Public and politicians speak out at budget hearing

The proposed city ambulance service was a major topic at Tuesday’s budget hearing at City Hall. All members of the public who spoke identified themselves as city residents.

Sandy Roginski spoke first and said that in his opinion, it was “illegal” for the mayor to have included a $660,000 revenue line for a proposed city ambulance service that had not yet been approved by the Common Council. “It shouldn’t be in there,” said Roginski, “So to me that is against the law which to me is illegal. It should have been brought before the council. Now you are dumping a budget, that to me, is not balanced.”

Curtis Peninger asked the council to re-consider their stance on the ambulance service given the limited number of opportunities for additional revenue to balance the budget. “It upsets me to hear our leaders at the state level talk about the ‘bridge to technology’ between Marcy and Albany, and right at the middle of the bridge, underneath is Amsterdam. Somehow we’re not on top of the bridge but underneath it. So when it comes to our taxpayers, there’s not a whole bunch of revenue that we can look at. So I ask that you look at it one more time. I know how you feel about it through what we read in the news, but maybe in your heart you feel a different way. I don’t think it’s a fireman versus taxpayer or ambulance company versus taxpayer issue, it’s what is best for the taxpayers at this time.”

Phillip Lyford advocated for bonding to install additional artwork at the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge. He pointed to the city’s history of supporting public artwork and said that additions to the bridge would be more expensive if installed after the completion of the pedestrian bridge. He also spoke in support of the proposed ambulance service. He said,“There are many municipalities providing this service and why not Amsterdam? There is a lack of due diligence on the part of this council. This council should be questioned about it, if there are layoffs and tax increases, at election time.”

Michael Chiara asked the Common Council to take look at the idea of bringing a construction and demolition landfill to the city to generate revenue. The idea had been considered by the city twice in the past, once in 2003 and again in 2011. Chiara said, “How many people really took the time to see what was being said, what was read, and understood the engineering and what was involved? Yesterday I talked to Mr. Bob Noel, who was one of the principle people involved in this. I said ‘Bob, we have a financial problem here’, and if you don’t think we do, you better think again. And he said he would be willing to come in here and discuss it.”

Rob Wojnar said, “I think it’s more than time that people look at how they can do things that will make money for this city, instead of going against things that would’ve made money for the city and voting them down.” He referenced the recent resolution passed by the council to restrict the municipal golf course from charging a fee for a second person to ride with a cart owner. “Any golf course in this area, probably within a 30 mile radius charges this fee to people that do that. It doesn’t make sense to me that you wouldn’t allow something like that or you would be against it…something has to be done to help this city and some of you people aren’t showing that effort.”

Dorothy Domkowski said,“You’re going to consider the budget, you were elected to that, you ran to do that, and I know you are sincere about it. But you really need to look at not making decisions that are good for today and not for tomorrow. We’re trying to build a future here. I have a nephew who just relocated back to Amsterdam. He’s raising a family, he bought a house here and I’m thinking about him. Some of the decisions you make about cutting paper clips or whatever, at the expense of maybe some other decisions that cost us millions of dollars. So I just ask you to be sincere about it and think about the future.”

Mayor Ann Thane spoke next and said, “I gave the council a very healthy budget that only had a 1.09% increase in property taxes, that is 17 cents per $1,0000 [assessed value], that is so reasonable. And it does not cut any critical operations or equipment or people. It comes at a time when we have increased expenses that are not driven by the departments. I think when you have taken all of this time to go through the budget line by line, you are seeing the departments are being very judicious in what they are spending. None of them went above the tax cap, that is not what is driving the increase in this budget. They are expenses that are outside of our control.”

“If you are going to, as someone referred to, cut paperclips to get where you need to be, that is bad for the city, it is bad for operations and it’s bad for morale. I see the morale going through the floor in this city and it just breaks my heart because these people are so good.”

Thane also said she was concerned that due diligence had not been done in regards to the proposed ambulance service. She said that she had asked the council to reach out to other municipalities and legal experts from the New York Council of Mayors (NYCOM) but did not believe that they had done so.

“You did not even take the time to allow this fire chief to present his figures to this group,” said Thane, at which point Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler interrupted and said, “yes we did.”

Previously, a Public Safety Committee meeting at which Fire Chief Michael Whitty was scheduled to present his case for the ambulance service was canceled by committee chair Ed Russo. However, Whitty briefly spoke before the council on the subject at the beginning of a later common council meeting and handed his report to members of the council.

“It’s time we think about our taxpayers, not special interests, not other organizations. I have taxpayers to worry about, that’s who we should be advocating for here. We are already providing these services, the only thing missing is the transport vehicle.”

Thane also criticized the council for their handling of capital projects, “You’re not talking about what funds are impacted or how it’s going to impact tax rates. You’re talking about going out for a second issue, you’re not talking about the increased bond counsel costs. You’re not considering possible increases in costs of equipment or projects over time. There is loss of time when our need is so critical.”

Finally, she urged the council to move ahead with providing funding for the Concordia Project, referring to issues raised by Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler and Alderman Ron Barone at a Finance Committee meeting held just before the hearing. “We are again going to be putting off another huge developer and just looking like the laughing-stock of the Capital District. We can not do this again, it is just so bad for this city.”

The Common Council has yet to finalize its decision on what capital projects to borrow for, including whether to provide funding to run city water lines to the Concordia Project site which would be paid back to the city over time via a special tax on the development and would provide additional revenue to the city from the water supply fees.

“Think about what your goals are as a council. Certainly it is not to cut, cut, cut, and wait for something better to happen to us. Because that’s no how it happens. We have to invest in this place to get to where we need to be.”

Alderman Ed Russo spoke next and said, “I see this political baloney that’s going on here and I think it’s totally fraud.”

“You put a budget out with a $660,000 revenue line in there. Where you came up with that figure is way beyond me. We got a figure from the chief, it was $500,000, we got another figure, it was $400,000. Nobody really knows. And being the liaison for the fire department, and I was not involved in any of this discussion, I think it’s totally wrong. And I think…that was abuse to the council.”

“Am I against the ambulance service? No, absolutely not. But it was not to come in here and be jammed down anybody’s throat. And that’s what happened here and I’m totally against that. But I’m not saying it can’t be brought up at another time.”

“I think the fire chief did a great job of putting his figures together, but it was too late, we’re in budget time. How are you going to try to do something like that now? I think it’s totally wrong.”

Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler said in regards to Thane’s comment about not allowing the Whitty to present his figures, “You’re wrong on that point that we didn’t listen to him. We had a special evening presentation. Again, we feel that the issue is one that needs to go back to the public. The public decided ten years ago that they want GAVAC. If that’s what they want then that’s what they deserve and that’s what they’re going to get.”

“Just so you know, I have met with GAVAC, I met with them for an hour and a half one day. And so I know what’s on the other side. I’ve also read the proposal from the fire chief. And I can tell you from reading all the information that’s out there, Obamacare is cutting reimbursements right and left. And that means the reimbursements that would be coming back to our fire department are going to be decreasing, they aren’t going to be increasing. So to depend upon that revenue is not the right way to go.”

Mike Demars, of the Amsterdam Professional Firefighters Union said, “I was also here the night Chief Whitty made a presentation. Unless I was watching a different channel, he discussed our operations and then he was asked if he had figures and he handed them out.”

“Now you said you met with GAVAC, you have not met with us…We were more than willing to sit down with any of you. We don’t want this to be a political play, we want to help solve budget problems here. We’re taxpayers, we’re city employees, we’re all affected by this. Sit down with us too. Get our side of the story. If you just said you sat down privately with GAVAC and you didn’t really reach out to any of us, I don’t think that was a fair representation of the situation.”

The Common Council is required to finalize their changes to the mayor’s proposed budget before June 1. The Mayor can then submit the equivalent of line-item vetoes or “objections” to any of the council’s changes. The changes can be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote by the council.

Tim Becker

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