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Late Taxes Cause Lean Piermont Budget

  • This 19th-century building on Route 10 is home to the Piermont Public Library and the town offices, including the Selectboard, Town Clerk and Tax Collector.     Pam Hartley photograph

    This 19th-century building on Route 10 is home to the Piermont Public Library and the town offices, including the Selectboard, Town Clerk and Tax Collector. Pam Hartley photograph

  • This 19th-century building on Route 10 is home to the Piermont Public Library and the town offices, including the Selectboard, Town Clerk and Tax Collector.     Pam Hartley photograph

Town Meeting will take place Tuesday, March 11 in the Old Church Building, with ballot voting from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Voters will decide on the budget and other warrant articles when the meeting reconvenes at 7:30 p.m. at Piermont Village School. Residents will meet on March 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the school to vote on the Piermont School District warrant.

Piermont — With $524,000 in back taxes owed to the town, the Selectboard is proposing a “bare bones” budget to help residents regain their financial footing. The school budget is also flat.

Considering the unusually large amount of back taxes owed, about 80 percent of which date back to the past three years, it’s clear that people are struggling, said Selectboard Chairman Bob Lang. The economy has been tough, many residents are on a fixed income, and finding work in town can be a challenge, Lang said.

And late payment penalties, set by the state, make catching up even harder. The interest on late taxes, first 12 percent and then 18 percent, “puts people in a hole very quickly,” he said.

When taxes are late, the town has to borrow money to cover the deficit. Piermont can’t continue to count on funds that don’t come in, Lang said. “You can’t keep going to the well.”

The Selectboard is also looking ahead to what it hopes is the near future, when Piermont will build new town offices.

“We’ve outlived our building,” said Selectman Ernie Hartley.

Built in the 1830s, it was once part of a 60-acre farm, according to a brochure about the town’s forest and trails created through the Conservation Commission. The small, drafty structure on Route 10 now houses the Selectboard office, the library that serves the town and school, and one bathroom. The town clerk and tax collector also share an office in the building, and although they have separate hours, it’s still “very cramped,” Lang said. And with storage space at a premium, the town records are housed in a vault in the building that is not temperature controlled.

Because it is not wheelchair accessible , the second floor of the two-story building is unused, Hartley said.

The Selectboard wants the new site to include the Police Department.

“Even though our Police Department does a great job, it’s on the same grounds (as the school),” Hartley said. Arrests are “really not the greatest thing for our students on recess to see.”

It’s not yet clear when or where the offices would be built, but the Selectboard wants to get the conversation started. A warrant article asks to raise $5,000 to be added to the new building capital reserve fund.

The proposed $914,000 town budget, $9,000 more than last year’s, includes payments on the new highway truck and police cruiser the town bought last year.

Voters in 2013 also approved almost $313,000 to support converting a culvert on Indian Pond Road into a bridge, a project the town hopes to complete this year. This year’s warrant includes $54,000 to resurface a section of the road that will meet the new bridge.

If the proposed budget and warrant articles pass, the town tax rate is expected to remain about the same as last year’s — $6.91 on $1,000 of assessed value.

The rate could drop, if the Selectboard decides to use money from the fund balance to offset taxes, Lang said.

The non-spending articles include one that would legally establish the Piermont Fire Department, Lang said.

The department was apparently created decades ago, following a fire in 1934 that destroyed the center of town. The “housekeeping” article asks that firefighters be hired by the Selectboard, with the Fire Chief elected by the firefighters, effective April 1, 2015.

Another article supports a constitutional amendment regulating campaign spending.

The move would ensure that everyone has equal influence, “and people with large fortunes can’t give millions of dollars and have a disproportionate amount of control,” said Stephen Rounds, who collected the signatures needed to add the article to the warrant. “When they make those donations, the politicians owe them.”

As an example of financial influence, he pointed to “the treatment we are giving banks,” even after the collapse of 2008.

“They were doing virtually illegal things, but nothing has happened to them,” said Rounds, the chairman of Piermont Democrats. “They are coasting along with few regulations on them... Politicians need the money to win elections.”

The article also asks that all election-related spending be disclosed and addresses the related “corporations are not people” issue.

“The current Supreme Court made the Citizens United decision, which says corporations are people and therefore they can make contributions. And they have lots of money,” he said. “We want the amendment to say no, Supreme Court, corporations are not people. They don’t get this right.”

In the only contested race, Teran “Terri” Mertz is challenging incumbent Hartley for a three-year Selectboard seat.

Originally from Boston, Mertz grew up visiting Gilmanton, N.H., where her family built a camp. She moved with her husband to Piermont almost four years ago, and recently covered a maternity leave for the town’s executive assistant.

After seeing the “inside workings,” Mertz thought a lot of things could be better organized and managed, she said.

As an example, when the town website is up and running, she’d like to use the Internet to allow certain tasks, such as getting dog licenses, to be completed online, so they wouldn’t “take up so much time for people.”

She would bring to the Selectboard her experience managing the Italian restaurant owned by her first husband’s family, along with the organizational skills she developed as a stay-at-home mom, said Mertz, whose children are grown.

“I have time to put into it,” she said. “I think I could work with Colin (Stubbings) and Bob Lang ... to keep Piermont the way we like it and enhance the quality of life.”

Hartley, a Piermont native, has served on the town’s conservation commission for about 21 years and was first elected to the Selectboard three years ago.

“I got into town politics because I have the time to do that,” Hartley said. After joining the Selectboard, he became the liaison to the town department heads.

“I did everybody’s job for a day,” which helped him understand the departments and their needs, he said. “I saw the good and the bad and asked their opinions and made changes to accommodate them.”

He counts getting the town and school to work together as one of his greatest achievements as a Selectman. Over the years, the two boards had become distanced from each other, said Hartley, who is also liaison to the School Board and helped get a security camera installed in the front of the school

If reelected, he would continue to work on the projects the Selectboard started in the past few years.

“We are a great team, and it’s all worked out very well,” he said. “For the first time, I think things are moving forward.”

After two years of decreases, the proposed $1.87 million school budget represents an increase of about 0.8 percent over the current one.

“It’s a pretty simple budget,” said Bruce Labs, superintendent of schools for SAU 23. “They’ve really done a good job trying to control costs.”

The proposed 2014-2015 budget includes increases in certain services, such as speech, and a “small bump” of about 0.5 percent in the base pay for professional staff, said Vernon Jones, School Board chairman.

The warrant articles include $20,000 to be added to the special education expense trust fund, and $5,000 for the technology trust fund, if the school year ends with extra money, as anticipated, Jones said.

Should the budget pass, the school tax rate would increase by 90 cents, to $14.62 on $1,000 of assessed value. That would add $225 to the tax bill on a $250,000 home.

Jones is running unopposed for his three-year seat.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.