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January 23, 2014

Butler: Hartwick tax hike necessary

Cooperstown Crier

---- — Town of Hartwick Supervisor David Butler said he understands why town residents are upset over a 36 percent increase in property taxes that went into effect this month. 

“We had quite a few people come out to the (Jan. 13) board meeting,” he said. “They’re upset, and I can’t say I blame them. I’m a taxpayer too. I don’t like to see taxes go up.”

On Nov. 11, the town board voted unanimously to raise the property tax .89 cents per $1,000 and to override the two-percent state cap as set in New York state municipal law, Section 3-C. The new rate is 4.2238.

The action was taken in response to a September 2013 auditor’s report from the Office of the State Comptroller that said the town had nearly depleted its fund balance between 2009 and 2012.

“We tried to do our best to get the auditor’s report out there and to tell people why we were taking the action we took,” Butler said. “The main reason was we didn’t have any surplus to apply to the budget. We had never really raised taxes to match the budget.”

According to the report, over four years Hartwick made $550,000 in unplanned transfers to the highway fund and $20,000 to the fire protection fund. In addition, the audit faulted town officials for not keeping dedicated accounts, thereby mixing funds and making purchases without verifying that money was available.

“It is important that town officials discontinue using the general fund to subsidize other funds and develop structurally sound budgets for each fund without relying on fund balance,” the report read.

Butler, a Republican, took over as town supervisor in 2012 after defeating Patricia Ryan in the November 2011 election. He defeated Ryan again in a rematch in 2013.

In his response to the audit, he wrote to the chief examiner, H. Todd Eames, that “it is clear to the current administration that the financial oversight of the previous Chief Fiscal Officer (town supervisor) and the related inaccuracy in reporting and managing fund balance has put the town in a precarious position.”

However, in both the letter and again in an interview with the Cooperstown Crier on Monday, Butler said that he also blames himself and the other board members.

“I was on the board then, so I take responsibility too,” he said on Monday. “We all have to take a little hit on it. I do feel like we were misled a bit, but we all have to take responsibility.”

Ryan did not respond to a request for a response by deadline on Tuesday. 

Butler also said that he felt like there were other factors that had hurt the town’s finances, including an increase in state pensions and a lack of fairness in distribution of hotel and motel bed taxes. In addition, he pointed out that Hartwick’s taxes are still lower than most of the neighboring towns.

“If you look at Laurens, or if you look at New Lisbon, both are more than $1 (per $1,000) over what we are,” he said.

Butler said that he feels like the board has stabilized the town’s budget and that no more extreme measures will be needed in the future. He said that the town will take the advice of the auditor to separate funds and that he is advising all board members to take advantage of municipal accounting programs offered by the state.

“The plan is to keep the budget as close to the cap as possible from here on out,” he said.