In photos: One of the rooms filled this week at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 358 in Ballston Spa; and Village Hall at 66 Front Street. Photos by Larry Goodwin.
BALLSTON SPA – Dozens of cars and trucks spilled out of the parking lot at the V.F.W. post off Doubleday Avenue Monday night, when village residents showed up to express their concerns about a proposal to raise property tax rates by nearly 26 percent in the next fiscal year.
Television cameras blocked an entryway between two rooms that contained the crowd, as more than 20 people were called upon to address the Ballston Spa Village Board.
Former village mayor James Capasso set the tone for the next two hours.
“I wish you’d appoint a budget advisory committee,” Capasso told the board. “A committee of citizens that live in this village and want to take the budget apart and look at it piece by piece, analyze every nickel that we spend.”
Capasso recalled efforts that were made by village officials in 1988 to improve the future prospects of the Ballston Spa School District.
“You have to surround yourself with good people,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to run a good government.”
The board voted later to set a second public hearing in Village Hall for 7:15 p.m. on Monday, April 23, specific to the issue of exceeding New York State’s 2 percent property tax cap.
Ballston Spa’s pending 2018-19 budget is scheduled for a vote and possible adoption the same night. The $4.4 million spending plan must be passed before June 1.
Mayor John Romano and the village trustees are scheduled to meet with department heads through Friday, April 20 for additional budget workshops.
At the April 9 public hearing, several residents echoed Capasso’s comments, calling on the village board to allow more citizen participation and transparency in general.
Jes Rich, the owner of Sage Wine and Spirits, explained that she was so inspired by members of the Ballston Spa Business and Professional Association that she chose to open her business in 2016 on Front Street.
“One thing that is concerning is that there really isn’t conversation between the business association and village government about how we move forward and how we help each other move forward,” Rich said. “The businesses—the restaurants and retail shops—are what is bringing in more interest to the area and we need to embrace that.”
Hyde Boulevard resident Liz Kormos reported that she recently filed a Freedom of Information Law request with Ballston Spa Treasurer Christopher Hickey, who informed her “he did not trust the numbers coming out of the village’s computer system.”
“How can the village manage our tax dollars and create a budget if they don’t trust the numbers in their own accounting system?” Kormos asked the board members.
Rowland Street resident Chris Tebbens, a U.S. Navy veteran, urged the board to contact the New York State Comptroller’s office and utilize its “fiscal stress-monitoring tool.”
Romano responded that he has scheduled a meeting with the comptroller’s office in a couple of weeks “to discuss that very issue.”
Other local residents asked for more detailed explanations from Hickey, who prepared Ballston Spa’s tentative budget but was not present.
According to Romano, it was Hickey who recommended—in his capacity as the official budget officer for the village—raising property taxes by 26 percent. “That is his view of what needs to be done,” the mayor said.
Currently, Ballston Spa has about $16.5 million in taxable property, Romano explained. If the annual tax rate does increase by 26 percent, he cited two examples of how that would translate into real numbers.
Romano said a property valued at $180,000 would see a rise from $694 to $874 in village taxes; a “higher-end” property valued at $254,000 that pays $980 now would see that number rise to $1,243.
Yet Romano stopped short of saying that Hickey should be present at budget meetings.
“I speak to the treasurer every single day, Monday through Friday. Every member of this board has the same opportunity,” Romano said. “You need to spend some time with the treasurer, one on one.”
“What I’m worried about is that people are getting stuck on whether the guy’s here or not,” interjected Trustee Noah Shaw, who in recent weeks has frequently criticized Hickey’s absence from board meetings. He referred to Hickey as the village’s chief financial officer (CFO).
“The most important part is whether the CFO of this organization is coming up with good ideas for how to solve the problem. I’m not sure he is,” Shaw said. “We need more help, and we need different ideas and we need different options.”
Shaw prompted much debate about updating the village’s property assessment strategy, which he claimed has not been done in 25 years.
Anna Stanko, a senior technician in the Saratoga County Real Property Tax Service Agency, reminded the board that village property assessments are tied to those made in the neighboring towns of Ballston and Milton. She vouched for their overall accuracy.
Shaw also recommended that the board should consider selling off properties to raise revenue, including the three-story Village Hall building at 66 Front Street. He said that would make sense following the arrival of so many new businesses on Front Street.
Shaw requested that Romano form a new budget advisory committee by this August to accommodate the concerns stated by residents in attendance Monday night.
Another local woman acknowledged the complexity of putting together any municipal budget.
Still, she told the board she wants to see results. “I think we have a right to expect a much better process” in the years ahead, she concluded, eliciting applause.
The last speaker was local real estate broker Rory O’Connor, who advised setting up a citizen budget committee without delay. He called on the board members to at least focus on “zero-based budgeting” as they finalize any plan to fix the village’s fiscal woes.
“This is the people’s money. It’s not village money. This belongs to all of us to solve,” O’Connor said. “Zero-based budgeting is simply everyone justifies every penny, starting from the beginning, so there are no sacred cows; there are no programs that are not looked at in the context of being adjusted or reduced.”
“All of the storefronts are filled. It’s because we all worked together to make that happen,” Romano said in conclusion.
“We’re going through some tough times, but we’ll get through it. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to turn things around,” the mayor added. “You have my word on that.”