Copake opts for outside budget review

COPAKE–Before deciding what action to take on its estimated $175,000 budget shortfall, the Town Board has hired a second accountant to make sure the first accountant’s figures are right.

   “We all agree that our first course of action should be an independent audit to verify the numbers or find out if they are not correct. We have to know where we are,” Town Supervisor Reggie Crowley told the audience at the Town Board’s regular monthly meeting July 9.

   Mr. Crowley told The Columbia Paper Tuesday, July 14, that the town has hired the Hudson accounting firm of Sickler Torchia Allen and Churchill to do, not a full blown audit, but a review of the town’s current finances to determine where things stand. The review, depending on how difficult it turns out to be, may cost the town an estimated “couple thousand dollars,” according to Mr. Crowley.

   Questions about the accuracy of Town Accountant Brian Fitzgerald’s numbers were raised by the board and residents after the accountant suddenly stormed out of a July 7 special meeting when he was asked to produce a record of year-to-date expenses.

   About two minutes into that rocky special session, called specifically to address possible budget cuts, Mr. Fitzgerald headed for the door–just when the town needed his expertise the most.

   He announced that he was going back to his office to enter into his computer some new budget figures he had just received and told the board that from then on any questions about the budget should be made to him in writing so there could be a record of questions and responses.

   A brief, heated exchange occurred between the accountant and Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia over some information she claimed not to have received until several months after Mr. Fitzgerald said he gave it to her. And things seemed to go downhill from there.

   The Town Board’s show of unity July 9 was in stark contrast to that hour and 40 minutes of sometimes loud, sometimes accusatory and often unproductive talk two days earlier.

   By the end of that July 7 session, the board seemed no closer to figuring out what to do about the town’s budget shortfall.

   Residents and board members argued over the prospect of borrowing $175,000 to pay the town’s bills this year, an amount that was higher than the $160,000 figure the board was told it needed to borrow at a June 23 meeting.

   Also at the July 7 meeting, taxpayers heard from the board that the amount needed might be as much as $200,000, a figure that includes “a cushion.”

   Councilman Bob Sacks read a list of possible budget cuts that he and Ms. Gabaccia came up with that would total about $100,000.

   But included in the cuts he mentioned was about $50,000 from the police department’s budget, a proposal that sparked much disagreement among audience and board members and concluded with no action on any part of the list ever being taken.

   Though the board had required that all town department heads attend the July 7 meeting prepared to discuss cuts that could be made to their budgets, the only one who offered a list of concrete cuts he was ready to make was Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Jeff Nayer.

   Justice Brian Herman told the board to look for cuts somewhere other than the court–on the biggest budget lines first.

   As the meeting dragged on without progress, resident Ian Jarvis stood up and told the board that the budget cutting “homework” had not been done and they were “wasting time.” He said “the number-one priority” has to be a goal of not borrowing money and then working from there.

   In the end, the board voted to establish a spending moratorium on everything except those expenses that the town has signed contracts to pay, such as payroll. It will also exempt emergency expenses, like those relating to public safety.

   That idea was presented as a motion by Councilwoman Gabaccia and came from a plan of action issued by the State Comptroller’s Office about how a municipality can deal with a budget crisis.

   Supervisor Crowley called for all department heads to submit in writing a list of cuts totaling at least 20% from each of their respective budget lines by July 22.

   In budgetary news at the July 9 meeting, the board received a memo from Highway Superintendent Larry Proper that the town could sell its scrap metal and steel for $110/ton. The board agreed that Mr. Proper should do that.

   At the same time, Mr. Proper asked the board in a letter to reconsider its spending moratorium because he has only a limited time window when he can get road repair work done.

   Councilman Sacks said it would be helpful to the town’s cash flow problem if the roadwork could wait 30 days, but left the ultimate decision up to Mr. Proper, saying “what can be deferred should be.”

   The board approved a list of building fee increases submitted by Deputy Building Inspector Don Shadic. Supervisor Crowley noted that Don and JoAnn Delamater donated about $3,300 in proceeds from a recent tractor pull to the summer youth program.

   Councilwoman Gabaccia said the one good thing about the budget crisis was that it “brought the board much closer together” and they were talking to each other “multiple times a day.”

   Resident George Filipovits pointed out that the independent audit may reveal that the town has more money than anyone thought.

   Resident Fran Miller said she was “glad the board came to a consensus.”

   “We’ll get the audit and move on from there,” said Mr. Crowley.

   Another special budget-related meeting has been scheduled for July 29. The board expects to have some answers about the budget by then.

   To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.

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