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November 16, 2022 - 9:05am

Stafford Town Board refuses to release copies of preliminary budget prior to public hearing

posted by Howard B. Owens in Stafford, news, notify.

At Stafford's Town Board meeting on Monday night, members of the public who said they would like copies of the town budget were told they couldn't obtain copies until after the budget was approved by the board.

One member of the public, Cathy Worthington, said she tried to obtain a copy but was told she could only read the copy on file with the Town Clerk's office. She couldn't have a copy to take with her.

This appears to be contrary to New York's Town Law and New York's Freedom of Information Law.

The town's attorney, Mark Boylan, agrees.

"In general, documents retained by the town are public documents subject to FOIL unless they contain personal information," Boylan said.

He didn't want to comment further based on the discussion at Monday's meeting because he wasn't there, and it appears he was not consulted prior to the meeting.

Town Supervisor Robert Clement told meeting attendees that the board was following the law, an assertion supported by board member Ron Panek.

Worthington asked at the start of the public hearing, "Why couldn't we get a copy of that budget to look over leisurely? I had to come in and just sit and go through it. Why couldn't I have gotten a copy of that?"

Clement said, "The rules and regulations, I guess, didn't permit it."

Worthington: "I guess what rules and regulations? Because all the other towns give them out. Some even posted on their websites for people to look at. Could I get a copy now to look over?"

Panek: "When it's approved."

Worthington then pressed on with her questions about the budget.

Several minutes later, another citizen in attendance said, "there's no law that says you can't hand them (copies of the budget) out."

Panek then cited Section 108 of Town Law, saying, "'a copy of the preliminary budget is available at the office of the town clerk and may be inspected by any interested person during office hours,' so that's what we're doing."

That is what Section 108 says.

But Section 106 says, "The preliminary budget shall be filed in the office of the town clerk and the town clerk shall reproduce for public distribution as many copies as the town board may direct."

The town board, in accordance with the law, based on Worthington's experience in trying to obtain a copy of the budget, did not direct the town clerk to reproduce any copies of the preliminary budget for public distribution.

Also, the state's public record law, the Freedom of Information Law, makes all government documents public record, with members of the public guaranteed a right to obtain copies of those documents, except for a handful of narrowly defined exceptions.  A preliminary budget does not fall under any of those exceptions, and based on Town Law, the preliminary budget is expressly a public document.

The Batavian twice contacted the Town Clerk's Office on Tuesday to request a copy of the budget, which was approved by the Town Board on Monday, and did not get a response.

Worthington has multiple questions of the board during the public hearing -- noting she would have perhaps had fewer questions if she had been able to study the budget at home -- about various expenditures.

When asked what the new tax levy would be and what the tax rate would be, Clement said he didn't have those precise numbers. 

Panek said, "I recall some of the estimates Heidi came up with were over $1-- $1.12, $1.20 -- something like that."

The current tax rate, Worthington noted, is 89 cents per $1,000 assessed value.

During the board's regular meeting Monday evening, it unanimously approved the budget resolution.

The Batavian can't provide more information on The Budget since we weren't able to obtain a copy.

CORRECTION: The name of the board member who spoke at the meeting has been corrected.  The Batavian regrets the error.

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