But about that Garrison Fire District increase…
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
The Garrison Fire District’s 27 percent budget increase dominated a Nov. 9 public hearing on Philipstown’s proposed budget of $10.5 million, although the town government no longer oversees the agency.
A week before the hearing, the Town Board released its draft budget. It anticipates raising $7.6 million from taxes (72 percent), $1.8 million from other revenue such as fees and $1.05 million carried over from a balance. In 2016 the town budget was $9.75 million.
Despite the expected higher spending for next year, many property owners’ tax bills will drop slightly. The rate per $1,000 of assessed value will fall to $2.36 from $2.37 for costs borne by everyone, and to $3.43 from $3.45 for residents who live outside villages who use town services that village residents do not need because Cold Spring and Nelsonville provide them.
The taxpayer share of the 2017 budget is $181,782 more than collected in 2016, an increase of 2.5 percent.
Town Supervisor Richard Shea blamed the uptick on the Garrison Fire District, whose commissioners in September unveiled a planned 27 percent spending increase for 2017. (According to state law, the tax cap does not apply in the first budget of a new fire district. Voters also do not approve the first budget. By increasing its budget significantly now, the Garrison district will have a higher baseline when the cap does apply.)
“Bottom line: the only increase in this entire amount to be raised by taxes is driven by the Garrison fire company budget,” Shea said at the hearing. He called the proposed increase “astounding,” but noted the Town Board no longer controls fire department spending. “We’d be seeing a real decrease in the [town] budget but for that stuff,” he said. “It’s the people in Garrison who are going to feel that. The rest of the town will not see an increase at all.”
Shea expressed disappointment with the fire commissioners, appointed by the board last fall to serve one-year terms until elections are held in December. Based on the applicants’ remarks during interviews with the board, “we thought they would stand up” to higher spending, Shea said. Only one of the five commissioners, Nat Prentice, opposed the increase, which the commission says is necessary to make up for past cuts by the Town Board.
Other board members echoed Shea’s concerns. “I would never have thought they’d do what they did,” Councilor Robert Flaherty said.
Councilor John Van Tassel said the commission’s actions were confusing, including an arrangement to lease the firehouse from the fire company and the spending upsurge. “I just don’t understand the need for it,” he said.
Joe Regele, a Garrison resident who has long been critical of the fire company’s finances and says he will run for commissioner, said the district budget is “beyond discouraging. It’s worse than you know. There’s no documentation. There are no figures. They just put together a wish list.”
Regele, the sole member of the audience Nov. 9, also objected to fire district plans to open polls for only three hours on Dec. 13 for the vote on the five commissioner seats and a referendum on creating a $40,000 reserve. “It’s completely unfair” to limit voting to such “an incredibly small window,” with no option for an absentee ballot, he said.
“It is wrong,” Shea agreed. “It’s a form of disenfranchisement.”
The board discussed what, if anything, it could do to get the hours extended.
Under the town’s draft budget, the other three fire districts that serve Philipstown will see much smaller increases. The North Highlands fire budget will inch upward to $747,000, while the Continental Village Fire Department, contracted to serve part of the town, will be paid $262,500, both increases of about 1 percent.
The Cold Spring Fire Company, hired to cover areas near the village, will receive a 7 percent increase, to $69,000, largely due to a 35 percent increase in its Length of Service Award Program obligations, which will jump by about $4,500.
The Philipstown and Garrison volunteer ambulance corps will each receive about 1 percent increases: Philipstown will get $263,000 and Garrison $173,000. The ambulance services did not receive particular attention at the hearing. However, during budget preparation sessions in October, Town Board members wondered about their future since both use paid emergency medical staff members augmented by volunteers and have infrastructure costs.
“These numbers are getting big, where you’re at the point of asking, ‘Do we bring in a paid service and let a paid service do it?’ ” Van Tassel said Oct. 12. “At some point it will be cheaper” for the town to contract with an outside service, he said at a similar workshop Oct. 19.
Van Tassel proposed in October that Philipstown and Garrison merge some functions because “doing something collaboratively would extend the life of the volunteer service.” Unfortunately, he told his board colleagues, a plan to consolidate dispatching fell apart “at the last minute.” Although consolidation may not create any savings, he said, “it’s worth looking into.”
Under the draft budget, Highway Department funding would rise 13 percent, to $3.6 million, which is $43,000 less than the department requested. The Recreation Department would receive $1.06 million, an 8 percent increase.
Salaries for board members would remain unchanged under the proposed budget. The supervisor is paid $27,000 annually and each of the four members receive $18,000. The wetlands inspector earns $25,000. The town clerk’s pay would rise from $52,000 to $63,000 and the highway superintendent’s would increase by $1,000 to $89,000. The recreation and parks director would receive a $1,400 raise, to $63,650.
The Town Board has, over the years, exercised great restraint in its budgets, and the approaching budget is barely a ripple over what inflation and expenses have imposed on the deliberations over at least the last decade. When compared to other entities in town, they are a model of composure and regard for the taxpayers.
Could they at least publish their case in both the newspapers? That may help. I don’t have the facts to know if it’s warranted or not. Why not lay out the case in public and not just in their meetings? The more info the better, yes?
On Dec. 13, the taxpayers of Garrison will only have a three-hour window to vote for new fire commissioners? I’m sorry that a public election is so inconvenient and interferes with your free time, but we live in a democracy and people deserve a chance to vote, especially if you’re offering no opportunity to vote absentee. It’s even more galling to see that the budget has risen 27 percent to $777,907.
If the fire department wants our support, they’ll have to do better than this. Much better. It’s outrageous and looks a lot like voter disenfranchisement.
NYS Town Law Article 11, Section 175 sets the date and hours of the election. It’s not just some arbitrary date and time established by the fire district commissioners. The district commissioners can extend hours by resolution, but not change the date, nor the 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. hours of voting.
However, all of this would have to be done prior to the public announcements and notices of a meeting. Any commissioner could have resolved to extend those hours, but obviously they are not well versed in this procedure, having just become a fire district. The North Highlands Fire District, of which both Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Van Tassel are members, follow the same rules.
Section 175 (B) sets forth the requirements for absentee ballots, again after a resolution passed by the board, and prior to the announcement of the elections. It should be noted that the following are the only reason for an absentee ballot:
“(a) a patient in a hospital, or unable to appear personally at the polling place on such day because of illness or physical disability or (b) because his or her duties, occupation or business will require him or her to be outside of the county of his or her residence on such day, (c) because he or she will be on vacation outside the county of his or her residence on such day; or, (d) absent from his or her voting residence because he or she is detained in jail awaiting action by a grand jury or awaiting trial or is confined in prison after conviction for an offense other than a felony.”
This means that just because it is inconvenient for you to vote at the given time and place is not a valid reason for an absentee ballot. There was no attack on the democratic process or your ability to participate in the process. I encourage all eligible Garrison Fire District voters to participate, but know the facts before you overreact, as our Town Board members have done. Mr. Regele neglects to mention that he was the reason for the formation of the district and that the increase in the budget is a direct result of the formation of the district and the associated expenses including insurance.
Ask questions of your fire commissioners. Attend board meetings. Get involved. Stick to the facts.