The 2021 proposed budget dominated the Lewisboro Town Board meeting Monday, Nov. 23. The agenda included separate hearings on the town board’s proposed override of the state tax cap and on the overall budget plan for next year.
Among the residents commenting on the budget were those who said they opposed the $155,000 proposed increase in police funding in 2021.
Town Supervisor Peter Parsons opened the meeting by stressing that the tax cap override was intended as a contingency in the event the town’s financial picture worsened.
“We have no intention of breaking the cap,” Mr. Parsons said. “We are, however, aware that there are several things that are outside the town’s power.”
Mr. Parsons said these undecided factors include health insurance premiums for next year, union negotiations and funding from the state. He said the tax cap override would only be pursued if necessary.
Several residents said at the tax cap override hearing that they preferred the board to identify more budget savings rather than consider a higher tax levy. One resident questioned why the town board members receive insurance, saying it was an unnecessary extra expense that could be eliminated.
The first public hearing wrapped up quickly. With little discussion, all board members voted in favor of passing the New York state tax cap override legislation.
Before the hearing on the overall 2021 budget, Mr. Parsons outlined the main changes to the budget. Mr. Parsons said the town increased reserves for both the Highway and General Fund. He said the town proposed a $121,260, or 1.943% increase in town taxes for 2021, a level equal to the state’s 1.722% tax cap levy limit.
Mr. Parsons said the main increases to the budget are a $25,000 increase to the Building Department for the work of an additional code enforcement officer; $10,000 increase for tree trimming due to the ash blight; $6,300 increase in office cleaning due to COVID-19 cleaning protocols; and the $155,000 increase to the police budget, which will fund an additional part-time officer on duty in each shift.
Mr. Parsons explained that the hiring of more officers aims to cut long response times in certain parts of town, handle an increase in police calls since the beginning of the pandemic, and improve overall officer safety.
Mr. Parsons said the increases were offset by a $180,000 decrease in the town’s road resurfacing budget because the town intends to borrow that money instead.
Councilmember Tony Goncalves illustrated how the town’s proposed tax increase would affect his personal taxes. Mr. Goncalves’ calculations showed that with an assessed property value of $57,700, he would pay $1,406 in town taxes for 2021, compared to $1,381 in 2020, an increase of $25.20.
The lengthy second public hearing on the proposed 2021 budget drew the most comments.
Opponents of the proposed increase in police funding argued that the town lacked data supporting the idea that increasing the number of officers will lower the amount of reported incidents. Some also questioned how the town can determine the police department’s needs without conducting a formal assessment.
Domestic violence and mental health incidents have tripled since last year, according to local authorities, and some residents questioned how increasing part-time officers address those issues.
A number of residents said they opposed any increase in the town budget or local taxes. With so many people in town facing economic hardship due to COVID-19, these residents said the town should find ways to maintain or lower taxes.
If the town is going to raise the budget next year, some wondered whether the town would be better served by increasing spending in areas that would help residents and businesses cope with the pandemic. With confirmed active cases drastically rising in town over the past couple of weeks, residents urged the town board to consider putting money into COVID-19 testing and other services.
However, supporters also spoke out, defending the proposed increases in police funding in the overall 2021 budget. Echoing points made at the first Police Reform and Reinvention Committee meeting, residents said having more police officers would give them a greater sense of personal safety. People living in Goldens Bridge and Vista, which sit at opposing ends of Lewisboro, also felt the increase would improve response times in their neighborhoods. Lowering crime rates was also cited as a potential benefit of increased police funding. Police officer safety would also improve, some said, by the department having enough manpower to respond to calls with multiple officers instead of just one, as is now the case.
“We live in a world where law and order is necessary,” one resident stated.
After every resident spoke, Mr. Parsons put police department spending in context by comparing budgets in neighboring towns. He said Bedford spends $6.6 million annually on its police force, which is 21% of the town budget, and Pound Ridge spends $1.2 million on police, which is 25% of the budget. If Lewisboro implements the current proposed budget in 2021, Mr. Parsons said spending on police would total $1.2 million, which represents 17% of the overall budget.
Following the public hearing, the town board discussed how they should move forward on the polarizing budget.
“I think this is an excellent budget and I’d like it approved,” Mr. Parsons said.
Regarding the police budget, Mr. Parsons stated after the hearing that if responding police officers do not have back up, they could be more likely to use excessive force in an incident.
Councilmember Jennifer Castelhano agreed that the lack of officers is a safety issue for the current police force, stating she supported the increased police budget. Mr. Welsh agreed with her reasoning, also backing the proposed higher police budget.
Councilmember Jane Crimmins pushed back against the other board members, asking them to keep an open mind on the police budget and to continue the public discussion after hearing so many opposing viewpoints.
As several residents noted during the public hearing, Ms. Crimmins said the town just created the Police Reform and Reinvention Committee, which is tasked partly with determining what the police department needs. Ms. Crimmins said the board should let the committee do its job. “It’s important to take the information in before we determine anything yet,” Ms. Crimmins said.
However, Mr. Parsons noted that the deadline for the board to pass a final 2021 budget is Sunday, Dec. 20, which is quickly approaching. The town board only has one more meeting before the deadline, on Monday, Dec. 14.
Mr. Goncalves and Ms. Castelhano also voiced strong support for the overall 2021 budget.
Mr. Parsons postponed a vote on the budget until the next town board meeting Dec. 14, where the board must vote on a 2021 town budget. “It’ll be the latest I think I’ve ever done it,” he said.