Creativity is key to sustainable villages

By Joan Lawrence-Bauer 
Though Hurricane Irene is a year behind us, the mess she left in her wake is still here.  Memorial events serve as comforting reminders of the way people came together to cope.  But tax bills in the mail next week will be painful reminders of what we’ve lost in a decade-and-a-half filled with population shifts, changing demographics, floods and global economic downturn.

In Fleischmanns, the hit was hard.  Not only did the village have the only fatality in the area, but also a budding resurgence of community pride and civic engagement took a serious pounding.  Ultimately, Mayor Dave Morrell resigned and it took months before the remaining village trustees agreed to name Deputy Mayor Todd Pascarella to take his place.

Spirit returned
But that was then.  When the annual Memorial Day Weekend Street Fair rolled around in May, the Fleischmanns spirit was back on track.  As members of Fleischmanns First greeted vendors and visitors, Main Street was hopping.  Today, the village that just won’t quit is again in rebuilding mode.

Writing in last week’s News, Pascarella lauded the spirit of the community and though he noted that “…we are closer to the beginning than the end of the long term re-building process,” he also pointed out that new businesses are locating in the village and a variety of funding sources are being tapped to do repairs and upgrades to public facilities.

But what about the operating costs for a municipality with a population of just 351 people?  The village budget for 2012-13 is $460,026, not including water and sewer costs which are billed separately to users.  According to the 2010 US Census, a total of 290 housing units are served by that budget, bringing the cost in at $1,586.29 per housing unit.  Without a New York City-owned sewage treatment plant picking up nearly half its tax bill, the Fleischmanns taxpayers must carry a heavier load than nearby Margaretville residents.

No room to cut
A look at the budget shows no fat to be trimmed.  While salaries and personal services make up 51 percent of the Margaretville budget, in Fleischmanns, they are just 40 percent of the budget.  Of the $185,891 going out, nearly $80,000 pays salaries and to maintenance crews to keep streets and roads open and passable and a village clerk to keep track of it all.  Employee benefits at $50,850 include retirement, social security, workers’ compensation, unemployment and medical.   

Code enforcement at $20,000, legal fees at $12,000 and grant writing services at $10,000 are  contractual expenses for personal services.  Culture and recreation, including the community swimming pool,  takes $7,500 a year in staffing and together, the mayor and four other trustees divide $7,200 a year.  A bookkeeper and a treasurer combine for a total of $7,300.

As in Margaretville, where fire protection is costly at $59,800, Fleischmanns lays out $53,750 this year for operating and another $53,750 in capital reserve for equipment.  (Pascarella notes that “…certain pieces of equipment are mandated by the state to be replaced every so many years whether they are in good condition or not.”).

CHIPS money for roads goes out at a total of $43,000 in the 2012-13 budget and $20,000 goes to capital equipment funds for street repair equipment.

So where does the money come from?  Fortunately, property taxes only have to cover 59 percent of the total budget or $271,547.  At $936.37 average per household, it’s a heavy burden.  Areas outside the village that are covered by the fire department pick up $90,461 in fire protection costs and the $43,000 spent on CHIPS funds for streets and roads is reimbursed to the village. 

Delinquent property taxes and penalties bring in $29,000 and sewer user fees reimburse $10,000 of the clerical fees that go out.  Rental of property brings in $4,000 this year and pool receipts are expected to be $3,600.  Fees, donations and assorted other items make up the balance of the operating budget.

What does not show up in the operating budget for Fleischmanns is the income the village has been able to collect in grants.   Its status as an independent municipality within the Town of Middletown, coupled with the historic designations for many key properties and the relatively low-income levels of many households all make Fleischmanns eligible for a wide variety of grant assistance.

Anticipating grants
With well over half a million dollars by grant writers recently, and more grants in the pipeline, estimates show a return on investment of 1,000 percent for money spent on grant writer fees. 
Taxpayers looking for good news can be pleased that Fleischmanns has not had to borrow money for disaster response.  Most  money spent in hurricane repairs completed has been recouped.  With little to no capital reserve left and FEMA and grant money often done on a reimbursement basis, some borrowing will probably be required going forward. 

Clearly, creativity will be crucial in future budgets and finding new funding sources will be essential.  But as residents and property owners consider their future, the can-do spirit of its people is likely to remain the greatest asset Fleischmanns has.