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GREENBURGH BUDGET HEARING BEGINS AS TOWN COMPTROLLER CALLS IT QUITS

The proposed budget for 2016 from Town Supervisor Paul Feiner gets its first public airing tonight – just as Mr. Feiner announced that town comptroller Bart Talamini is calling it quits after eight years in the post.

The proposed budget remains within the state mandated tax cap, with no disclosed cuts in programs or services. But the budget depends almost entirely on revenues from the Town’s building department more than doubling next year from an expected $2.4 million this year –itself a $600,000 increase over what was budgeted — to more than $5.1 million in 2016.

Mr. Feiner did not disclose what the basis is for this huge increase in revenues and because all budget discussions thus far this year have been held in secret, it is not known whether any town officials, including Mr. Talamini, had questioned building inspector John Lucido to see how he came up with an increase this huge, and whether the estimate is realistic.

In the 2015 budget approved last year, building department revenues for 2015 were projected to be only $1.8 million.  During the year, however, revenues exceeded that projection and the amount was revised upward to be $2.4 million, of which only $1.7 million had been collected as of October 27, 2015.

Because every $500,000 in new revenues in the Town’s “B” budget translates into a point saved in taxes, Mr. Lucido’s whopping projection for next year of $5.1 million –a $2.7 million increase – translates into a tax savings for taxpayers of more than five points.  In other words, if those revenues had not been counted, taxpayers in unincorporated Greenburgh would be seeing a tax hike next year of around 6%, or about five times next year’s tax cap.

Some of the anticipated revenue may come from projects expected to be approved in northern Greenburgh, but without anyone on the town board pressing him publicly for a detailed breakdown, it is impossible to know whether Mr. Lucido is also including revenue from construction projects that might not be approved, such as the controversial assisted living facility proposed in Edgemont at the Sprainbrook Nursery site at the corner of Underhill and Sprain Roads or the proposed renovations for the Midway Shopping Center.

Using phony revenue projections to keep tax hikes artificially low is nothing new in Greenburgh – Mr. Feiner has been doing it for years.   In past years, Mr. Feiner has included in his budgets millions of dollars in dubious revenue from the sale of the former Frank’s Nursery property, the sale of “surplus” town property such as the “Waterwheel,” rent from WestHELP, unclaimed tax refunds, and various state and federal grants.

When these phantom revenue projections don’t come to pass, the Town quietly draws down its accumulated fund balance throughout the year to cover expenses.

Last year, though, the Town Board under Mr. Talamini’s direction did something different – it drew down 40% of the Town’s contingency funds – money usually needed to satisfy tax cert settlements and judgments — in order to restore funds to its fund balance so that there would be sufficient fund balance revenue on hand to subsidize the 2015 budget.  Had the Town Board not engaged in that kind of fiscal jujitsu, Greenburgh taxpayers this year would have faced a double digit tax hike this year.

In next year’s budget, however, Mr. Feiner proposes to restore $1 million to the Town’s contingency fund – funded in part by the huge increase in building department revenues.

As a certified public accountant, Mr. Talamini has always had to balance his professional obligations with the political imperative of having to serve a publicity-driven town supervisor who has staked his political reputation in recent years on being able to come within the state mandated tax cap, even if it means playing fast and loose with town budget numbers.

In his 24 years as town supervisor, Mr. Feiner has often used the Town’s fund balance to subsidize operating expenses, rather than risk his political future by hiking taxes or cutting spending. When fund balance gets all used up, though, as it did in 2007, Mr. Feiner had to raise town taxes by 23% — which, because no one saw it coming, gave new local meaning to the term “October surprise.”

Appointed town comptroller in October 2007, Mr. Talamini, has publicly criticized the town board for relying too heavily on fund balance to fund the Town’s operating expenses. He has also criticized town board members for relying too heavily on one-time only revenue projections that might not materialize.  Despite his misgivings, Mr. Talamini has still managed to work cooperatively with town officials to find creative ways to fund revenue shortfalls – while disclosing as little to the public as possible.

If the revenue isn’t realized, the Town will have no choice but to further deplete its fund balance, which could lead to a situation where there is no longer any fund balance while a large percentage of ongoing operating expenses are dependent on one-time only revenues which no longer exist.

With eight years in office, Mr. Talamini has survived longer than most recent Greenburgh comptrollers. He was a deputy town comptroller before being appointed to succeed Michael Kolesar, a former Ardsley trustee, who was fired after two years for publicly criticizing town officials at a meeting of the Edgemont Community Council.  Before Mr. Kolesar, others who held the position (briefly) include James Heslop, a former Scarsdale treasurer and Ann Marie Berg, a former comptroller from Eastchester and now Westchester County Finance Commissioner.

Ms. Berg, who barely lasted a year, succeeded Norah McAvoy, who left Greenburgh to become treasurer at the Harrison Board of Education. Ms. McAvoy was town comptroller for 19 years, from 1984 to 2003.

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