Proposed cuts orchestrated by a Hamburg Town Board member were described by fellow town officials as being irresponsible and last minute in nature in regards to the town’s proposed 2013 budget, although the previously unveiled fiscal spending plan was officially approved at Monday’s (Nov. 5) meeting by a board vote of 2-1.
Tensions arose during the town board’s work session Monday, as it was stated that Councilman Joseph Collins had brought late proposed budget cuts to the table last Friday following a series of budget meetings during which Collins was described as having not indicated such ideas. In total, Collins’ last-minute proposed cuts had accounted for $1,122,700 in slashing. However, after lengthy disputes Monday with Town Supervisor Steven Walters, Councilmember Amy Ziegler and other officials attending the work session, Collins indicated that he would withdraw his requests for budget cuts.
During the regular meeting, Collins cast the dissenting vote on official budget approval, stating, “I cannot, in good consciousness, support a (budget containing) a tax raise.” The 2013 fiscal spending plan has total appropriations of $42,166,000, with an accompanying tax rate increase of 3.8 percent. The total tax levy to be made up by residents is roughly $24 million, with a tax rate of $9.54 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. State retirement pension payments of $3,551,000, representing a continued, spiraling increase to the town every year since 2008, are said to be the reason for the tax hike. Walters noted that the 2013 budget is still $1 million less than the town’s 2007 fiscal amount. However, the approximately $2.5 million increase within the pension plan was stated as being out of the town’s control and affecting the fiscal plan.
Collins contended his proposed budget cuts were made in a requestery manner for Walters to consider, and not for further official view, a stance that Ziegler disputed.
“It’s not a two-member board, Mr. Collins,” Ziegler stated to the fellow councilmember.
Notable slashing as part of Collins’ requests included eliminating all legal counsel, human resources consulting and Paychex supply within the town, with the cuts accounting for $140,000.
Additionally, eliminating maintenance vehicles in the garage and playground areas, all publicity ads as well as marketing in town, represented hypothetical cuts of $114,000. Further slashing included removing $170,000 in salting supply for the town’s highway department, as well as $100,000 being cut from general highway improvements and eliminating all highway equipment, the latter having been budgeted at $200,000.
Other desired casualties of Collins’ plan included eliminating the position of assistant police chief within the Town of Hamburg Police Department- a job Collins said had been vacant- as well as that of a town grant writer.
Walters described Collins’ requests as “irresponsible,” with the supervisor adding that on three separate occasions during which the budget was discussed, Collins did not express his sentiment of slashing, only bringing out such thoughts in an extremely last-minute manner.
Walters stated that the grant writer who Collins asked to be cut had recently obtained $250,000 in assisting funds for the town to use toward a library project.
“This highlights your complete lack of knowledge on how the town in funded,” Walters said of Collins’ propositions. “This is the third year in a row you brought (late) cuts. You should’ve (expressed such sentiment) sooner…Don’t tell me we’re overspending. We are spending less than we did in 2007…You have to choose, (having) a reduction in services, or (having) a tax increase. You and (Ziegler) both (previously) voted for a tax increase. Your response had been that you didn’t want those (service) reductions…Stop playing the victim, Joe.”
Collins maintained his stance that the town must seek further ways to cut.
“We were overspent last year,” said Collins, who later added that installing a couple patrol positions within the police department was more important than sustaining that of an assistant chief. “We’ve got to have a plan.”
Ziegler said she had not been included in Collins’ budget ideas, as it was stated that Collins had sent only Walters an e-mail discussing his fiscal planning. Collins and Town Attorney Ken Farrell also differed in discussing legal services utilized in the town. Collins had proposed eliminating all legal counsel, budgeted at $70,000, while advocating to bid out for legal services in an attempt to seek what he believes would be cheaper services.
Farrell responded that the most qualified attorneys are hired by the town for specific areas of litigation, at the lowest possible rate. As many as six providers and different firms were said to be used by the town, and Farrell said an emphasis has been placed on providing opportunities for Hamburg-based attorneys when their skillset is most suited.
The town attorney noted that Hamburg’s litigation expenses have decreased this year from 2011, adding that funds used are well within budgeted parameters. Farrell said challenges had been brought through tax assessment increases, listing $64 million in disputed assessed values. As many as 25 lawsuits as part of such challenges are said to be multiple-property claims.
Collins said he had asked for an end-of-year report outlining legal expenses, to get a view of what he described as too-high costs, but stated that he was not given such a document. Farrell responded that he has compiled related monthly reports in a timely manner, adding that such documents are open for dissemination. Walters said he would obtain reports for Collins in the near future, if the councilmember desired the items. Providing the Town of Hamburg with the most efficient legal services, Farrell said, is paramount.
“We certainly hire the best attorneys to represent the Town of Hamburg,” said Farrell. “If the Town of Hamburg is sued, and no merit or claim is warranted, we’ll zealously defend the taxpayers of Hamburg.”
During the regular meeting, the town board voted 3-0 to approve the promotion of Todd Ehret to the vacant position of lieutenant within the Town of Hamburg Police Department, at a salary rate of $39.92 per hour. Other items included:
• Walters noting that the town’s annual tree-lighting ceremony will take place at 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 2 at Town Hall. The lighting will be preceded by an event beginning at 3 p.m. at Town Hall that will include face-painting, a petting zoo, various rides and other themed activities. Refreshments will also be available.
• The town board voting 3-0 to approve an agreement between the Town of Hamburg and the Special Olympics, which allows the annual Polar Plunge to take place on Saturday, December 1 at Woodlawn Beach State Park.
• The town board voting 3-0 to approve the membership of Ramon Cruz and Brandon Cruz into the Scranton Volunteer Fire Company.