11th hour arrival of draft audit leads to more review
Before a sparse audience of Garrison Volunteer Fire Company members and citizen critics, the Philipstown Town Board Wednesday night (May 21) began and then inconclusively adjourned a public hearing on fire department plans to buy a $30o,000-plus tanker pump truck.
The board cited the need for further review before reconvening the hearing and approving or denying the purchase. In part its refusal to reach an immediate decision reflected the 11th hour arrival of a draft audit report covering GVFC finances in 2013.
The fire company provided the draft to the board and members of the public shortly before the meeting began in Town Hall; GVFC representatives subsequently said that the final report should be available May 23.
“We will not be closing the public hearing tonight. We will not be voting on the resolution” authorizing any purchase, Supervisor Richard Shea said. “We need to have the final financial statement,” go over it with the board’s accountant, “go through the due diligence” and resume the hearing before acting definitively, he said. The tanker is expected to cost approximately $309,500; the GVFC proposes to acquire it through a lease-purchase financing arrangement.
As the hearing began, Councilor Dave Merandy noted that about two years ago the board sent an outside analyst out to inspect the existing tanker. “At the time it sounded like it could be repaired” and the fire company seemed inclined to do so, but “now that isn’t the case,” he said. “I’m a little confused.”
“I can see your point,” Shea concurred. “What we’ve been told on several occasions hasn’t been borne out.” However, he said, the current fire chief and others say the present tanker is inadequate. “If the chief comes and says this is not a dependable piece of equipment, I’d say that carries more weight” than an outside inspector’s assessment of road worthiness, Shea said. He likewise said “that piece of equipment is going to have to be replaced” in the not-too-distant future and financing opportunities for doing so look promising now. “There’s a lot of things that point toward” moving toward acquiring the tanker, he said.
Councilor John Van Tassel said the issue of fixing and continuing to use the present tanker involves “road worthiness versus life safety. If we were to say ‘no’” to the GVFC and its old tanker failed in fighting a fire and someone died, “I’d feel responsible,” he said. If the fire chief believes the department needs a new tanker, “in my opinion, we have to take his advice. Lives are depending on it,” Van Tassel said.
However, Garrison resident Joe Regele, a frequent critic of GVFC finances, called it “completely unfair” for the fire company to first maintain that the present truck can be upgraded and then instead say it plans to get a new one.
“There’s a finite amount of money in the town,” he said. “I think our priorities should be elsewhere” and not on another new vehicle after similar GVFC expenses. “There’s got to be limits to this.” He also claimed the GVFC has “significant cash at the firehouse” which “should have some impact on the overall budget that we’re paying for. Look at the audit. There are reserve funds in it.”
Shea declared his intent to thoroughly study the final audit report. “If that bears out” Regele’s assertion “then the money will be put to this piece of equipment,” he said.
Jim Erickson, GVFC trustee, apologized for the timing and draft status of the audit. “We made an effort to step up; we’re trying” to be open toward the Town Board “and the same thing toward the public,” he said.
Erickson also described the new tanker as essential for fighting big fires. “We’re almost two years late getting this [tanker]. All I hear is cut, cut, cut” from naysayers “but I don’t hear referrals to what’s around us” in other firehouses, with up-to-date tankers, he said. “As a taxpayer, I want the best. I want to be protected.”
Shea read a February letter, provided by GVFC President Donna Corsi, informing the Town Board of fire company plans to buy the tanker.
Regele objected to the letter’s underlying premise. “They do not tell you what they’re doing — they ask for permission and you grant it,” he told the Town Board. “One of the problems that has been going on since 2006 is the illusion of who’s in control. The Town Board is the ruling legal authority of the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company … and they surely do not inform the Town Board that they’re going to spend $300,000. They ask permission.”