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

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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.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.