Residents of a town in rural Dutchess County want answers about how a property-tax decrease went down another 50 percent in a town board budget process that left some councilmembers and community members in the dark. The decrease occurred under the previous administration in Stanford; and now the current one is investigating.
Residents spilled out from every entrance of Stanford Town Hall at a Town Board meeting intended to inform and take questions about a property tax bill with a 59.8 percent decrease when a 10.8 percent cut was reflected in the proposed budget last fall. Wendy Burton is the newly elected Democratic Town Supervisor, having beaten the Republican incumbent.
“When it became clear that it had been altered, that there was no explanation, that history really had been rewritten on that document, the last one that I showed, where the number had changed from -$41,000 to -$547,000, even the tentative budget had been altered, then it was something, somebody tampered with this and it needs to be looked into,” says Burton.
Burton says the issue came to light when newly elected Town Councilmember Frank Pepe, also a Democrat, opened his property tax bill in January and did a double take.
“How did this happen? We had to go to the county and say, can we see the tax levy bill that was sent in. And the tax levy bill, as you saw, was by a -$547,000 in a tax revenue line,” Burton says. “It was our real property tax had turned into a negative. It’s unheard of.”
Former town council member Mark D’Agostino, a certified public accountant, says Burton and current town board members are not telling the truth.
“We have a certified public accountant’s report that says we should not be levying taxes for two years because the fund balance is so high. And that’s exactly what the former board did. And I’m happy and proud that I could have voted, that I voted for a 60 percent tax reduction,” D’Agostino says. “It boggles the mind how people here are saying we need to give back that money. They must not understand that we have such a huge surplus in the fund balance.”
The Republican says the final budget to be adopted included the nearly 60 percent tax cut, and all town board members in November voted for it.
“The preliminary budget can be amended or adopted. The preliminary budget was amended. It was handed to them,” D’Agostino says. “Mary Weinberger didn’t look at it, just like she didn’t look at the minutes that were incorrect and she voted for them. She has a very bad habit of not looking at things and voting for them. And that’s exactly what happened.”
“So you’re saying that no one snuck anything anybody’s nose,” Dunne asks.
“Nobody snuck anything under anybody’s nose,” says D’Agostino says. “Nobody did.”
Republican Town Councilmember Mary Weinberger also serves on the current town board. She contends the nearly 60 percent decrease was snuck into the final budget.
“There is no way I would ever vote for a 60 percent tax cut, even though it would be nice for me, too, there’s no way,” says Weinberger.
Weinberger says she read the preliminary budget and that’s what was supposed to end up in the final budget. And she says a change to 59.8 percent would have required another public hearing. Weinberger told the public that only two officials had access to make such a change – the former supervisor and D’Agostino.
“As every other year — I’ve been a councilwoman for six years — and we’ve always passed the preliminary budget as the final budget. Always. It’s never differed,” Weinberger says. “We never had anything like this happen before, but when two people lose an election, that may be very well why this happened, to sabotage the board, the new board coming in, but they didn’t just sabotage the board, they tried to sabotage the town, and that’s why I had to stand up.”
Some community members preferred to stay out of the weeds, away from the financials behind it all, and move forward with solutions and ensure a situation like this does not occur again. Others ceded their time to ask questions during the meeting to D’Agostino. Meantime, Burton says she’ll hold additional meetings to inform the community and felt Thursday night’s meeting achieved her goal.
“And my biggest hope was to get people to see what had been done, and to back us in doing what we have to do to make ourselves whole,” says Burton.
Burton contends the reasonable solution is to implement a restorative tax levy to bring the tax decrease back to 10.8 percent. Republican Gregg Pulver is chair of the Dutchess County Legislature.
“This is a tough situation for any town to be in,” Pulver says. “I understand… I’m not here to pass judgment on how it happened, why it happened, but I think if the town board feels that they’re in a financial crisis that they need to get a second tax bill out and, quite honestly, it seemed like a majority of the people kind of accept that, then I think it would fly through the legislature.”
He says the legislature would try to fast track the request and pass a resolution in less than two months. Pulver says he’s not come across such a situation in his career.
“Twenty-plus years in public years, I’ve never heard of it, I’ve never seen it. So everything’s new,” says Pulver. “So we’ll go through the process with them and hopefully come up with a good answer.”
Resident Joe Kiernan offered an immediate solution — pay the difference. Now.
“I think it was good of the town board to focus on solutions to the situation. I think a lot of people feel that what happened is very suspicious but, what’s done is done, and so how can we go forward in a positive way,” says Kiernan. “So I thought, well, it seems like an easy corrective measure might be just to pay the difference and be done with it right away.”
In fact, he asked whether it were an option, and Burton said she would look into it.
“Several people on the way out tonight asked me, oh yeah, I was ready to take my checkbook out if they had taken you up on it,” Kiernan says.
Burton says she was in touch with Deputy state Comptroller for the Division of Local Government and School Accountability Elliott Auerbach.
“I said, we need an audit. And he said, well, a lot of towns need an audit. And I said, no, we need an audit,” says Burton. “And I sent him a bunch of documents, and I think we hopped up pretty high on the list.”
A representative from the state comptroller’s Hudson Valley region attended the meeting, as did the Dutchess County finance commissioner. Burton has asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the change in the levy. A state comptroller spokeswoman, in an emailed statement, says the office, as part of its risk assessment process, is still evaluating the situation in the Town of Stanford.