By BRIAN HAYDEN
MASSENA - The Massena Town Council can now pass a budget exceeding the state-imposed property tax cap if necessary.
The council voted 5-0 to approve a local law allowing it to override the 2 percent cap imposed by the state earlier this year. The local law is the one way the state allows municipalities to exceed the cap.
How much, if at all, the town will exceed it in the 2012 budget is still unclear. Supervisor Joseph D. Gray proposed a spending plan raising the tax levy by 13 percent, from $1,985,728.82 to $2,246,400. The entire Town Council will now work over the next several weeks to make any amendments and pass a final budget which could differ from Mr. Gray’s proposed increase.
But in order for the local law to take effect for next year, town officials had to act on it now, even if the final budget does not exceed the cap.
“It’s a bullet we don’t want to use,” Councilman Charles A. Raiti explained.
Town officials might not be able to whittle down the increase to fall within the cap, Mr. Raiti said. In his proposed budget, Mr. Gray already either froze or cut spending in most areas of the town budget outside of rising personnel costs.
“That is a big nut we are trying to crack,” Mr. Raiti said. “We’ve got a lot, a lot, a lot of work on this.”
The approval came after a public hearing full of opinions against the override. Some who attended were concerned about the effect tax increases could have on residents on fixed incomes.
Businessman Edward Kaneb Jr. said the override was counter intuitive to bringing businesses into Massena.
“I’m curious as to why you’re doing this. The governor’s directive was to create the cap to make the state more attractive to business,” he said. “I don’t think the town has done enough to make the necessary cuts ... If we continue to do something like this, it’s not going to look good for the community.“
Businessman Charles E. McGrath suggested the town get used to the idea of having less services during leaner times.
“We’ve gotten used to a certain standard of living. We’d love to keep the same level of services,” he said. “We may be in a position where we can’t pay for them.”
The town’s payroll is already lean, Mr. Gray said.
“We still have to have a tax collector. We still have to have a deputy tax collector. We don’t have an ATM where people can pay their taxes,” he said. “I don’t think the town has a bunch of surplus staff.”
Dr. Miljan R. Stankovic suggested the override would not put the council in good standing with Massena taxpayers.
“The citizens of Massena will perceive you as if you are completely out of touch,” he said. “It is nothing personal against anyone here.”
The town needs to stop its contributions to not-for-profits like Meals on Wheels, former Supervisor W. Gary Edwards said.
“We have too many not-for-profits that are bleeding the taxpayer to death,” Mr. Edwards said.
Council members should scrutinize Massena Public Library spending, Mr. Edwards said. The town’s library contribution, which totaled over $686,000 this year, is “funding a dinosaur,” he said.
“Massena is the highest taxpayer supported library in the county of St. Lawrence,” he said. “We live in a society where we don’t use books anymore ... It’s used by old people like me.”
Under Mr. Gray’s proposal, an increase in assessed value will allow tax rates within the village to remain level at $3.67 per $1,000 of assessed value. But nearly $200,000 needed for the town highway department outside the village will hit those taxpayers.
Town property owners outside the village will see their rate increase from $4.07 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $4.89, a 20 percent increase. That means a town property owner with a $100,000 assessment would pay $82 more in town taxes for 2012 with a $489 bill, while a village resident’s tax bill will remain at $367.
Deputy Supervisor Albert N. Nicola emphasized the need to lower that increase. The town’s largest employer, Alcoa, will be stung much worse than the owner of a $100,000 house.
“As it stands now, a 20 percent increase on Alcoa would be significant,” Mr. Nicola said. “We’re sensitive to those things.”
Massena is one of many municipalities considering an override, Councilman John F. Macaulay said.
“I guarantee there will be a lot of overrides yet,” he said.