The proposed Amherst budget for 2013 can be seen one of two ways.
Either it is healthy budget that controls spending and slightly reduces overall property taxes for the third year in a row. Or it is a spending plan that grows spending for the first time in three years, scales back some services and is one pending lawsuit away from a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
Supervisor Barry Weinstein’s proposed $116.5 million budget increases spending by 1.2 percent, or about $1.4 million. However, higher revenue projections and an increased use of town reserves will keep the town’s property tax levy flat.
The levy – the total amount of money the town collects in taxes – will technically decline by $1,845 next year under Weinstein’s proposal. The budget anticipates no layoffs and will reduce net employee levels through attrition, the supervisor said.
When asked about possible cuts to town services, Weinstein was not specific but said, “There might be some changes. There were some departments that made threats.”
The supervisor described the 2013 budget proposal as the most difficult of the three he has crafted since becoming supervisor because of increased costs in employee benefits, particularly pensions. He highlighted Police Department pension costs, which are expected to grow by $900,000 next year.
In the 2013 budget, the town continues to fund a full contingent of 153 Police Department employees, but Assistant Chief Charles Cohen said the proposed budget for next year creates a “de facto hiring freeze” in his department.
Weinstein acknowledged, “We will not be replacing them as quickly as we have in the past.”
The Highway Department’s reserves also have been greatly depleted due to overspending, Weinstein said, resulting in a property tax increase to the special Highway Fund of $307,839, or 3.47 percent, to help replenish reserves and maintain operations.
Overall, the town would earmark $4.7 million in reserves toward the budget, an increase of about $800,000 over 2012. In an ordinary budget year, the town’s remaining reserves of $4.4 million would be considered healthy and comfortably in excess of the town’s minimum requirements.
But this is not an ordinary budget year. The decade-old Bissell case, which carries a potential $23 million judgment, has resulted in the town paying out a personal injury claim to the tune of $3 million a year beginning in 2011. The case involves a roofer who fell from a town-maintained building.
The town has sued the State Insurance Fund for repayment of the judgment plus interest and won its case in State Supreme Court. But the case is under appeal.
If the town is not reimbursed by the Insurance Fund, the town is looking at an immediate $2 million budget hole that would grow to more than $5 million before next year is out.
“As of this moment, without a Bissell recovery, we have a deficit,” Weinstein said, adding, “We reasonably expect to collect.”
Other highlights from the 2013 supervisor’s budget:
•?The aging, trouble-plagued wastewater treatment plant would see an infusion of $1.5 million in reserves in the main budget, as well as borrowing of more than $7 million in the capital improvement project budget earmarked for sewage plant and related repairs and upgrades.
The capital budget for construction projects is growing significantly, from $11.1 million in 2012 to a proposed $16.8 million in 2013. Debt service associated with borrowing for these projects also is growing.
•?Weinstein said he did not increase any amounts in the budget to settle three remaining expired union contracts with the police, Civil Service Employees Association and highway unions. However, money that previously had been set aside for contract settlements remains intact.
•?The Youth and Recreation Department would lose $95,000 from its budget for contracts with nonprofits.
•?The Police Department would see cuts for police car replacements and police personnel costs associated with traffic control support for town road races and parades.
•?The town’s trash and recycling contract with Modern Corp. continues to save the town money. The budget reflects a $1.2 million tax savings due to the changeover.