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What’s the lesson from this year’s winter woes?

I’m not sure what possessed Town of Amsterdam Supervisor Tom DiMezza to issue a statement on Facebook last Friday putting down the City of Amsterdam as we struggle with our winter weather problems by boasting, “we have salt, we just bought some cold patch, our hills are clear, and we just fixed one of our water main breaks.”

In fact, the city has salt. It has also cleared it’s roads and hills, although the wide snowbanks remain an issue. I’m glad the town fixed a water main break, but the city has fixed dozens this season. Any reasonable person would understand that comparing the town’s infrastructure that supports just over 5,000, many of whom have their own wells and septic tanks, with the city’s infrastructure which supports over 18,000, is like comparing apples to oranges.

Any reasonable person would also understand that Mayor Ann Thane’s statement on March 3rd asking residents not to drive for the next two days unless they absolutely had to, was clearly an advisory due to the weather forecast for more snowfall. For DiMezza to say “to tell people not to drive on the roads isn’t a good sign,” as if she had told people to stay off the roads permanently, is a pretty obvious mis-characterization.

No doubt, there’s been no love lost between DiMezza and Thane over the years, but it was surprising and saddening to me to hear an elected official publicly look down his nose at his neighbor in a time of need instead of offering to help. Unfortunately, I see DiMezza joining a small chorus of locals who are taking advantage of the city’s conditions to take potshots at the mayor, especially being this is an election year.

If we as city residents are really concerned about fixing the current situation and making sure we are better prepared in the future, then I think it takes putting the rhetoric aside and looking at some the underlying issues. Driving around the city myself, I see that the roads are all plowed, but narrow because of the snowbanks. We also have a bumper crop of potholes forming, and water main breaks have been frequent due to the freezing temperatures.

The mayor has said that fixing water main breaks has been the priority and as far as I can tell, the breaks have been either fixed or at least remediated. However it’s the repair of potholes and the removal of snow banks that doesn’t seem to be happening fast enough.

Now if the problems are operational in nature, if the Department of Public Works is sleeping on the job or not doing their jobs correctly, then I would say the responsibility ultimately lies with the mayor. However, my understanding is the problem is primarily budgetary in nature. General Foreman Ray Halgas has reported that the DPW is overwhelmed with the work and our overtime budget is all used up.

The weather isn’t predictable. But it is predictable that unexpected emergencies will always come up. If it’s not snow and ice one year, it’s a fire, a flood or some other problem another year. That’s why the city has a large contingency fund in order to be prepared for such emergencies.

The city’s contingency fund, as approved by the Common Council, started out at $225,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year beginning in July 2014. Over the past months, that fund has been spent down to approximately $22,000. A $29,000 transfer from contingency to cover a large salt purchase was the last amount used.

Previous transfers have included $15,000 to cover an underfunded overtime budget at the fire department, $15,000 to fund the land bank, $8,000 for additional vegetation removal, $15,000 to rent a sewer jet apparatus, $10,000 to help the homeless shelter, and $60,000 to fund this year’s foreclosure process.

I understand the budgeting process is never perfect, but it seems to me that very few of the contingency transfers were for items that couldn’t have been foreseen and properly budgeted for. And given that the council cut over $200,000 from the mayor’s proposed budget, there is very little room to transfer funds from any other lines. With the council’s unanimous approval of their cuts and subsequent override of 9 out of 10 of the mayor’s budget vetoes, I think it’s fair to say that the council had the final say on our current budget and will likely have the final say on the next one.

I understand and respect the fact the council’s main goal was to keep the city’s taxes from increasing. Had the council budgeted for many of the items that were paid for out of contingency, we most likely would have seen a slight tax increase. However, I think that we as residents need to understand that when it comes to city services, we get what we pay for. If the foreseeable expenses had been properly budgeted for, we would have had more funds in contingency to handle this problem.

City officials have their work cut out for them in order to find the funding to speed up snow removal and street repair for this season. I have no doubt the work will get done eventually and the city will get through it somehow as it always does. However, I think everyone needs to pay closer attention to the upcoming budget process and make sure that all foreseeable expenses are budgeted for so that our contingency fund is not depleted again. The contingency fund should only be used for truly unplanned, unexpected issues, not to cover sloppy budgeting. That’s the only way we can make sure that we are not caught short again, and that’s the lesson we need to remember from this winter.

About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

11 Responses to What’s the lesson from this year’s winter woes?

  1. Rick Morrison says:

    Spot on piece Tim. This another result of the “this is how we did it at the County” thinking. Contingency funds don’t need to be enormous, but they need to cover absolute necessities in emergencies. The council used the budget last year to advance their political agenda and no doubt will use it again this year. When budgeting the first step is to be aware and understand what you are budgeting for and why. The concepts alluded the council as well as the need to approve a reasoned capital projects bond. The same disparately needed equipment purchases will come at a higher cost now.
    The Tom DiMezza blarney was just another political attack on the Thane administration.
    You made mention of reasonable persons – the politics of dislike and retribution which have been the hallmarks of the political atmosphere for the past 16 months in Amsterdam is neither reasonable or are meant to help persons.

  2. Seriously? You have a problem with a bordering Town Supervisor questioning why a standing Mayor and self-appointed head of the Department of Public Works is telling people not to drive on city streets because they don’t have money for salt and sand? This “crisis” did not happen overnight. The Mayor herself insists that she alone is responsible for day to day operations of the city. Mayor Ann Thane you failed this city! Poor management along with fiscal irresponsibility caused this self-made crisis, nothing else. We elect leaders to solve problems not create them. What happened to sharing resourses? Was the County or Town even asked to help out? This was an uncacceptable response from Amsterdam’s Mayor who is more concerned with appearances than the residents of our city.

    • Margaret Persico says:

      Jerry Skrocki I AGREE 100%…The mayor’s response was pathetic. She could have asked for patience and advised to use extra caution. To ask the people to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary was absurdity at its finest. And like you said, this didn’t happen overnight…

    • Michael Donnan says:

      I realize DiMezza’s letter was in the paper today but the Mayors letter was last week. It came at a time when no salt could be found from suppliers and there was a forecast for bad winter weather. Since her letter was written she was able to borrow salt from Fort Johnson and the hazardous weather never occurred. Those developments made her letter moot. There is no “crisis”, self-made or otherwise. All there is is an outdated letter telling people to drive as little as possible when the weather makes the roads dangerous. Isn’t that always good advice?

      • Margaret Persico says:

        Mike, As the “self appointed head of DPW”, was she unaware that our salt/sand level was critically low??? From what I understand, a DPW foreman is the one who had the wherewithall to call on our neighbor, Ft. Johnson, to borrow enough salt to get us through our last small storm. And in my opinion, she did make a “crisis” out of it by appearing on the local news with her sob story. Maybe you should re-read the letter…I didn’t see where she was telling people to “drive as little as possible”…I took it more like “panic mode” because she had no clue where we would get the necessary materials to treat the roads. Her letter said: Do NOT drive unless ABSOLUTELY necessary…

      • Tim Becker says:

        Obviously, we’re all looking at the same notice. Different people have interpreted the notice in different ways. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue anyone else into seeing it differently.

        Just a note, it is a fact that salt is in very short supply and many localities are struggling to get the amounts they need…

        http://wnyt.com/article/stories/s3701254.shtml

  3. Michele McGlone says:

    I read the supervisor’s statement. It was so poorly written that it was hard to even understand what he was trying to say. Embarassing.

  4. Scott Friers says:

    Didn’t the Town of Amsterdam loan the city salt last year? Mr. DiMezza’s comments were spot on. If the excuse for her comments were because of additional snow….why wasn’t a snow emergency declared? I like many others in this city traveled to and from work those 2 days with no issues. That is until I was traveling in the City.

    • Tim Becker says:

      According to Ray Halgas, the town did loan the city salt last season, and that loan was recently given back.

  5. Jeremy Jasper says:

    DiMezza will toot his own horn at every chance he gets. He was a bully when he was a substitute teacher and pllice officer and he is still a bully. The mayor said, as does the governor, stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary and the political attacks ensued. I do think that the mayor should get on DPW more because I think they could do a better job but for him to belittle her to make himself look better is typical of his “better than all” attitude. Its another politician trying to throw mud.

  6. Charlie K. says:

    The letter from the town of Amsterdam supervisor was a political pot-shot, and nothing more. Communities all over upstate New York are dealing with potholes and salt/sand shortages due to the hard winter. Schenectady’s roads are WAY worse than the city of Amsterdam’s. It’s a local election year, so the mayor haters will look to pounce on everything and anything, regardless of the facts.

    Oh, and yesterday, I drove through part of the town of Amsterdam on my way home for work. Plenty of potholes there, and some pretty bad ones, too.