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Tax now, cut later

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Copake hopes to learn soon how deep a hole it’s in

COPAKE–After a delay apparently caused by a disagreement about an unpaid bill, the town’s old accountant has finally turned over the town’s financial records to the town’s new accountant.

The transfer of the records occurred last Friday, August 7, and residents and officials alike hoped to find out at the August 13 Town Board meeting, exactly how big a budget deficit the town faces this year.

The deficit question has dragged on since June 23, when the town’s previous accountant, Brian Fitzgerald, first announced publicly that the town will face a substantial deficit before the end of the year and will likely have to borrow money to pay its bills.

Over the last month and a half the board has met five times. Mr. Fitzgerald stormed out of a meeting and was later fired; the deficit figure has varied from $160,000 to $200,000; the board hired a new accountant, Michael Torchia; many thousands of dollars in cuts have been proposed, but the board has agreed to reduce the budget by only $11,340; board members have argued over whether to borrow money to make up the deficit; and the board cut in half the number of shifts town police officers can work per week.

After Town Board members emerged from a seven-minute executive session at the start of the August 5 special meeting about the budget, Supervisor Reggie Crowley told the public about the numerous unsuccessful attempts by the town clerk since the last meeting on July 29 to get the town’s financial records from the old accountant.

Mark Fitzgerald, the owner of the East Greenbush accounting firm for which Brian Fitzgerald works, called the clerk to say a bill for services rendered, about $4,500 for “extra work,” had to be paid before the records would be turned over. Mark Fitzgerald is Brian Fitzgerald’s uncle. The Fitzgerald firm has been Copake’s accountant since 1996.

Mr. Crowley said he was told by the Office of the State Comptroller that the records belong to the town, and that by law they cannot be withheld. Mr. Crowley also said that the board is not happy with the Fitzgeralds’ claim for extra work and would not sign the voucher for payment of that bill.

The supervisor also said he had been in touch with Town of Colonie officials in Albany County about how they resolved a similar budget shortfall last year.

Mr. Crowley proposed that the board consider a one-time “negative fund balance elimination tax.”

The town would borrow the money it needs from a bank. The money would then be paid back by the one-time tax, which would be a separate line item in the 2010 budget.

With 2,931 taxable parcels in town, if the town borrowed $200,000 at a 1.9% interest rate, it would mean a one-time payment of $68.24 per parcel, according to Mr. Crowley, who said the one-time tax is preferable to a general tax hike, which “does not go away, but stays around year after year.

“That would make us solvent. We could maintain our services and make cuts starting with the 2010 budget,” said the supervisor.

Councilman Bob Sacks called the proposal “very interesting,” but he insisted that “come 2010, the town would still need to cut $200,000 somewhere.”

Mr. Crowley said the cuts Mr. Sacks was talking about would only be necessary if everything remained the same. He said the board would start cutting before the 2010 budget is adopted.

Mr. Sacks said the board should consider cutting what it can now, a theme he repeated throughout the meeting.

Both Councilmen Daniel Tompkins and Walter Kiernan agreed that Mr. Crowley’s proposal was a good one.

To make the negative fund balance elimination tax happen, Mr. Torchia, the town’s new accountant, said the board would have to agree and get the process rolling by the end of this month, because application to borrow the amount needed has to be made to a bank. Enactment of the tax requires only a motion of the board, no public referendum, according to Mr. Crowley.

A discussion ensued about whether or not residents could afford the one-time tax and later in the meeting Comprehensive Plan Committee Chair Jeanne Mettler suggested that the tax be “regressive” and based on assessed value rather than a flat rate for everyone.

Mr. Torchia agreed that was possible.

Supervisor Crowley announced that he had conferred with both Sheriff David Harrison Jr. and State Police Captain Scott Brown about responding to police calls in the absence of Copake Police due to time and staffing cuts agreed upon at the last meeting.

Both the sheriff and the captain expressed their support for the Copake Police Department, and neither could promise his department could “pick up the slack,” said Mr. Crowley, who added, “I have a hard time playing with the safety and security of our citizens.”

Police Commissioner Jeff Nayer, who is also the Zoning Board of Appeals chairman, said he had written a letter to board members asking that the full eight shifts of town police coverage be restored at least until Labor Day. The shift restoration will only cost the town $2,000 according to Mr. Nayer, who asked for a response to his request before the meeting ended.

Later in the meeting, Supervisor Crowley, Councilmen Tompkins and Kiernan, all Republicans, voted to restore that eight-shift week. Democrats Mr. Sacks and Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia voted no.

The board also voted to accept $3,000 in budget cuts proposed by Town Justice Brian Herman, which will cut the full-time court clerk’s hours to 27 hours/week plus court time and the part-time court clerk’s hours to 8 hours/week plus court time for the rest of the year.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.com. 

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