The $116.7 million budget approved by the Amherst Town Board on Monday will see expenses grow by $922,000. But because of some higher revenue projections and use of town surplus money, the overall tax rate for town residents will drop slightly for the second year in a row.
The 2009 budget represents a modest victory for Supervisor Satish Mohan.
Though he has yet to submit a "zero growth" budget without having to add hundreds of thousands of dollars later, he has managed to cobble together bipartisan support to approve the budgets for 2008 and 2009.
This year, he received support to eliminate more than two dozen vacant positions from the budget for a savings of $1.8 million and kept spending growth to less than 1 percent, the lowest percentage of budget growth since he took office in 2006.
In previous years, the budget adoption session has run four to five hours and been punctuated by outbursts of mean-spirited dialogue, but this year's budget adoption was a relatively calm and above-board affair. Monday night's meeting was over in a two hours, with town leaders donning their coats by 9 p.m.
That's not to say the budget doesn't have plenty of critics.
A number of town officials, including the comptroller, are concerned the 2009 budget overestimates revenues and underestimates expenses. They also contend that Mohan has kept tax rates artificially low for the past two years by spending millions of dollars in town savings that could eventually harm the town's bond rating.
Comptroller Darlene A. Carroll reported Tuesday that the town's tax rate is expected to fall by 1.4 percent next year. That means the owner of a $150,000 house would see a reduction of $22 on their property tax bill next year, she said.
The overall tax levy -- the amount of money the town must raise in taxes -- is actually growing by $63,700 from this year to next. That figure, however, represents an increase of one-tenth of 1 percent and is offset by rising property assessments.
"The reduction is minimal," Mohan said at his budget news conference Tuesday, "but it's a step in the right direction. It shows all of us that we can do more with less."
Republican Council Member Guy Marlette and Democratic Council Member Mark Manna stood with Mohan on Tuesday morning with a similar message.
"We're not giving department heads a blank check anymore," said Manna, one of the council members working to save the town millions in health care costs by restructuring the town's health insurance plans. "We are not the regular politicians who talk and do nothing."
Even though Mohan has failed to substantially cut town taxes or keep spending from growing during his term in office, he said he remains optimistic that a no-growth budget is a realistic possibility.
Marlette added, "If we don't try, we'll never know."