Spending will be going up again in the Town of Ithaca this year, an upsetting fact for any average homeowner up in arms over the additional $3 more in property taxes they’re set to pay this year.
In the preliminary town budget released on Thursday, a small tax increase of 0.21 percent was announced to help fund an additional $850,609 in spending over the 2017 budget, a number come to largely to support more than 9 percent increases in personnel costs ($534,270 over last year) and personal services ($348,825 over last year.) For reference, personnel costs – which include pension, healthcare and other benefits for the town’s more than 66 full-time equivalent employees – comprise approximately a quarter of the town’s overall appropriations of nearly $22.8 million.
Under this year’s budget, the town will dip about $1.8 million from its fund balance, an increase of $600,000 from last year according to the town’s finance officer, Mike Solvig.
Though the increase in taxes is small (about $3 – bringing the average tax bill to $1,403 for an owner of a $190,000 house), the property tax rate is actually going down from a rate of 2.165 percent last year to 1.87 percent this year. However, the property tax levy overall is rising at a rate of 5.09 percent, exceeding the New York State Property Tax Cap of 2 percent, which the Town of Ithaca elected to override back in August – a routine occurrence in the town’s budget-making process. A public hearing on the decision was held the same day, August 7, with nobody in attendance.
Revenues this year also present a cheery picture, up 3.36 percent from last year. This is, in part, due to a 5 percent improvement in sales tax revenues this year over last year, as well as a decrease in spending on the town’s debt service, which decreased 4.8 percent. The town’s costs for fire and risk protection both saw decreases as well.
The town’s new expenses this year are rather restrained: in the budget this year, four new positions are being added to the town’s personnel costs, including one part-time administrative assistant and three new positions with public works, including an engineer, laborer and supervisor for the highway department, spending that parallels a decrease in capital project spending of $35,000 from last year.
“It is a large increase, but with the town growing and the number of walkways and sidewalks we’re planning and all the development that’s looking to happen in the town, we feel it’s important town staffing levels keep pace with our growth,” said Town Supervisor, Bill Goodman.
Several other small increases in spending are coming in other areas of the budget, including a $290,000 increase in contractual services (2.64 percent over last year), a $14,000 increase to equipment costs (1.64 percent over last year) and $10,000 in additional funding to community organizations, including a $5,000 increase to the City of Ithaca’s parks department (the town already was paying $50,000 a year to help maintain city parks, far below the $111,000 it did in 2014), a slight increase to the nearly $70,500 it was paying to the county recreation partnership (a ten municipality coalition to fund rec services which the town, city and county contribute to equally) and a more than $3,000 increase to the Joint Youth Commission, bringing its total stake to about $193,000 per year.
Some other discussions may arise during the budgeting process, including the hiring of a consultant to look at ways to improve the town’s public works facility and examine the stipends for elected officials, which are presently the second-highest of any governing body in the county behind the Tompkins County Legislature, the members of which will make $21,400 next year.
A public hearing on the budget will be held on Oct. 16 at Ithaca Town Hall.
A couple of fun line items:
The town is budgeting for a $500 decrease to the City of Ithaca’s gorge ranger program, bringing it in line with its 2016 contribution. The town paid the city $8,000 for gorge safety programming last year which, though it falls within the town’s borders, is maintained as a city reservoir.
Support for the Tompkins County Public Library will stay steady at $10,000, making this the third consecutive budget without an increase. For reference, the town, as recently as 2014, contributed $20,000 annually to TCPL each year.
What Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick pointed out in presenting the city’s budget is true for the town as well: due to a large, tax-exempt educational institution within its borders, a significant amount of the town’s total assessment – 45.6 percent, or $1.2 billion in taxable property – is off the tax rolls. The largest contributor to this is Ithaca College, which claims 100 total property tax exemptions totaling $874.7 million, or more than 32 percent of the town’s taxable property. In second place? Land owned by the State of New York, whose 79 exemptions (there are 838 total) equal about 4.2 percent of the town’s total assessment.
Reflecting a 2 percent increase negotiated in a contract come to with the Teamsters union, all town staff – including elected officials – will get raises next year. Some notables: The Town Clerk and Highway Superintendent each get raises of $4,500 from last year, the Town Supervisor will get a raise of $1,100, the Town Justice gets a raise of $3,300 and the town’s Sustainability Planner gets a $5,000 raise.
The Highway Department’s budgeted expenses for their cell phones have increased $650.
A fun fact: lawmakers for the Town of Ithaca actually make more than those in the City of Ithaca: a member of the Town Board brings in $14,300 compared to $9,600 at the city level. Members of the planning board are also paid, bringing in $88 per meeting compared to nothing at the city level.
The Town will spend nearly $7,000 more on school crossing guards than it did last year ($29,000 in all)
Fancy digs: The town is looking to drop $25,000 on furnishings for Town Hall next year, including furniture and new carpeting for its board room. And, in an amount less than expected, just $1,800 is budgeted for coffee and water in Town Hall, an amount that has remained steady.
The Town is cutting its parks department’s gasoline and petroleum budget by $7,500 from last year – the most of any of the town’s departments.
No money is going to replace old playground equipment this year. The town’s insurance carrier has requested they do so, since the aging structures have become unsafe, but after $50,000 spent last year, no replacements are scheduled in 2018 but one – replacement of equipment at Grandview Park – is coming up in 2019.
$2.7 million in long-term debt will be taken out for a new water tank and line improvements on Ellis Hollow Road to provide adequate water for Cornell’s Maplewood Apartments, which is currently serviced by an undersized water tank on Pine Tree Road.
Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca