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Pensions, health care cause tight budget year in Potsdam

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POTSDAM — Village department heads met with the Board of Trustees on Tuesday night to figure out the $9.3 million budget for 2013-14.

Each department head had to make a case to avoid cuts, in a budget year that is tighter than normal.

Rising costs for pensions and health plans mean less money to be distributed elsewhere. Retirement and health care costs amount to 27 percent of the village budget.

Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said he is trying to trim other areas to minimize the increase in property taxes next year.

“I’m trying to get the budget down to the two percent range, and we’re not there yet,” he said.

Most departments will either retain the same level of funding or see a slight increase, but some budget items were contested Tuesday. The board discussed whether a new $26,000 police car to replace an older vehicle was a necessary expense.

Ultimately it was decided to allocate $20,000 for the car. The Police Department will cover the rest of the cost with funds received from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and will cut its maintenance, gasoline and office expenses by a total of $8,000.

Fire Chief Timothy L. Jerome said he was frustrated by the village board’s attempt to cut a budget that he says is already too low.

“Every year since I’ve been here I’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting,” he said.

The proposed maintenance budget for the Fire Department was cut during the meeting, as was a $10,000 donation typically given to the volunteer side of the department. Much of the $10,000 will be re-allocated to allow the department to purchase more equipment.

Mr. Yurgartis said the board needed to ensure that no department receives more money than it needs. Each department should not have its own emergency fund, he said; rather, it should rely on the village’s main $20,000 contingency fund in case of unexpected expenses.

“I don’t want to have contingency in the budget,” he said.

The first draft of the budget called for a 2.12 percent increase in property taxes, up to $15.41 per thousand dollars of assessed value. According to Mr. Yurgartis, this amount will go down by the time the final budget is completed. It will drop further once recreation expenses are factored out of the budget.

The village voted last week to stop funding the joint recreation program it has long shared with the town of Potsdam. Mr. Yurgartis said he wants to completely finish the budget before removing the recreation expenses and revenues, at which point all savings will be used to lower the village property tax rate.

No matter where the rate ends up, the village will almost certainly have to dip into its reserves to make ends meet. Administrator David H. Fenton said the village has plenty of money to cover the costs, and the amount needed from the reserves has been decreasing for the past few years.

The West Dam Hydro Project is expected to begin generating electricity and revenue this year, providing another source of income.

The village is also counting on nearly $1.3 million in sales tax revenue, providing the state allows a long-awaited sales tax increase for St. Lawrence County.

Trustee Eleanor F. Hopke disapproved of including the sales tax increase in the budget, urging caution.

“I think we ought to be real conservative in our sales tax,” she said.

The board will continue to work on the draft of the budget, which will be open for discussion at a public hearing on April 15. The new fiscal year starts May 1.

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