7 Month CD Special National Bank of Coxsackie

Budget hole forces Copake to trim its police department

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COPAKE–The Town Board’s first order of business at a special meeting about town finances July 29 was to hire a new accountant. The last order of business was to fire the old one.

   But it appears that the board’s out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new actions won’t change the $200,000 budget shortfall the town faces if substantial cuts are not made soon.

   The town’s new numbers man is Michael Torchia of the Hudson accounting firm Sickler, Torchia Allen and Churchill. He told the board last week that he did not yet have the most current budget information, but the figures he looked at through the end of June showed shortfalls in revenues and over-expenditures, and he confirmed that the town will run out of money by the end of September or October.

   The most up-to-date figures that Mr. Torchia needs were to be turned over to him by the town’s former accountant Brian Fitzgerald by August 3.

   The first time Mr. Fitzgerald told the board publicly that the town would face a large budget deficit was at the June 23 meeting. At that meeting Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia asked Mr. Fitzgerald why she had not received notice of the problem until last April.

   Mr. Fitzgerald said that the revenue shortfalls were apparent in his December 2008 budget report to the town.

   At a budget meeting July 7, Mr. Fitzgerald angrily stormed out about two minutes after the meeting started, when a town resident asked to see a copy of the town’s year-to-date expenses. As the accountant made a beeline for the door, he and Councilwoman Gabaccia got into an argument over when exactly Mr. Fitzgerald provided the board with information about the looming budget crisis.

   At that July 7 meeting, the budget deficit figure discussed was $175,000, which was $10,000 more than the amount discussed two weeks earlier. The board also addressed the possibility of borrowing up to $200,000, an amount that included “a cushion.”

   But the accuracy of Mr. Fitzgerald’s numbers was called into question by residents and board members after his hasty exit from the meeting. No agreement on cuts was reached that night, but the board did impose a moratorium on all spending except contractual expenses, which includes payroll and the summer youth program. Also exempt were emergency expenses and those relating to public safety.

   Two days later, at the July 9 Town Board meeting, town Supervisor Reggie Crowley announced that the board had agreed to hire a different accountant to review the budget and help board members figure out where things really stand for the town financially. All department heads were asked to submit a written list of cuts totaling 20% from their respective budget lines by July 22.

   “We have no control over revenue, but we do have control over expenses,” Councilman Bob Sacks said at the July 29 meeting as he presented a “savings initiative plan” that he said would save the town at least $128,000 if the board acted “aggressively and quickly.” Mr. Sacks presented a similar plan at the July 7 meeting.

   Five of the budget lines appearing on Mr. Sacks’ savings plan related to the Copake Police Department and totaled $88,352 in savings.

   After looking at the list, Supervisor Crowley, a former sheriff’s deputy and former town justice, asked Mr. Sacks if he wanted to do away with the Police Department.

   Mr. Sacks said his plan calls for suspension of the Police Department for six months.

   Councilman Daniel Tompkins, a former member of the Police Department and a current sheriff’s deputy, wondered whether it made sense to cut the local department when its officers write 80% of the tickets handled in town court.

   Mr. Tompkins suggested looking for cuts in other departments, but Mr. Sacks said, “Each department is going to have to take a hit.”

   The problem with cutting the police department is “it’s the busiest time of the year. It’s the time when there are the most problems and we need the police department the most. Most of these officers rely on this income.” He also said that eliminating the town police and the tickets they write would create an even bigger shortfall from the loss of revenue from fines.

   Mr. Sacks responded that at the half-year mark, the town court had generated only $17,000 in revenue. With police department expenses totaling $80,000 for the rest of the year, the town would only be losing 80% of $17,000. “That’s a fine deal,” said Councilman Sacks.

   Councilwoman Gabaccia said that since the town also has law enforcement coverage provided by both the county Sheriff’s Office and the State Police, the town police department represents “a duplication of services.”

   The supervisor said he had spoken to the sheriff about the town’s situation. He said the sheriff told him that in light of the county’s current hiring freeze, he would try to cover in the absence of town police but could make no guaranties.

   Councilman Tompkins said that during a similar budget crunch back in the 1990s the town had cut the police department’s hours of operation.

   Police Commissioner Jeff Nayer said that if the board decides to suspend police department activity for six months, the town cannot expect that current officers will come back to work for the town at the end of that time.

   Ms. Gabaccia asked why the town wouldn’t be able to replace them.

   If the town has to borrow $200,000 this year, it would cost property owners an additional 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to cover the shortfall. If the town has to raise $450,000 to cover shortfalls of 2009 and 2010, it would cost taxpayers an additional 60 cents/$1,000 assessed value, or $120 for a home assessed at $200,000, according to Mr. Torchia’s figures.

   If the board can cut enough from the 2010 budget the second scenario would not happen.

   “What are we going to cut [next year]?  If we can get rid of the police in 2010, we might as well do it now,” said Mr. Sacks.

   After returning from a 25-minute executive session to discuss a personnel matter, Supervisor Crowley announced the board had agreed upon several spending cuts including:

*$1,500 from the Economic Advisory Board

*$1,290 from the Planning Board

*$2,000 from the playground

*$4,000 from the contractual portion of the culture and recreation budget

*$250 from the budget officer

*$2,000 from the Zoning Board of Appeals

*$300 from cemeteries

*And effective immediately, the Police Department will be cut from eight shifts to four per week. (NOTE: At the August 5 special budget meeting, the board reinstated the police to eight shifts per week through Labor Day.)

   The board also relieved former accountant Fitzgerald of his duties.

   Asked in a phone interview Tuesday whether the contract the town has with Mr. Fitzgerald to provide services through the end of the year raises a financial question, the supervisor said that involved a personnel matter and is confidential.

   Asked why the board had not required an annual fiscal audit in accordance with the town policy manual, Mr. Crowley said that was an oversight and a future audit is planned.

   The next budget meeting was scheduled for August 5 at 5 p.m.

   To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.com  .

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