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Amherst budget passes by 4-3 vote

The Amherst Town Board voted Monday to add more than $900,000 to what Supervisor Satish Mohan originally promoted as a "no growth" budget for 2009 that would hold the line on town expenses.

Even so, Comptroller Darlene A. Carroll said the estimated $116.7 million budget is expected to raise the tax levy -- the overall amount of money to be raised in taxes -- by less than 1 percent, or about $63,700.

The result is that, on average, homeowners should actually see a slight decrease in their tax rate next year, given the anticipated rise in property assessments, Carroll said.

The board approved the budget in a 4-3 vote. Mohan and council members Shelly Schratz, Mark Manna and Guy Marlette voted in favor of the budget, while members Daniel Ward, Deborah Bruch Bucki and Barry Weinstein voted against it.

"It's a reasonably good budget," Mohan said after the vote. "We could do more, but this year we made a lot of progress, with a lot of agreements with the department heads."

Of the estimated $911,000 restored to the budget in recent weeks, more than $500,000 was added on Monday.

The board restored money to the town's recreation, engineering, highway and building departments. It also added money to the town's contingency accounts for unanticipated expenses.

In addition, council members voted 5-2 to add a purchasing director position to the budget at Mohan's request. Council members described the position as an investment that should save the town more money than the position costs.

"A town this size, with a $116 million budget, it's unheard of not to have a purchasing director or a purchasing department," said Marlette.

The purchasing director represents the only new, full-time administrator's job in the 2009 budget. Mohan pegged the additional cost at $86,120 in salary and benefits.

More than two dozen vacant town jobs were eliminated in the 2009 budget, but no one will be laid off, and Mohan said no town services will suffer. Residents will have to pay more in recreation and building permit fees, however.

Despite concerns voiced by the comptroller, the town will also spend nearly $5.7 million in town savings, or fund balance, to cover some of the difference between expenses and revenues. The town spent $6.5 million in savings in this year's budget.

Like last year, Mohan is adhering to his policy of keeping a minimum fund balance of 10 percent in most accounts and using any additional savings to help make up for lagging revenues. Mohan said taxpayers deserve to have the town's surplus dollars used to ease their tax burden, but some have criticized this practice as unsustainable.

Among the budget actions taken Monday, the board:

Assumed an additional $456,400 in state and county revenue in the areas of assessment and highway reimbursements, and mortgage tax revenue.

Added $200,000 to the town's contingency accounts for unforeseen emergency expenses, bringing the total amount of undesignated contingency money to $430,000.

Voted 4-3 to suspend all furniture and small equipment purchases, a provision that can be waived for specific expenditures "for reasons of necessity."

Restored $200,000 in overtime money to the Highway Department.

Voted 5-2 to approve the town's $13 million Capital Improvement Projects budget, which outlines major town construction projects for which the town will borrow money. The capital budget will focus on townwide infrastructure, especially water, sewer and drainage projects.

Not everyone was satisfied with the final budget, which passed by a margin of one vote for the second year in a row.

Weinstein, who voted against the budget, said he didn't think it was conservative enough.

"I think we're digging a hole for next year," he said.

Carroll also said she's worried that the budget doesn't properly reflect the gloomy economic forecasts for next year.

"I still think we may be overoptimistic in our revenue projections, given the state of the economy," the comptroller said.


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