Concern voiced over Garrison Fire Co. finances
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
The Philipstown Town Board this week continued vigorous 2015 budget-crafting, releasing a preliminary budget of nearly $10 million on Wednesday night (Nov. 5), when it held a public hearing at Town Hall to seek citizen input.
It got a fair amount of that, albeit almost entirely on one subject: Garrison Volunteer Fire Company (GVFC) finances.
The draft budget anticipates total town spending of $9,164,925; income of $1,691,941, plus $120,000 in unspent reserves; and a resulting difference of $7,352,984 to be raised by taxes. Revenue “is an area that’s pretty skim,” Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea observed.
Nonetheless, he emphasized that the final budget (including the GVFC share) would meet the New York state tax-increase cap, which he pegged at 1.56 percent this budget go-round.
The preliminary budget largely consists of numbers submitted by governmental offices and departments, with whom the Town Board has been consulting over the last month, and the entire budget remains fluid. The fiscal year begins in January. For now, internal discussions continue; for instance, negotiations between the GVFC and Town Board members resume next week.
As presented in the preliminary budget, salaries for the supervisor and four town board council members, or councilors, would hold at 2014 levels: $26,000 for Shea, and $18,000 each for Councilors Mike Leonard, Dave Merandy, Nancy Montgomery and John Van Tassel. Town Clerk Tina Merando would also earn the same amount in 2015 as 2014: $51,000. However, Highway Superintendent Roger Chirico’s pay would climb from $92,250 to $95,000.
That 3 percent increase — like much in the budget — remains tentative, as Shea made clear. Overall, at the Highway Department, “they’re looking at, bottom line, a zero percent increase.” That department’s budget for 2014 is $2,829,492; Chirico anticipates 2015 spending of $2,833,050, which statistically represents no increase but is $3,558 higher than in 2014.
As submitted to the Town Board, the Recreation Department’s 2015 budget calls for a 3 percent increase over 2014, when “Rec” got $921,428. It proposes $945,786 for 2015, an increase of $24,358. However, several lines in the recreation budget, including one for buildings and fields, remain blank. Further number-crunching should fill assorted gaps.
Shea noted the challenges of trying to comply with the tax cap demands while facing escalating costs beyond the town government’s control.
As examples he mentioned multi-peril insurance, going up by several percentage points, and workers’ compensation costs in the Highway Department, predicted to go from $60,486 to $70,974 — a hike of $10,488, or 17 percent. “We’re going to look into that,” Shea promised.
“A lot of it doesn’t make sense,” he said of workers’ compensation calculations. “It’s sort of state-sponsored extortion — that’s how I see it from a business standpoint.” A contractor by profession, Shea said that for employers workers’ compensation contributions often soar for the most experienced workers, who typically have the fewest accidents. “We don’t have a lot of control over that” or benefits like employee retirement stipends, he said.
However, he added, medical insurance costs should dip by 1 percent to $510,901 in 2015, down from $515,814 for 2014, as employees bear more of the burden.
Shea said the Garrison fire department portion of the budget, paid by taxes on Garrison residents, is “still very much a work in progress.” Among other things, he said, “We do need to see a revenue side of the [GVFC] budget,” the income the fire company derives from various sources. The preliminary budget lists a total (proposed by the GVFC) of $604,378 for 2015, a 1 percent increase over the $596,294 of 2014.
He noted that Town Board members have met several times with GVFC leaders over the budget and will deliberate further. He also thanked the firefighters for their service and cooperation so far. “We’re looking to have an honest budget” and by the time the wrangling concludes, “We will have that,” he pledged.
The supervisor pointed out that one point to address is the cost of LOSAP, the firefighters’ length of service award program, a kind ofpension or annuity. Ways “to meet the mandate for LOSAP while staying within the [tax-hike] cap — that’s what we’re working on.”
Ultimately, he emphasized, the GVFC will have to decide how to finesse its finances to stay within the cap while providing for LOSAP. “We’ll look to the fire department to come up with that … how they move the money around,” Shea said.
Garrison resident Joseph Regele, a long-standing critic of financial practices at the GVFC, objected to its plans — under one of its budget versions, anyway — to spend $5,000 on landscaping and $5,700 on painting stripes on fire company parking lots.
“In 2014, they operated with a surplus,” Regele said. “We don’t know how much cash is there. There’s still a lot of money sitting around that it would be nice to have better control over.” Based on his analysis of GVFC finances, he recommended deletion of the landscaping and line-painting as well as $7,000 earmarked for a phone revamp, use of a $40,000 surplus, and other steps to cut the pending budget by $86,000.
He also questioned financial arrangements for the department’s in-the-works pumper-tanker truck, which the Town Board approved last month, after months of testy debate.
Shea defended the acquisition of such vehicles, although he had grilled fire company officials over the spring and summer about the way the purchase came about. “The equipment is expensive by its very nature,” he told Regele. “These are necessary expenses.”
From the audience, Lee Erickson expressed hopes as a new board member of the organization that GVFC money can soon stop being a public issue. “We want to be as open and transparent as we could be,” he said. “I’d really like to straighten this out once and for all.”
Shea concurred. “Nobody wants to straighten this out more than me,” he replied.