Hard Times Means Hard Decisions For Village Board
The Garden City Board of Trustees held a series of work sessions recently with Village department heads in a concerted effort to lower a projected 8.63 percent tax levy increase. The current proposed increase will cost the average-assessed home $472.50. Last year’s tax levy increase was 5.91 percent.
As the budget deadline quickly approaches, trustees and staff are determined to find ways to bring the increase down without making drastic cuts in services. Trustees have asked Village administrators to continue to work on their budgets in an attempt to reduce the tax increase.
State law requires the Village to file a tentative budget by March 20. The Board of Trustees can amend the budget by resolution until April 30.
“We are faced with an extremely difficult task this year, more so even than last year, which was also difficult,” said Trustee John Mauk, who is chairperson of the Board’s finance committee. Both years have seen revenues falling below projected targets due to significant decreases in mortgage taxes and minimal returns on Village investments.
Mauk said the original 2010/2011 budget totaled $59 million. Department heads have been able to pare down their budgets to reach a total of $56,117,000, and are still working to reduce the number even further.
“I think that staff is to be commended over this fiscal year for their management and the judicious approach they have taken I think to managing the budget in these tough times and in trying to keep down the expenses,” he said.
However, Mauk noted several thorny issues remain. Even though the budget includes no salary adjustments, $1.7 million has been designated to cover anticipated labor costs for contract settlements that are currently being negotiated. That amount accounts for 1.36 percent of the budget increase. A mandatory increase in Village contributions to the state pension system totals $594,000 and comprises 1.13 percent of the budget increase. Health insurance premiums are expected to rise by at least $285,000, which totals .54 percent of the increase. Increasing litigation costs will comprise .42 percent of the increase.
Tax certiorari settlements constitute another 1.14 percent of the budget increase. Mauk said the Village has been successful in negotiating many favorable settlements. However, the Village is anticipating settlements in the next fiscal year totaling at least $600,000.
Capital project requests have been reduced by staff by almost $1.3 million, but it still accounts for 1.35 percent of the tax increase. Mauk is concerned about making further cuts in this area. “We’re now at the point where we are really cutting into some of the things which I think many of us feel make the Village significant and there is a real concern about how much further we can afford to curtail some of our capital programs.”
During the past two weeks of work sessions, department heads sat down with the Board of Trustees to discuss their budgets in greater detail. At times, questions from trustees and the CBRC initiated noteworthy discussions. Here are some of the highlights:
The police department is a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week operation, and officers are needed to fill that entire time. The department’s proposed budget totals $8,444,853.
“We certainly are in tune to the economic situation and we also share the concern of the residents as to expenditures and the tax rate,” Police Commissioner Ernest Cipullo said. “We are taxpayers too, so we understand what the problems are. It is my opinion that if we lose something in public safety and emergency services, then I think all else fails. I think the residents are accustomed to a certain standard of service and I certainly think they would want that to continue. We’re asking for a budget we think is operable to continue that service.”
According to Commissioner Cipullo, personnel costs comprise 93 percent of the police budget. Last year, five police officer positions were deferred. This year, he is requesting that two of those positions be filled. He also asks that three officers, who have retired this year, be replaced. The number of officers would total 52; last year, monies were budgeted for 55 officers.
Two officers are currently not working due to injuries incurred in the line of duty. Both men were scheduled for their final independent medical examinations on March 1. If it is deemed that they are no longer to physically carry out their duties as police officers, it will take two months before they are off Village payroll. Cipullo asked that they be included in the 2010/11 budget until that occurs.
The department’s biggest expense is overtime. This year, it has cost the department $940,000; Cipullo has requested $719,000 for next year.
The commissioner announced that department response time has suffered due to lack of manpower and a reduction in overtime. Cipullo said response time was two minutes or less, but has now climbed to 2.8 minutes.
The department currently operates five patrol posts during the day (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and evening (4 p.m. to midnight), and then four from midnight to 8 a.m. A minimum of five officers work during each post, supervised by one staff sergeant.
He said if the 2010/11 budget does not included more officer positions, services will suffer. Tactical squad officers, who handle traffic enforcement, are currently used to fill in posts, so not as many tickets are being written.
According to Village Auditor Jim Olivo, police summonses totaled $457,707 between January and December of 2008. They totaled $304,366 between January and December of the following year.
Trustee Nicholas Episcopia suggested the Board consider providing police protection for the Village of Mineola. He said they do not have their own police department and pay Nassau County $7.5 million annually for what he called “minimal police protection.” The mayor of Mineola has discussed with Episcopia the idea of a joint police department.
Episcopia said police department cutbacks will be necessary in a few years if costs continue to spiral upward. He said the possibility of Garden City one day providing police protection to the Village of Mineola, which is only 1.7 square miles, should be considered.
Salary costs comprise 83 percent of the fire department’s budget, said Fire Capt. Harry “Gil” Frank, who is commanding officer of the Headquarters Company. He asked the Board to restore two firefighter positions that were eliminated in last year’s budget. There are currently 27 paid firefighters; Capt. Frank has asked that 29 be included in the 2010/11 budget. Overtime costs are closely monitored, but are necessary since the fire department is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week operation and requires six staff firefighters on duty at all times. The original overtime request for the current operating budget was $107,000. That cost is expected to climb by more than $30,000 due to extended leaves of absence.
Trustee Nicholas Episcopia said an analysis should be done comparing the cost of hiring new firefighters as opposed to paying current firefighters overtime to cover the shifts. He said the analysis should include a projection of the cost at least two or three years from now.
Three staff firefighters were injured this year: one suffered a torn wrist ligament and has returned to service after being out for approximately two months, another firefighter who had shoulder surgery is expected to return next week after being out since September, and another sprained his ankle and is expected to be out for four weeks.
Trustee Dennis Donnelly asked how service would be affected if the Board decided to close a firehouse. The possibility of closing a firehouse, which brings about a host of very complicated service issues, was also discussed last year.
There are currently three strategically located firehouses. If one is closed, what happens to the equipment? How would response times be affected?
Last year there were two “signal 10s,” or working structural fires, in the Village. Capt. Frank said that if a firehouse is closed there will be longer response times, which equates to an increased possibility of losing a life and more structural damage. The first fire engine currently arrives on the scene in 2.5 or 3 minutes, which Capt. Frank claims is on average six minutes faster than response times in surrounding areas. It only takes one minute for a fire to double in size.
Fire Chief William Graham, who is responsible for the volunteer firefighters, reported that there are 100 volunteers, 50 of whom are structural firefighters. He said New York City union firefighters have been told not to volunteer in communities where there is career staff. The Villages of Garden City and Long Beach are the only departments on Long Island with both career and volunteer firefighters.
Chief Graham admitted that it is becoming more difficult to find people willing and able to volunteer. However, the people who are volunteering are very dedicated. The department is trying to recruit older, more established residents as opposed to members of the younger generation. It takes three or four years before a junior firefighter receives all of the training necessary to be a full-fledged member of the department.
“We’ve tried to target people who are a bit older, a bit more established in the village,” Chief Graham said. “We’ve tried to get out to the soccer fields, places where dads might be. They have some roots and are going to be around a bit longer.” He said he doesn’t know where younger people will be in three or four years.
Superintendent of Buildings Michael Filippon reported that revenues are ahead of expenditures, so he is not recommending that any fees be raised this year.
Trustee Dennis Donnelly asked if Filippon could suggest any Village-owned parcels that could be sold for development. The trustees had attended a conference where Village officials were encouraged to consider selling vacant parcels as a way to generate revenue.
Donnelly specifically referred to a piece of property near the railroad tracks on St. James South. Village Counsel Gerard Fishberg responded that six parcels make up the entire section. Three parcels have restrictive covenants that require them to be used only for parking, walkways and crossings.
“If they are no longer used for that purpose, they revert back to the railroad,” he said.
Filippon added that besides that property, there are only a few small vacant parcels currently owned by the Village.
Village Justice Court
Village Justice Allen S. Mathers discussed his concern with the lack of courtroom security. He said the state Office of Court Administration would not approve, especially considering his court is one of the top 10 highest revenue generating Village justice courts in the state.
In other Village courts magnetometers are used, a police officer is present and everyone is searched. Mathers has applied for a grant to help cover the cost of the magnetometers. He has already secured grants from the state’s OCA to fund 10 computers, printers and fax machines.
Trustee Nicholas Episcopia expected the revenue generated from overweight trucks to be much greater this year and was disappointed to find out that there are not enough police officers to conduct truck weight inspections.
This year the Board of Trustees codified the state’s truck weight violations law so that the money generated from violators now goes to the Village, not the state. The fines for overweight trucks can be very high since they are issued for every pound over the required weight.
Mathers said the average fine for an overweight truck is $3,000 to $5,000. In 2008, 114 trucks were issued violations in the Village. More current statistics were not available as of press time.
Village Counsel Gerard Fishberg asked the Board for an increase in his firm’s general retainer from $181,000 to $225,000. This generated discussion as some trustees argued that given the economic climate and the Village’s financial woes, it is not an appropriate time for such a large increase.
Fishberg explained that his firm has dedicated more hours over the past few years: in 2006/07, general retainer hours totaled 844; in 2007/08, they jumped to 1,266; and in 2008/09, they totaled 1,151. For the last half of 2009, the hours totaled 560.
The retainer, however, has only risen “very modestly.” In 2006/07, the general retainer was $163,000; in 2007/08 it was $168,000; in 2008/09 it was $174,000 and in 2009/10 it was $181,000. The current retainer equates to $122.59 an hour. If the Board approves the retainer increase, Fishberg said it would average $161.92 an hour. He said it is not uncommon for firms to charge municipalities at least $250 an hour.
Fishberg said that unlike in many other Villages, in Garden City many things now get included into the general retainer and are not billed separately. He cited several examples: the proposed Winston project in Mineola, Genesco and the trash issue which resulted in a new contract with Covanta. The previous mayor, Peter Bee, instituted board meeting preparation sessions, which require at least 35 to 40 hours of his time every week.
Fishberg argued that he tried to keep expenses down by not billing separately for some of the special projects. “But it has gotten to a point where it really doesn’t work anymore,” he said.
Mayor Rothschild acknowledged that the Village has consulted with Fishberg more over the last few years and supported his request. “Now, because of the litigious nature of what’s been going on in the Village and outside the Village, we’re very careful,” he said. The mayor said he values Fishberg’s experience.
Not every trustee looked so favorably on the proposed increase. Trustee Episcopia called upon the Village Board to exercise more discipline when it comes to consulting Fishberg. He said Village Counsel does not have to be at every board budget preparation session.
Trustee Mauk, who works for CB Richard Ellis, said his company will not allow increases for outside counsel due to the economy. Deputy Mayor Donald Brudie also cited the poor economy, suggesting that this is not the time to be asking for a retainer increase given the economic downturn.
Richard Bankosky, chairman of the CBRC, recommended that the Village exercise more discipline when it comes to utilizing counsel’s services. He also said the firm should not always use the senior level personnel for projects. Fishberg responded that newer associates handle Village Court matters. Bankosky also suggested that the Village be notified when the amount being billed on a case reaches the $50,000 level. Trustee Andrew Cavanaugh said he will monitor counsel’s billings.
Garden City Public Library Director Carolyn Voegler and J. Randolph Colahan, chair of the Garden City Public Library’s Board of Trustees, handled questions related to the library’s proposed budget.
Labor-related items comprise 77 percent of the library’s budget, explained Colahan. They have little control over these items, he explained, so have worked to lower non-labor-related items. The decrease proposed equals $10,012. Voegler said the libraries included in the Nassau Library System are constantly trying to find ways to pool resources to save money.
The library board has attempted to address labor related costs as much as possible. The budget calls for two less full-time positions, which would then total 21. Overtime has been decreased by $5,718.
The library will remain open on Sundays if this budget is approved. The library will be open for 28 Sundays. The number was reduced from 33 in the 2007/08 budget. Library employees earn a salary differential on Sundays, which adds to the expense.
The assistant director position will likely remain vacant due to budgetary constraints.
Voegler discussed with the Board some of the ways technology has affected the way libraries deliver services to the public. She said more people are downloading books through the Nassau Digital Doorway. Colahan said more people actually go to the library to access consultant services, such as tax assistance.
As for the capital projects, many of them will be paid for using $117,000 in unencumbered funds that were not spent during the library’s renovation a few years ago Village Auditor James Olivo explained the project was remarkably completed on schedule and under budget and the leftover money will now be applied to other library capital projects. These projects include: $30,000 to restore the masonry on the outside of the building to prevent water seepage from reoccurring; $15,000 for a light panel upgrade and $25,000 for replacement of ceiling and lighting in the downstairs meeting room.
At Saturday morning’s budget work session, Kevin E. Ocker, chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Cultural and Recreational Affairs, discussed his department’s budget. The $2.384 million budget being proposed is $95,360 less than the current budget. The budget includes a reduction of one full-time staff position.
As far as capital projects are concerned, the Board was in general agreement that Grove Street Park improvements should not be deferred. One park has been improved every year, and Grove Street Park was the last on the list, so it was agreed that it would be unfair to now delay the much-needed work. The project includes $50,000 for playground equipment replacement and $25,000 for a new safety surface.
The $50,000 for various tennis court replacements at Hemlock and Grove Street Parks is still recommended by Ocker to be deferred. He also said the $50,000 designated for parking lot, path and roadway rehabilitation at the Garden City Pool should be put on hold until next year, when a complete repaving may need to be considered. As expected, the $125,000 for installation of synthetic turf on the infield at little league field 2 at Community Park will likely be deferred.
Ocker has been actively seeking corporate sponsorships for the summer concerts in the gazebo, but has not been successful. The proposed budget currently includes funding for seven concerts. The Mayor said there is a core group of approximately 300 to 400 residents who regularly attend these concerts on Thursday evenings during the summer.
Ocker reported that family pool memberships decreased last summer. He was surprised, because they were expected to increase as people chose to stay closer to home during the summer due to the economy. He recommends two new membership categories: one for families who live in the school district, but technically not in the Village. He said this will include mostly 100 families living in the Fernwood Terrace section. It may generate close to $27,000 in revenue, he estimated.
The second new category is expected to generate $16,000 and will be for “families of two.” The proposed new “Family of Two” category would be for resident adults who live at the same address but do not qualify for either the couple and family categories, such as a parent and child or two siblings.
Residents will qualify for a couple pass if they are “an adult couple who are residents of the Village residing at the same address as a single housekeeping unit.” A couple membership does not entitle any other member of the family to use the pool or its facilities and gives no privileges to any people other than the member couple.
Last year, much controversy was generated by a recommendation to charge a $30 per game fee for field usage. Ocker estimated it would generate $50,000 to $60,000. He computed that it would equal $1 per game per family and athletic organizations would pass the cost on in the registration fee. Other communities, such as North Hempstead, have been charging field user fees for years. The Board backed down on the fee after a standing-room only crowd filled the cafeteria at the high school during one of the last budget work sessions to protest.
A discussion ensued again this year on the issue. Trustee Dennis Donnelly said he is “totally opposed” to the fee, which he labeled a “tax” on residents. Trustee Andrew Cavanaugh said it is understandable that the fee would be looked at unfavorably, and questioned the fairness of families who have multiple children in multiple leagues.
Trustee Nicholas Episcopia also said he does not agree with the fee, but does think that organizations should contribute money for field maintenance.
Estates POA President Brian Daughney and Eastern POA President Walter McKenna also commented on the issue. Daughney, who is his POA’s nominee to fill a trustee seat in April, said his POA supported the fee last year.
McKenna volunteered to compare the revenues generated by various private athletic organizations who use the fields, such as the Garden City Centennials and Garden City Athletic Association, with Ocker’s analysis of how much it costs to maintain the fields. He acknowledged that several organizations have made donations to the Village in the past. McKenna suggested asking for an annual monetary contribution to help subsidize the cost of field upkeep. He also said they should be told not to pass the cost along to residents in their registration fees.
Resident Thomas Whalen noted that this is definitely an “irrational, hot-button issue.” He said he was surprised at the number of residents who attended the budget meeting last year to protest what amounts to an additional dollar.
Trustee Cavanaugh explained that the irrationality is stoked because athletic organizations are seen by many as a “soft target,” making the situation look unfair as opposed to “hard targets” like police and fire, which cost a lot of money to operate, but are willingly supported by residents who realize the necessity.
Mayor Rothschild was bothered that the members of the GCAA, Centennials or Recreation Commission attended Saturday morning’s budget meeting. He said it showed a lack of concern. “They know we’re going to dump the money in their lap,” he said. “We’re going to take care of those fields.”
Mayor Rothschild reported that the Village received the grant money from the state secured by Senator Kemp Hannon to cover the cost of the St. Paul’s fence. The money was made available to legislators to distribute as part of the Community Capital Assistance Program. It is a reimbursement grant, so the Village had to lay out the money for the fence, which cost $86,560.
The $26,800 budget for maintenance of the Historic Main Building at St. Paul’s is minimal, explained Ocker. It includes electricity for exterior lighting. The building is not heated. Occasionally minor repairs are done, such as fixing a broken window.
Robert Mangan, Public Works director, reported that he general department budget has been reduced by 4.1 percent when compared with last year’s budget.
“We tried to keep expenses down as much as possible,” Mangan said.
He broke his department down into several departments. Richard Bankosky, CBRC chairman, asked why Village Hall is included in the DPW budget. Mangan explained that his department is responsible for the maintenance of most Village-owned buildings, including Village Hall. There are three employees in this department, two who maintain Village Hall during the day, and one night cleaner. This budget has been reduced by 3.9 percent when compared with last year’s budget. Uniforms for the three employees total $1,200. Mangan explained that they are provided with new parkas and a winter coat every third year.
Mangan reported that the elevator has been installed in the building and the brickwork has been finished. The contractor is currently waiting until the weather clears to install windows and adjust air vents on the roof. Mangan estimated that the entire project will be complete within the next two months.
Deputy Mayor Donald Brudie asked if the Village works with the school district. Mangan responded that the Village and school district both utilize Village gas pumps. The school district pays for usage. The Dept. of Public Works provides free sweeper services in school parking lots during the summer and holiday periods. Mangan estimates it takes one day to sweep school properties. The Village recently began leasing a new street sweeper at a cost of $38,500 a year for five years. Village Administrator Robert L. Schoelle, Jr. keeps a list of services the Village provides. The school district is also permitted to buy off Village sidewalk and tree contracts.
When the Village’s refuse disposal contract with the Town of Hempstead expired, officials entered into a new contract with Covanta on August 18 to lower disposal costs. Mangan said Village Counsel Gerard Fishberg had estimated the Village would save $300,000. Trustee Episcopia wanted to know why the entire savings was not reflected in the budget. Mangan said that they are now estimating a more conservative amount in the budget.
Trustee Episcopia and Mayor Rothschild agreed that the Board should consider charging a fee to residents who utilize special pick-up sanitation removal. The service is currently available at no charge four days a week to all 6,600 homes in the Village. Mangan said his department does between 20 and 30 bulk pick-ups each day. The Mayor also said perhaps the schedule should be modified to do bulk pick-ups only one day a week.
Trustee Andrew Cavanaugh asked what other municipalities perform backyard sanitation pick-ups as opposed to front or side yard. There are only a few other place son Long Island, including Mineola and North Merrick. Mayor Rothschild defended this service, saying it is one of the things that makes Garden City special.
The DPW has gone over budget when it comes to snow removal this year. Mangan said the crews did a great job and he received very few complaints. There was a new deputy superintendent handling the crews, and he performed well. Mayor Rothschild said he received complaints about the plowing on county-owned roads including Nassau Blvd., Cathedral and Rockaway Avenues. Trustee Donnelly asked if Garden City can plow those roads and receive payment from the county. Mangan replied that the county owns wider plows that would be more effective on the bigger roads. The mayor said the matter should be looked at further as it is possible the village can do the second plowing after the county plows the initial snow.
Resident Robert Bolebruch called upon department heads to pare down their budgets even further. He suggested that mechanics be asked to wash their own uniforms. Next year’s proposed budget includes $8,000 for the cost of uniforms and cleaning, which Bolebruch found “unbelieveable.”
He said money could be saved in many cases by giving Village employees an allowance to use their own vehicles. “Why aren’t we trying to be a little more creative?” he asked. “We can’t keep doing this.”
“It’s a point that has not gone unnoticed,” Mayor Rothschild said. He replied that the Board and department heads are still working to pare down the budget.
Trustee Dennis Donnelly asked how service would be affected if the current four-man crews were cut down to three. These crews maintain all of the open areas in the Village. Mangan responded that it most of the time they are operating with three-man crews now. Trustee Laurence Quinn suggested hiring seasonal summer help so that full-time employees can be utilized in a different capacity.
The Board has discussed, and will continue talks, on ways to cut down on expenses. Uniform cleaning, for example, is included in the CSEA contract. The Board can request a giveback, but it is not easily obtained. He also said it ensures that employees look professional. As for the vehicles, he said in most cases jobs could not be performed using a private vehicle.
As for the water department, Trustee Episcopia questioned why the water tower painting project is estimated to cost $2.3 million when the estimate was $3 million last year. Francis J. Koch, P.E., superintendent of the village’s water and sewer department, explained that contractors have actually lowered their price in an effort to get much-needed work. The project will be paid through bonds.
The water fund is a separate enterprise fund, and is currently running at a deficit. If it continues, Olivo said water rates will have to be increased. The Village is expecting a large legal settlement, which has not yet been finalized. The fund incurred at least $200,000 in legal fees during a lawsuit against second parties who polluted the Village’s water years ago.
Some trustees were surprised to see it costs $900,000 for electricity alone to pump the water. Overtime in this department can be high because staff has to be on the pumping premises around the clock, including weekends.