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Stockholm board eyes 7.5 percent tax hike in 2014

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WINTHROP - The Stockholm Town Board has set the stage for a 7.5 percent tax hike in 2014 as town officials grapple with the need to allocate more funds to its highway department to update its aging fleet.

Stockholm budget officer Arthur Sweeney had initially unveiled a 2014 budget that called for the tax rate to remain stable, with the rate for the combined highway and general funds increasing a penny to $3.68 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The preliminary budget called for appropriations of $565,820 for the general fund and $949,200 for the highway fund, but Highway Superintendent Jeff P. Russell told the town board in August the highway spending plan was insufficient to meet his department’s needs.

Stockholm Town Supervisor Clark S. Decker said the total value of the Highway Department equipment is $1.2 million. He acknowledged a 10-year rotation for the town’s highway trucks would require a line item of $120,000 a year. The preliminary 2014 spending plan included $20,0000 in the equipment line. Town officials said it would require a 30 percent tax hike to jump from $20,000 to $120,0000.

He noted the town went five or six years without purchasing a truck and the town’s last two purchases have been used trucks that were five years old.

Mr. Decker said he spent the past several weeks consulting with Mr. Sweeney and meeting one of one with highway department officials and town councilmen with a focus on updating the highway department fleet. “I think we get better response when we meet one on one. We get a lot more feedback, input,” he suggested.

He said options on the table ranged from spending over $200,000 to purchase a new truck to refurbishing a truck that already has 8,000 hours on it by installing a new frame, a new cab and new front end and pulling the engine and transmission.

“Art and I sat down with Jeff, and we eliminated the idea of a new truck and discussed buying another used truck or buying a cab and chassis,” Mr. Decker said.

He said he then offered his board members options to raise the highway department’s tax rate by 8 percent or 10 percent as it became obvious the proposal to purchase the cab and chassis had the most support.

“The taxpayers will be asked to generate an additional $36,000, and we will also add $5,000 from sales tax dollars, $53,000 from our Consolidated Highway Improvement Program money and $5,600 from fund balance to add $100,000 to the equipment line.

The highway department agreed to the purchase of the cab and chassis for $110,000 instead of a new fully-equipped truck for $220,000. The highway department will put the box and harness on the new chassis. The vehicle should be on the road for the 2014-15 plowing season.

The plan, which was supported by the town board at its meeting earlier this month, will see tax dollars allocated to the highway department climb from $364,0000 in 2013 to $400,400 in 2014, moving the tax rate for the town highway portion of the tax bill from $3.11 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2013 to approximately $3.93 per $1,000 in 2014.

Mr. Sweeney said when the general fund and fire lines are added to the locally controlled portion of the town tax bill the tax levy will jump from $4.37 per $1,000 in 2013 to $5 in 2014, a 7.52 percent tax rate increase. The town budget officer said the tax hike would mean a $27.30 increase in town taxes for a Stockholm resident with property assessed at $100,000.

Councilman Robert J. McCuin said even with the 10 percent hike in highway taxes the town’s highway tax rate is comparable with neighboring municipalities. The 2013 highway tax rates, Mr. McCuin, said were $3.11 per $1,000 for a crew of five in Stockholm, $2.76 per $1,000 for a crew of three in Brasher, $3.45 per $1,000 for a crew of five in Hopkinton and $5.43 per $1,000 for Lawrence.

“It is a way of catching up. Our highway superintendent has told us for the last five years we don’t appropriate enough to highway. We’ve tried to keep taxes flat even though there have been increases in employee benefit costs, increases in fuel prices. They’ve been absorbed in the highway department. We are catching up a little bit,” he acknowledged.

Mr. Decker noted the town’s contribution for its state retirement for employees climbed from $38,158 in 2010 to approximately $80,000 in 2013.

Town officials said the highway department has taken significant steps in recent years to assist town officials as they grappled with spiraling costs.

The town supervisor noted two years ago town officials balanced the highway budget by taking back county roads. Last year, health insurance changes accepted by highway department employees saved the town $30,000. The town generated $95,000 in revenues for plowing county roads and mowing county roadsides.

“This year we don’t have any balls left in the air,” Mr. Decker said.

He noted he had also made a budget presentation to the town’s Economic Development Committee and solicited their input.

Committee member Robin McClellan pointed out the town highway crew had also saved taxpayers approximately a quarter million dollars by handling construction work on the addition to the highway barn.

“It’s a tough spot. They have pulled all the rabbits out of the hat,” he said.

Mr. McClellan said last year was the first time he had attended a town budget hearing.

“When I got involved in the process, I discovered there was not much left other than bone marrow. It was impressive yet disconcerting. There is no wiggle room left,” the West Stockholm resident suggested.

Mr. Decker noted the town board had limited its highway tax increase to 2 to 3 percent in each of the past two or three years. “That raises $3,000. Our employee wages increase more than that,” he noted.

County Legislator Daniel Parker said the town tax increase should be softened by a planned double-digit increase in county taxes in 2014. He noted the county legislators had pledged to drop their tax levy by 14 percent in return for the state legislature’s approval of a 1 percent sales tax increase.

“It may help to take the sting out. Even with the 7.52 increase, taxpayers should still see a net reduction. It may be the opportune time to do it, not as painful as if you had done it in 2013,” Mr. Parker pointed out.

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