The Village of Saddle Rock Board of Trustees unanimously approved a $1.1 million budget for 2012-13 last week during a special meeting held at Village Hall.
For Saddle Rock resident Sasha Masri, however, the village still had plenty of questions to answer about the budget, which at $1,116,315 represents a 3.2-percent increase in the tax levy.
Masri, who has announced his intention to run for election onto the village's board of trustees in March, criticized village officials during the meeting for not providing enough notice of last Wednesday's special hearing. He also expressed disappointment that copies of the budget were not available for residents to keep.
"At the last meeting, I asked if the residents would be informed of the budget hearing meeting," Masri said. "(Village Clerk/Treasurer) Donna (Perone) had said that ‘the mayor had not instructed her to.' I said ‘well, is it possible that the deputy mayor can instruct Donna to do it.'"
During the Saddle Rock Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 4, Masri said that Deputy Mayor Avery Modlin instructed Perone to e-mail residents about the date of last week's special budget hearing.
But, Village of Saddle Rock Mayor Dan Levy was quick to dispute that claim.
"I'm not sure what wasn't done," the mayor said. "My instructions were very specific as to what needed to be done. What I instructed was done. I don't know about any other instructions."
"I wasn't going to send an e-mail about just the meeting itself because we announced it in the last board meeting and the board meeting before that," he added. "We have had an announcement in the public records outside as well as on our Web site."
A copy of the village budget, which Levy said was completed "45 minutes" before last week's special hearing, was available for residents to copy but not keep as of last Wednesday night.
"It was public," Levy said to Marsi of the budget. "I believe you were there copying numbers before I walked in."
After previously requesting copies of the budget before the meeting, Masri said that he was told by Levy to file a Freedom Of Information Law request.
FOIL requests are mandated by state law and allow for members of the public to access records of governmental agencies.
"It wasn't ready," Levy said of the budget. "You didn't believe me, so I said ‘FOIL it.'"
When asked by Blank Slate Media for a copy of the budget following the meeting, Levy said the news organization would have to file a FOIL request to obtain the document as well.
"Everybody has a life and we've met a number of times to try and figure this whole thing," Saddle Rock Trustee David Schwartz said of the budget process. "It's not easy. It doesn't happen like that. People have time off. It's the holidays. This is only a week after the new year."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York Department of State Committee on Open Government, said "all records maintained by the government are subject to FOIL and in a technical sense, yes, an agency may require that the request be made in writing."
In this case, however, Freeman said that the village should have provided copies of its budget.
"If you have the right to see it, you have the right to have a copy as well," Freeman said.
A new provision within the state's open meeting law, which will go into effect on Feb. 2, also addresses the issue, Freeman said.
"Very basically," he said, "it will indicate that records that are available under the Freedom of Information Law or which reflect a proposed local law, policy resolution are supposed to be made available on-line, if possible, in advance of a meeting."
Levy said during the meeting that when that law goes into effect, the village will be in compliance.
"Absolutely," Levy said. "The public law will go into effect on February (2) and we will adhere to that."
Although Levy said the budget was completed "45 minutes" before the meeting, Freeman said that copies of the budget should have been available for residents and members of the media at that point.
"FOIL says in its statement of intent that ‘records are supposed to be made available wherever and whenever feasible,'" Freeman said. "As in this instance, if the record is No. 1 clearly public and No. 2 easy to find, there is simply no good reason for delaying disclosure."
While copies of the budget were not available at the special hearing, Levy read through the budget and discussed it with the trustees.
Levy said that the budget allotted for $262,800 for government support, $164,250 for public safety, $28,000 for public health, $100,000 for transportation, $151,000 for home and community service and $89,000 for employee benefits.
"The proposed budget will have an appropriations of $1,116,315," Levy said. "Out of that we are going to get approximately $893,139 from the tax levy."
"The Office of State Control calculation, of what our tax based an evaluation, was $866,038, which means an increase of $27,101," he added. "It's an increase of 3.1 percent, which is over the (state mandated) 2 percent (tax levy)."
The budget also included revenues of approximately $14,000 for non-property-tax receipts, $7,000 for residents' tax late fees, $3,000 for inspection and clerk fees, $4,800 from tennis court and pool fees.
"We have $40,000 from permit fees as well as $25,000 from courts fees that we get back from the state on the penalties that we impose," Levy said.
As part of last week's special hearing, the trustees also unanimously approved motions to eliminate a salary for the mayor and $2,000 of funding for the Great Neck Arts Center.
"I don't think any public servants ought to get paid a salary," Levy said. "We do it because we love the village and we think it's an important job. I don't think there should be a stipend attached to it."
The Great Neck Arts Center was supported monetarily last year with contracts from the villages of Great Neck, Great Neck Plaza, Great Neck Estates, Lake Success and the Town of North Hempstead.
So far this year, the villages of Thomaston, Great Neck and Saddle Rock have not supported the arts center with contracts.
Lake Success and Great Neck Plaza have entered into contracts with the arts center for the upcoming year.
"I think it's basically not our business to tax our residents for us to make donations because if we were to do that, technically, who's to say that we shouldn't give to 12 (non profits)," Schwartz said.
But, Schwartz said that residents should be encouraged to donate to the arts center. He said that an e-mail sent out by the village would include a call for residents to make monetary contributions.
"You can tell (Great Neck News Columnist) Karen Rubin that we've done that because we do not believe that it's the village responsibility to support non profits," Levy said. "I believe, and so does every member of my board, that it's the individual's responsibility to support nonprofit organizations. There are more than a handful of deserving ones, including the Great Neck Arts Center, that do a phenomenal job for residents of the peninsula."
In a recent column, Rubin criticized villages that were not providing financial support to the Great Neck Arts Center.