This crisis has teeth

Copake hit again by expenses it didn’t expect

COPAKE–Where will the money come from?

Town officials and taxpayers once again find themselves asking that question following a mid-year review of town finances by the town accountant at the July 14 Town Board meeting.

Two expenses–medical coverage and leaky fuel tanks–have the town shaking its piggy bank for loose change.

The town found itself in a similar deficit situation in mid-2009, which resulted in the town taking out a $100,000 loan to cover expenses. Taxpayers were assessed a one-time charge on their tax bills to pay back the money in early 2010.

Deputy Supervisor Joe LaPorta, who is also the town budget officer and presided over the July meeting in the absence of Supervisor Reggie Crowley, who was ill, said there is a $20,000 shortfall in the amount budgeted for medical expenses, a line item contained in the General Fund portion of the town budget. Mr. LaPorta said he spoke to the town’s insurance agent and discovered that a recommended 10% increase in the amount budgeted on that line to cover dental premiums had not been included in this year’s budget.

Another factor contributing to the $20,000 shortfall is that town retirees, who are currently covered under the town’s MVP medical insurance, opted to stay with that plan rather than switch to Medicare, said Mr. LaPorta. The switch would have saved the town money.

“We’re $20,000 in the hole. We have to do some post mortem research to find out how we got there,” said Councilman Bob Sacks.

The other expense, estimated at between $85,000 and $100,000, is the unexpected need to replace fuel tanks at the highway garage.

Town Highway Superintendent Bill Gregory told The Columbia Paper Wednesday that the town’s 1,000-gallon gasoline tank and its 2,000-gallon diesel fuel tank, both double-walled and underground, failed a precision tank test done by a petroleum company around the beginning of June.

In the case of the gas tank, fuel had leaked into the space between the inside and outside tanks, no gas had leaked from the outer tank into the ground. In the case of the diesel tank, water had leaked through the outer tank into the interstitial space, but no fuel had leaked out. According to state Department of Environmental Conservation rules, once the tanks were found to have failed, the town had 24 hours to dig them up and evacuate the liquid inside them, said Mr. Gregory, noting that the Highway Department did the excavation under the watchful eyes of a DEC officer and an environmental specialist hired by the town.

The fuel removed from the tanks was placed in two temporary above ground tanks, both with a 1,000 gallon capacity.

That fuel not only supplies town Highway Department vehicles, but also vehicles used by the Community Rescue Squad, Copake Police, and the Copake and Craryville fire departments.

The diesel tank is on a two-week delivery schedule and the supply is just barely enough to keep things running between deliveries, Mr. Gregory said.

Requests for bids on a new 3,000-gallon split, double-walled, above-ground tank, which will hold 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 1,000 gallons of gasoline, have been advertised; the bids must be submitted by August 5. The new tank will sit on a concrete slab.

The failed tanks were each 22 years old, installed in 1989, and while they were equipped with electronic probes that were supposed to detect any leaks, both malfunctioned, making the breach in the tanks a complete surprise.

The cost of the new tanks, which will also include a new monitoring system and a new fuel management system to keep track of where the fuel is going, falls under buildings and grounds and is therefore a General Fund expense.

The existing $168,000 general fund balance will likely be diminished somewhat by the $20,000 medical insurance shortfall and also some other expenses must come out of that balance before eventually being reimbursed. Officials are reluctant to draw that balance down too low, in case another crisis arises.

In the meantime, the Town Board put the brakes on Town Assessor Craig Surprise’s plans to move forward with a complete revaluation of town properties. A reval was one of the main missions the town assigned to Mr. Surprise when he was hired in the switch from three-elected assessors to one appointed assessor last September.

Mr. Surprise asked the board for the okay to hire data collectors and buy measuring tapes to get started inspecting residential properties. He said he must get the revaluation underway by August 3 and make a four-year commitment to the process to get reimbursement from the state. Earlier in the evening, Mr. Surprise told the board “over half the town is not in compliance” and has building violations — such as the construction of decks and additions for permits were never sought.

When all these under-the-radar improvements are put on the books, the town will realize a substantial amount in tax revenue.

Board members decided to put the reval on hold until they can set up a special meeting with Mr. Surprise. In the meantime, members agreed to send a memo out to all department heads telling them to scrutinize their budgets to see what they can do without.

Town Democratic Club President Morris Ordover cautioned the board against borrowing again, noting that the town would not be able to recoup the money from taxpayers like it did before because of the new 2% cap on property taxes imposed by the state.

Lindsay LeBrecht, president of the Copake Republican Club, told the board to “look at other streams of revenue” and not be penny-wise and pound-foolish, suggesting that the town may have to spend $20,000 on a reval, but would reap a much bigger return.

A special meeting to discuss the fuel tanks, the reval and any other town business that pops up is set for Tuesday July 26, 10 a.m. at the Town Hall.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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