going forward?
Village: Though COVID-19 brought its own communication challenges, Mayor Marc Samwick said it was important to maintain the same level of communication and public participation when trudging through the budget process. The village conducted 10 budget meetings this year and members of the public were allowed to comment at the end of budget work sessions.
“This [was] a well thought out and detailed process, above and beyond what we had before and we had challenges … that we’ve never had before,” said Samwick. “We had revenue disruptions [and] we had less visibility on a number of items that we’ve had in the past. So public participation becomes all the more important when dealing with those kinds of situations.”
Village Manager Steve Pappalardo shared a similar sentiment, arguing that the village did a better job than they had in the past of informing the public, but that it was disappointing seeing the same 10 to 12 people show up to the virtual public budget sessions and not a wider array of new resident voices.
Trustee Justin Arest said, although there are many people in the community who cared deeply about the village and its finances, many still did not participate in the budget sessions.
“Communications will be a big part I think as we kind of come back to some form of normal,” said Arest, who also referenced Mayor-elect Jane Veron’s commitment to communication when she was the driving force for the village’s Ad Hoc Committee on Communications. “We have the benefit of a new village treasurer, who hasn’t even been on the job for six months yet … who will have additional insight as to how we can revamp this process and think about it holistically to have additional touchpoints with the community throughout the year through various working sessions on various issues.”
League: Last year you were in austerity mode and you said you planned to continue in austerity mode this year. Do you have any concerns about the increasing demand of services while keeping our belt tightened? Can we keep up with service levels under austerity and what are your concerns?
Village: On the onset of the pandemic last March, the village moved into austerity mode, canceling travel, professional development and other activities deemed nonessential to running the village and providing services to residents.
Early in the pandemic, the village reallocated just over $2.2 million into a COVID-19 reserve account in the assigned fund balance. Pappalardo said the village plans to use the COVID-19 reserve funds to help minimize the nonproperty tax revenue losses. The 2021-22 budget includes no reduction in village services.
“We put ourselves in a good position, as best as we could, in a very bad situation,” said Pappalardo.
Now under budgetary contraints for more than a year, Pappalardo said austerity “cannot go on forever” because the village needed to go beyond providing regular everyday services and be more innovative in improving the village.
“At some point we’re going to have to move out of austerity budgeting and get back to what we’ve normally been doing, but that’s going to be dictated by the numbers,” said Pappalardo, who referenced capital projects as an example of something which could get more focus when shifting out of austerity.
Samwick said, although capital spending was “discretionary,” it was “mandatory” for the long run, as constant delays in capital improvements could become a slippery slope.
He said the village experienced that firsthand when it underinvested in roadwork after the 2008 financial crisis and that it could take years to get back onto the right footing.
Though it’s fully funded, Samwick said the village had applied for a grant to cover the expenses for building the middle school comfort station, which was approved by the board in November.
The benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan, the federal government’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, will also be a major focus for the village’s new board members — set to be sworn in on April 5 — as they attempt to right the village’s financial ship and get to some semblance of normalcy.
Salaries, benefits, hiring
League: You’ve written about the importance of remaining competitive with salaries and benefits and offering professional development opportunities. How do you feel about that? Are we able to offer competitive packages to our staff? What is Pappalardo’s wish list for the qualities of the new village manager which will replace him?
Village: In February, Pappalardo announced that he planned to retire as of July after serving the village for 30 years. Pappalardo said he wouldn’t comment on the qualities he was looking for in a replacement.
On the village’s competitiveness with salaries and professional development opportunities, Pappalardo said “it was a moving target” and that he’s seen fewer young people move into careers in local municipal services and quality talent to lead departments “drying up.”
When former Village Assessor Nanette Albanese retired from her position in March 2019, it took the village one year to find a replacement.
“We’ve been very fortunate to find some really great people, but that’s not easy. It took a lot of time and effort and you do have to be competitive,” said Pappalardo. “Professional development is hugely important, not only for the individual but for the village because you want people who are on the cutting edge [who] are on top of their game in terms of their local government professional discipline, and you want them engaged and you want them involved.”
Pappalardo said if the downward trend of talent availability continues, the board will need to come to terms with spending more money than usual on hiring experienced individuals.
Arest, who has worked extensively on recent searches for village staff members, said that although the searches were challenging, they were worth the work.
“We can’t be rushed in finding the right person and we of course have to make sure that we reward all of those people appropriately so we can keep them into the … future,” said Arest.
Samwick also conveyed the importance of staff retention and controlling turnover to keep good staff members working for the village.
Roads, parks, pool
League: Two of the capital projects that are moving forward deal with the village center and municipal pool. Can we receive more information on those items?
Village: While finalizing the village’s general fund, Deputy Village Manager Rob Cole has been working on a nearly $6 million capital budget, which includes allocations to address mending some of Scarsdale’s aging infrastructure. The capital budget also includes $100,000 to start a village center safety and mobility study, which will look at Crane, Popham, Garth roads and others to find solutions on improving pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area.
“That $100,000 there we believe will be a good amount to get us started in the right direction, [to] build a community supported plan and begin to make some of those changes that really will have benefits that last generations in Scarsdale,” said Cole.
A total of $15,000 has also been allocated for maintenance at Boniface Circle Park in the village center. Cole said once basic maintenance was taken care of, the village would be able to revisit and look more closely at the circle in the context of the $100,000 traffic study.
Though the capital budget doesn’t include any funding to improve the municipal pool’s infrastructure, $190,000 is being used to fund a pool master plan, a pool market analysis and pool repair design.
“We need to understand what those community preferences and needs are so that we can really amp up the number of people who buy our annual pool passes and visit the facility because frankly, we’re pretty far under capacity in the last few years,” said Cole. “If you look at pool membership purchases over 10 years there’s probably 50% capacity that we have available.”
Trustee Randy Whitestone said the board was thinking about ways to position the pool for the future and needed to take a step back and use a strategic approach in light of the pool enterprise fund being almost completely drawn down.
League: Can we get an update on the two-installment tax payment system? How has the process gone this year and how do you see it moving forward?
Village: In light of the economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees joined the Scarsdale School Board in supporting an effort to provide residents with a semblance of tax relief by allowing homeowners to pay school and village taxes in two installments. The two-installment tax collection system was already common practice among other municipalities in Westchester and Scarsdale was late to follow suit.
It came as a surprise though in February when Village Treasurer Ann Scaglione announced that the village had collected 95% of the school and village taxes, when, at the same time last year, the village had collected 98.9% of school taxes and 99.5% of village taxes. Residents who were late on their second installment payment were hit with a 10% penalty, since the interest and penalties went back to the date of the original date the bill was due, either June 1 or Sept. 1.
“That was a hard number and unfortunately we did hear from those people because the 10% penalty is significant. There’s nothing that we as the village can do to waive those penalties assessed,” said Scaglione, who added that the village issued a number of press releases and notifications to remind residents about the payment schedules.
In the future, Scaglione said she saw opportunities to improve communication and was already working on redesigning the village and school tax bills and delinquent notices to make those clearer for residents. Scaglione said her office will continue to send one bill each year and will also send reminder notices.
“Now that we’ve had a year to recover, we’re going to go into this next billing cycle a little bit smarter,” she said. “I will make sure notices are overcommunicated.”
Samwick said at the time, the village was unsure if they would be able to integrate the two-payment system in time for tax season, but knew it was important to integrate something to help residents who had been hit hard by the pandemic.
“To see that this transition proved to be challenging for a good number of residents was really disturbing to us and upsetting to us because our sole intent here … was to try to help,” he said. “Clearly, you’ve seen how the village treasurer is responding to this, how we’re all learning from this and how we’re making sure that these are not the kinds of situations that happen again in the future.