Storm clouds are gathering over the Town of Amherst as the supervisor prepares a budget for 2010 that attempts to address millions of dollars in projected shortfalls through painful cuts that avoid a tax increase.
"We are at least $8 million in the hole," Supervisor Satish Mohan said during a board meeting Monday night. "Is it prudent, is it conscionable to pass these increases to the residents?"
Disappointing revenues from the mortgage tax, sales tax and building permits, coupled with skyrocketing pension contributions and increases in health insurance and debt service payments, have left town officials struggling with the realities of a sluggish economy.
While council members agree that the upcoming budget presents significant hurdles, getting them to agree on cost-cutting solutions promises to be equally challenging if Monday night's meeting was any indication.
The first public signs of turbulence came when Council Member Shelly Schratz, a longtime Mohan ally, put forward a resolution asking that the board request union and non-union employees to accept a wage freeze.
The resolution also asked the Town Board to cut the pay of all elected officials by 3 percent.
Her resolution was supported by Mohan, who recommended the move as part of a larger plan to reduce 2010 spending through wage cuts and freezes, as well as buyouts and layoffs. But the resolution was repudiated by the rest of the board and failed in the 4-2 vote.
Council Member Barry Weinstein noted that any freeze of union employee pay must be negotiated and could not be counted on in time for budget adoption.
Council Member Mark Manna called Schratz's resolution "self-serving." He said she "gorged herself at the public trough" by voting for a pay raise in 2004 and is leaving office at the end of the year, before any wage cuts or freezes take effect.
Schratz responded that if her resolution passed, she would take the 3 percent pay cut this year, before her term expires in December. Council members currently are paid $25,000 a year.
The board later spent an hour wrangling over amendments to a town buyout package for employees before ultimately approving one in a 5-1 vote. That proposal is expected to save at least $1.4 million.
Mohan reiterated his commitment to holding the line on taxes, saying he intends to do the people's will.
Comptroller Darlene A. Carroll said that despite some over-projections in revenue, other budget lines came in under projections and may leave the town with a $400,000 surplus by year's end. But she also acknowledged the $8 million to $49 million potential budget gap for 2010.
In related news Monday, the supervisor released a summary of his 2010 preliminary budget for special districts. It comprises 23 percent of the overall town budget and includes the financing of sewer, water and drainage services.
The proposed special districts budget is 2 percent lower than this year's spending plan.
Carroll said this budget shows a nearly $500,000 reduction in spending, a nearly $600,000 reduction in revenue and the use of more than $900,000 in town savings to cover revenue shortfalls.