Farm bureau president speaks out against budget

Citing falling milk prices, expected falling grain prices, and disappearing milk markets, Mike Jennings, President of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau and farmer from the Town of Florida, spoke out against the Greater Amsterdam School District’s proposed budget for the 2015-16 school year at Tuesday’s public hearing.

The proposed $65 million dollar budget keeps staff and programs intact. The budget features a 2 percent tax levy increase of $21 million, which superintendent Thomas Perillo said is the first proposed increase in four years.

Due to a $41 million decrease in true market value in the City of Amsterdam, most municipalities in the district would have experienced a tax rate increase even if the proposed levy had remained flat. The City of Amsterdam would have experienced a school tax rate decrease of 4.6 percent, whereas both the Town of Amsterdam and the Town of Florida would have experienced an increase of 4.1 percent. Under the proposed budget, the city would see a 2.7 percent decrease, and the two towns would each see a 6.2 percent increase.

Jennings, who represents about 80 farmers within the school district and 350 within Montgomery County, said, “Me and every other small business in town…we want to bring people into the county, and taxes keep going up, going up, and going up. They’re not coming in. We have to make some cuts somewhere. I don’t know where they are, but they need to be done.”

Jennings’s farm consists of approximately 450 acres of land he owns in the Town of Florida and the Town of Amsterdam as well as an additional 400 acres that he rents in the district. According to Jennings, the cost to rent farmland is generally based on the school taxes. Since 2002 he estimated that his own taxes have risen from $8,000 to nearly $13,000.

He expressed his concern that no attempt at savings had been made. Rather, the board’s attention was diverted as they attempted to rebalance the budget to save the district’s data coaches and related positions after their grant funding ended this year. Jennings said, “If I ran my business that way, I would be out within 2 months. And I think I speak the same for most of the farmers that are in this district. We can’t keep paying more taxes. Somewhere, it’s got to stop.”

Afterwards, business manager Kim Brumley reviewed the proposed budget plan, and addressed Jennings, saying, “I’m not going to answer all of your questions, but I will say that when we started this process, we were almost $2.7 million in deficit. So, we did make cuts, and we have made cuts throughout the years. Two years ago, we went out with a zero.”

In an attempt at saving the district money, Brumley has changed both health insurance and retirement plans. She said, “In the end, what we’re saving is only offsetting increases we’re seeing in salaries and other costs that we have.”

Brumley also compared state mandated staff and programs to the non-mandated, noting that the mandated programs far outweigh the non-mandated, and about 90 percent of the mandated items are not funded by the state.

Brumley highlighted the fact that many of the non-mandated items are specifically for students, such as the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program which she said keeps kids in school and learning. Other items, such as art classes, are included as part of the school’s curriculum. Kindergarten is another non-mandated program, without which Brumley said the district could not have a pre-kindergarten class.

“I feel your pain, and I’m betting every one of the board members feel your pain. But we’re stuck with it,” she said.

When asked if his questions had been satisfied, Jennings said that he was unsure and needed to look over the budget again. He said that he still felt that cuts were necessary and was leaning towards voting against the budget.

In addition to the budget proposition, voters will also elect two candidates to the Board of Education. Each seat is for a three-year term to begin on July 1, 2015. Incumbent Gavin Murdoch will be joined on the ballot by newcomers Katherine Hans, Lisa A. Choat, and Jackie Marciniak. Incumbent Leon Gray is not seeking reelection.

The ballot will also feature a proposition for the Fort Hunter Library, to levy $10,000 in property taxes to help support the library. The public vote will be held on May 19. Polling sites will be open from noon to 9 p.m.

Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.