Village budget box 4/16 issue

Residents and community volunteers made their voices heard on the village’s tentative 2021-22 budget during a public hearing April 13, sharing both assent and dissent toward the $60.1 million proposal, which suggests a 2.99% increase to the village’s tax levy.

A yearlong endeavor, the village’s budgeting process has been constant since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March and the 2020-21 budget was approved last April. From the institution of austerity measures to dealing with a significant dip in nonproperty tax revenue losses, the village and board of trustees have been working to balance a budget in a tumultuous fiscal year.

Having gone through multiple passes with an iteratively lower tax levy increase, the board finally settled on a $60,115,945 budget, which is an increase of $877,896 from last year’s adopted budget. In order to lower the tax levy increase further, the board decided to dip further into the fund balance appropriating $2.58 million to lower the levy increase from 3.78% to 2.99%.

During the public hearing, Madelaine Eppenstein, president of the Scarsdale Forum, said she was “disappointed” that the board didn’t do enough to reduce the tax levy increase, and cited the implementation of leaf bagging instead of leaf collection as one solution that could temper the tax levy’s financial blow on residents.

In February, Trustee Jonathan Lewis had suggested the board investigate the potential savings from bagging leaves, which might save the village approximately $300,000 to $350,000.

Eppenstein said the Scarsdale Forum would release a report on the village’s leaf collection before the end of April.

Deputy Mayor Justin Arest, currently in his second term as trustee, said he believed the board members do not support the village’s costly leaf vacuuming process, but said he didn’t think now is the appropriate time to change the process without hearing from the broader community.

“This is something that needs to be more thoughtful and involve work sessions … we haven’t had priority conversations yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this comes up [as] a priority for the board,” said Arest.

Trustee Lena Crandall suggested Mayor Jane Veron should add a work session on the subject so it could be discussed over the summer months prior to fall leaf collection. Veron said she suspects leaf collection will become a priority and would be led by the new infrastructure, municipal services and sustainability pillar she set out last week in her board committee structure plan. The pillar is chaired by Crandall with trustees Lewis and Karen Brew as vice chairs.

Blackbirch Lane resident Robert Berg called the current budget cycle a “major lost opportunity” and time could’ve been spent overhauling and reexamining departmental budgets.

“The village manager had asked the various departments to do 10% cuts [and] 5% cuts and then the board abandoned any of those because they didn’t really want to dig deep into any muscle,” said Berg.

Berg added that the board didn’t examine shared services as a potential cost saving measure, even suggesting the board could’ve looked into merging the Scarsdale Fire Department with Mamaroneck’s department.

“The tax rate increase that’s proposed I think is too high. Madeleine and others, including myself, think the fall leaf collection is really the low hanging fruit here for major cost savings,” said Berg. “This is an issue that’s been discussed ad nauseum for the last decade or more. This really should be a no brainer.”

Fox Meadow Road resident Bob Harrison previously objected to the village’s 2.99% tax levy increase and has been urging the board to revisit the levy and keep the increase below 2%.

Referencing the $1.96 million earmarked for Scarsdale from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act, Harrison said that although the funds couldn’t be used to directly lower taxes, the money was “fungible” and could be used for projects included in the budget which could increase the village’s unassigned fund balance.

“I think it’s incumbent upon our village board to have a workshop as soon as possible to go over what I consider to be new data to try and get the final tax increase for the coming year to 2% or less,” said Harrison.

The $1.96 million in federal funding coming to Scarsdale from the American Rescue Plan would be paid out in two installments and come with multiple restrictions: the money can’t be used to cover pension funds or used to offset a reduction in taxes. The funds can be used to cover the costs associated with responding to COVID-19 or its negative impacts, to support essential workers, to cover revenue losses caused by the pandemic or to make investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.

Arest said the federal funds gave the board more leeway to dig deeper into fund balance to lower the tax levy and that there would be a conversation about how to use the federal funds.

“The concern for me and … for some of my colleagues — when we came to a compromise consensus on the increased use of fund balance — is what it means for future years knowing that we have to keep investing in our infrastructure [and] knowing that we have certain needs ahead of us that are not optional,” said Arest. “If we look at that projection going out [and] we want to keep our tax increases to a reasonable level, we have to be sure that we are safe with our fund balance.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Diane Gurden, the village portfolio chair for the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, read a consensus statement by the League that supported the 2021-22 budget. However, the League statement also outlined concerns about important points the budget didn’t address, including major infrastructure improvements needed at village hall. The League stated its concern about the village’s continued reliance on austerity budgeting without a clearly defined long-term plan for tackling deferred projects.

“For the past five years the aging and deterioration of the village hall building has been identified by the League as a major issue that needs to be addressed by the board,” said Gurden, adding, “The League strongly urges the board and administration to commit to creating a plan to address this crucial infrastructure issue.”

The League also wanted the village to focus on making the pool complex more viable, to continue working toward making the village center a safer place for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, to implement a multiyear vision for capital projects, to better incorporate residents so they can engage in key village decisions, such as how to spend the $1.96 million the village expects to receive from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, and to increase transparency on how committees are formed and who sits on them and to focus on retaining current employees.

The board of trustees is expected to vote to adopt the village budget at its next business meeting on April 27. The village must file the budget no later than May 1.

Late tax payments

It was a surprise to many in February when the village reported it had only collected 95% of school and village taxes after adopting a two-installment tax collection system last year.

In February, the residents still owed $7,870,222 in school taxes and $2,254,620 in village taxes. That was down from a month prior. In January, $8.4 million was owed to the village in school taxes.

According to village treasurer Ann Scaglione, nonpayment numbers have decreased. As of March 31, 98.77% of households have paid their school taxes and 98.75% paid village taxes. The village is still trying to collect $1.76 million in school taxes and approximately $518,000 in village taxes.

“It’s been very busy in my office,” said Scaglione.

According to Scaglione, year to date, the village has collected approximately $1 million in interest and penalties, 50% of which was already added into the current year budget.

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