State of the Town Address – February 12th, 2013
This has been a very exciting year for the Town of Ossining. The Town Board and the administration have been dedicated to accomplishing the goal of keeping services at the high level that the residents deserve, while being fiscally conservative with expenditures. We have had many learning experiences and have made sure that we communicate these experiences, as well as the nuances of Town Government, to the residents whenever possible. Our commitment to open government will continue, and in most cases, our Department Managers share this philosophy and have risen to the occasion.
We have concentrated on many issues in 2012, but they can be broken down into three distinct, but related, categories: staffing, structuring, and savings.
One of this Board’s top priorities is to maintain appropriate staffing levels within the Town, as well as ensure that every job is performed efficiently and effectively. We have accomplished this by analyzing each departmental function, and making sure that staffing levels are always sufficient, seriously considering which vacancies need filling and which we can work without. That being said, this year we have hired a new Assessor, a new Assistant Court Clerk, a new Highway Laborer and a new Part-Time Paralegal, all of whom are filling vacancies left behind by other employees and affording the Town savings on salaries and longevity payments. The Town also plans to hire an additional Parks Department employee in 2013 to support the growing needs of the many large Parks under the Town’s responsibility.
We have also enacted new policies, and updated older ones, to make sure that all of our employees have an understanding of what is expected of them at work. Unfortunately, in the handful of cases where we were not pleased with employee performance, we addressed the issue immediately and have not hesitated to take disciplinary action against employees not working up to Town standards. You have the commitment of this Board that we will continue to monitor employee performance, while supporting the vast majority of our employees who embody the true spirit of the Town and work above and beyond our standards. We could not say this so confidently without the support of our unions, both of whom have been extremely cooperative during hard financial times and have been true partners in making the Town run smoothly. We look forward to negotiating our new contract with CSEA this coming summer.
We have also concerned ourselves regularly with updating policies to serve the Town’s current needs. Our Board has passed a policy requiring vacancies to be filled by Ossining residents whenever possible, updated the Non-Union Employee Handbook, and has even enacted the use of biometric time clocks to create more accountability on the job. We have also enacted policies that will help our employees with their everyday job responsibilities, such as requiring defensive driving classes for anyone driving a Town vehicle, having Town seals visible on all Town vehicles, and getting photo identification for each employee who interacts with our residents, for their safety and for yours.
The last major staffing issue pertains to our police force. Through working with our last remaining police officer out on 207-C disability, and with the tireless help of our labor counsel, this officer has retired effective December 31st, 2012. Consequently, the Town’s liability in regards to this officer will be reduced by close to one million dollars over the coming years.
Our next focus has been on structuring, and the transparency that comes with the “Open Door” policy that the Town has committed to follow. We have recently completed the state-funded study of Governmental Options with our partners at CGR in Rochester, and have learned many lessons about the functions of all governments that fall under the Town “umbrella”. One of the biggest lessons, however, is seeing how ahead of the curve the Town of Ossining is, compared with other municipalities in New York State and nationally.
One of the most significant changes we’ve made in 2012 was to contract with the Village of Ossining for our engineering services after we parted ways with our prior consultant; the results of this have been hugely beneficial in terms of saving taxpayer money on all fronts, from the cost savings of staffing under this IMA to the huge savings realized through properly planning capital projects and eliminating waste.
We have also endeavored, with the Village of Ossining, on our first year of a consolidated court, making us the first municipality in the area to reduce redundancies in the local court system. 2012 was the initial year of combining a very busy Village of Ossining Court with the Town Court. The Court is working on documenting procedures as we continue the learning curve into 2013. We are constantly evaluating the different job functions of the court clerks and as of December 2012 they have reduced the work force in the department by one full time employee. There have been some bumps in the road but communications and commitment to the end product is what both the Town and Village are looking for.
Finally, we started a new program in the Town this past year where we take every third Work Session and hold a Town Hall Meeting for our residents, which have served as open forums during which you have the Town Board’s attention: the agenda is dictated by resident interest. We will continue to have our Town Hall Meetings approximately every six weeks. Our first in 2013 was on January 29th where we discussed self –reliance and neighborhood reliance. We had a great presentation from Lieutenant Alongi, which you can view on line on the Town’s web page. We also had a company representing a solar solution to grid dependence and a short discussion on the Northern Westchester Energy Action Consortium, or NWEAC. We are looking for all of these groups to be represented at Earth Day, where you can find out more information. This presentation turned out to be even more timely than expected- after our storm this past weekend, we were very lucky to have more information on how best to prepare. Our next will be held on March 5th at 7:30 PM at the Library. The Westchester County Executive will be joining us, so prepare your questions, research your concerns and come out and join us for a session of “Ask Astorino”.
The Town Hall Meetings are YOUR meetings, so after a short Powerpoint presentation, the floor will be open for you to ask whatever questions you may have about the County level of our government. We don’t always get the opportunity to talk with these representatives in such an open forum, so now is a good opportunity. We are fortunate to have local County and State representatives who regularly hold open meetings/coffees for the community; this gives you the opportunity to talk to the County Executive in the same manner.
These meetings have allowed the Town Board to focus on quality-of-life issues in our community, many of which were brought to the Board’s attention by concerned residents at these meetings. One major accomplishment was making our parks safer and cleaner when, at the recommendation of the Recreation Advisory Board, the Town made it illegal to smoke in areas of Town Parks where children congregate. We also started a Group Home Task Force in response to a community in the Town dealing with some growing pains from their new neighbors- after weeks of research, meetings and commitment from all sides to move forward together, we ensured that this valuable asset in our community was able to fit in seamlessly and improve for all residents. We also signed on with the “Energize Ossining” PACE program, allowing commercial property owners to pay for energy-efficient improvements through low-interest loans, payable on their Town tax bills.
We also have been alerted to the issue of the SRO, or Student Resource Officer, in the Anne M. Dorner Middle School, the only school physically located in the Unincorporated Area of the Town. Some residents were concerned about the expense of the officer being shouldered by a small segment of the population, while still others worry about the safety and social outcomes for students in the event that this position was no longer funded. Through working cooperatively with the School Board, the Westchester County Police, the Towns of New Castle and Yorktown, as well as the Villages of Ossining and Briarcliff Manor, we hope to have a solution to this issue that satisfies all residents while ensuring the safety and social development of our students in the Middle School.
The community also had many concerns about our sanitation contract renewal- the Board, while analyzing options to lower contract pricing, had proposed that all bidders consider both two and one pickups per week. The residents were enthusiastic in that they needed for the two-day pick up to continue, and the Board listened. This is the kind of input the Board wants from you, our residents. We are here to serve the residents of Ossining, and we can only respond to issues if we’re aware of them. We want to thank you all for your input and hope that it continues into 2013.
This transitions us into perhaps the cornerstone of this Board’s philosophy, from which all other practices have grown- our commitment to saving taxpayer dollars wherever possible, which we have done through a combination of policies and to create the checks and balances necessary to run our municipality while making the most of our resources. Perhaps one of the most important steps has been focusing on our procurement policy and making sure that it is followed by all departments, regardless of the project.
Our Procurement Policy is a method of enforcing the existing policy of purchasing through a bid process when necessary, as well as the use of the purchase order system for other items. However, this does not give any Department Head the authority to make unjustified purchases just so long as they are under $999, nor to dissect and manipulate invoices to keep them under this threshold. Every project expected to radically change procedure within any department must be presented to the Town Board, and must include any changes to the way we “do business” now, the use of other department employees, the total estimated cost of the project, and the return on investment to the community. We will review these projects at our work sessions, and the Town Board will make its decision after seeing all justifications.
Understanding and following the procurement policy (which is available on the Town of Ossining web page) is essential for the Town to not only be competitive but also free from any perception of improper purchasing practices. In 2012, we have seen a number of our capital projects come in very competitively priced during these times when contractors (just like the rest of us) understand the need to be competitive to stay in business. On smaller purchases, the requirement of three bids has helped the Town as it forces the Department Heads to seek out competitive sources for materials and equipment.
It is the opinion of the Town Board that simply throwing money at problems, or adding employees to our payroll, does not solve any major issues. We must all work smarter, harder and come up with constructive solutions every day. As we move into a period of less subsidy from state and federal governments, coupled with dwindling local revenues like mortgage tax and sales tax in an uncertain economy, it is essential that we do not burden the taxpayer unnecessarily. Our mantra has been to “think outside the box”- we are always looking for our department managers to come up with proactive creative ideas on how to do things more efficiently, and continuing to provide the excellent service the residents of the entire Town have come to expect.
We have also taken great strides to make the most of our resources to relieve the tax burden on our residents by way of promoting the North State Road Business District- we have done this with signage on North State Road, as well as by aggressively marketing the police station with hopes of bringing a new business to our community, as well as a new property on the tax rolls.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Town’s savings is looking forward and considering where the Town will be years down the line. Our conversations with Moody’s Investors Services earlier this year cemented many goals that I’ve already spoken about, but one of the most crucial to them was that the Town maintain, or better yet, GROW, our fund balance accounts.
Lastly I would like to thank the Town Board, the Administration especially our Budget Director Maddi Zachacz, and Town Counsel Wayne Spector for working so well together as a TEAM during these every exciting times for the Town.
Below please find a summary of the report our Comptroller Thomas Warren gave concerning the finances of the Town of Ossining. To read his entire report please go to the Town web page and go to the minutes of the Town Board meeting of February 12, 2013.
Improved 2012 Financial Position for Town of Ossining
As part of Town Supervisor Susanne Donnelly’s State of the Town address to the Town Board and public during the February 12, 2013 Town Board meeting, Town Comptroller Thomas Warren gave a preliminary report on the Town’s financial position for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2012.
The sound financial policies and procedures that helped the Town of Ossining to improve its finances and fund balance position in 2010 and 2011 have continued in 2012. These measures have increased the unassigned fund balances of the Town’s three primary operating funds (Town-wide General Fund, Unincorporated Town Fund, and Highway Fund) by nearly $308,000 to an estimated $2,780,000, its highest level since 2002. The $2.78 million unassigned fund balance represents approximately 25% of the 2013 budget, and is at the level generally recommended by Moody’s Investors Service bond rating agency. The improved financial position of the Town is evidenced by not having to issue Tax Anticipation Notes (TAN) for cash flow purposes in 2012 or 2013, and was a positive factor cited by Moody’s in their bond rating this past year. Although a 25% surplus might seem high, especially in this difficult economy and with the tax cap limitations, the available fund balance at year-end does not necessarily equate to cash, and has to be sufficient to finance Town operations for the first three to four months of the 2013 year until the April property tax bills are sent out and collected. In addition, on April 5, 2013, the Town must make the two school districts whole for any uncollected school district taxes, which this amounted to nearly $1.67 million last year.
Although certain revenues estimated in the 2012 budget did not materialize as budgeted (including interest earnings, some departmental fees, sales tax and mortgage tax), other revenue categories made up for the shortfall, and it is predicted that revenues overall should exceed budgetary estimates by an estimated $58,000 for 2012, which is very good news for the Town. In addition, expenditures were well within budgetary appropriations for 2012, with no fund being over expended, which helped to increase fund balance at year-end. It is estimated that unexpended appropriations will exceed $300,000 in the Town-wide General Fund, $110,000 in the Unincorporated Town Fund, and $190,000 in the Highway Fund.