Town, village officials at odds over emergency services building cost
TUPPER LAKE – Village officials visited a town board meeting Monday to discuss some concerns about the village’s plan to construct an emergency services building.
A few hours before the village held a referendum last week on whether to build a new fire and police station, several town board members questioned the timing and financing of the project in a special meeting.
The village would do all the borrowing and oversee the building of the $4.5 million station, so only its voters were able to vote in the referendum, a bone of contention among many town residents. Town residents will likely help pay for the building, but indirectly.
The village owns the fire and police departments, while the town contracts with the village for fire and police protection. The police contract, signed earlier this year, was the first between the two municipalities and lasts for five years. The village plans to use half the money it receives from that and put it toward the station.
The fire contract is negotiated annually. The village and town recently executed the agreement for 2013, but they are negotiating one for 2014, and they are having trouble coming to terms over how much each municipality should contribute to the station.
The village has proposed the town pay 70 percent of the fire portions of the station, while the village covers 30 percent. With that proportion – since about 70 percent of the assessed property value in the town is outside the village – village and town taxpayers would pay the same rate on fire protection. Village officials argue that since everyone gets the same fire protection whether they live in the village or the town, that’s fair.
But town Supervisor Roger Amell has said he will only agree to a 50/50 split, which would mean village residents would pay more than town residents.
Amell continued to take a more combative stance about the project at Monday’s meeting, while Councilwomen Kathy Lefebvre and Patti Littlefield sought information about it and said they expect to be able to come to an agreement on the issue.
Village Mayor Paul Maroun began the discussion by guaranteeing the town board he wouldn’t sign any contracts dealing with the building until he has a letter in hand guaranteeing that the village will get at least $1.3 million in grant money toward the building. The project manager contracted to help with the project, Sean Foran of Heuber-Breuer Construction, has said things look good for the project to receive that money.
Maroun tried to alleviate tension, saying that a new fire and police station would be an asset for the entire community.
“This is a Tupper Lake thing,” Maroun said. “It’s not a village or a town (thing).”
He noted that Amell and Lefebvre have been involved in the committee that came up with the building proposal, and he said the village tried to keep the whole process above board.
“There’s been no intent to trick anybody or trick any taxpayer,” Maroun said. “We’re trying to move the community along.”
The resolution approved by voters will let the village borrow $3.2 million to build a $4.5 million building, but Maroun said he’s hopeful the true costs will come in much lower.
The village plans to pull out of the town’s payments 21 percent of the building costs, because that’s the square footage percentage of the police portion of the building, said village Clerk Mary Casagrain.
Casagrain said the bond payment would include $121,000 a year for the fire portion of the building.
That works out to town residents paying about 19.8 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, if the village has its way in negotiations. In that scenario, village residents, since they would be paying for both the police and fire portions of the station, would pay 34.1 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.
Fire Commissioner Rick Donah said he’s currently working on the grant process. While he may not get money before the federal government goes on summer recess, he hopes to get letters guaranteeing it before that.
“Our goal is to close that piece of this immediately,” Donah said.
Donah also said that nothing was done behind a curtain.
Lefebvre, who questioned the timing of the referendum at last week’s meeting but has since reaffirmed her support for the building, said she didn’t think anything was done secretly.
“I did,” Amell said.
Amell said he was under the impression that the committee was in agreement to drop the costs of the building below $4 million before sending it to referendum. Then he went on vacation and things changed, he said. He said the wording of the referendum is misleading, since it allows $4.5 million in spending.
“To me, that was deceiving,” Amell said.
He also questioned how 2,000 square feet was taken out of the schematic floor plan during that time but the cost wasn’t lowered more.
Amell said it’s not fair for the town to pay a larger portion of the project than the village, and he said he’s heard from a number of taxpayers who are upset with it.
Maroun argued that is the way the fire expenses have been calculated for the last five years or so, and it’s the normal way they are calculated in other municipalities.
“Everybody’s paying the same,” Maroun said.
Town board members had accused the village of holding the referendum prematurely before hammering out the fire contract details, but Donah argued that wasn’t the case, since the two municipalities have until the end of the year to figure out the 2014 contract.
“We haven’t done anything prematurely,” Donah said. “We’ve been working through the process.”
Amell argued that he wasn’t just bringing the issue up at the end of negotiations. He said he tried to address it since the beginning of the building process, but he was brushed off each time.
“I mentioned it I don’t know how many times to everybody,” Amell said.
He said that if the referendum went to all voters in the town, he doesn’t believe it would have passed.
Donah said that’s probably accurate, since it failed twice historically as a town referendum years ago.
Amell said he doesn’t want to back down from the 50/50 split, which he said would be more fair.
“I’m sticking to my guns,” Amell said. “Some of my other colleagues aren’t, but I’m going to stick to my guns because the people that I represent and call me is, that’s what I believe that’s where they want to be.”
Lefebvre said she believes the town should pay a higher proportion than 50/50, because it will be spread out more throughout across the town’s larger tax base.
“I’m thinking of the village taxpayers as being part of the town,” Lefebvre said. “I just don’t know if they can afford to pay more. I just think the town should pay a little bit more. It can be spread out more. We have more assessed value outside the village.”
Lefebvre noted that it’s a necessary project that has been put off for two decades.
“I hear people saying, ‘Well now isn’t a good time for it,'” Lefebvre said. “Well, when is there a good time for it? I know the economy is not that great, but we’ve got to bite the bullet sometimes and do what’s right and what’s best for the community.
“Whenever we do it, there are going to be people who find it tough sledding.”
Littlefield said that since the town used to get fire protection for free, she looks at it as, “the town people had a bargain for many, many, many, many years for fire protection” while the village taxpayers paid the entire cost.
She noted that there are no firm numbers in the project yet since nothing has been put out to bid and there is no confirmation of grant funding yet, so she said there’s time to work it out.
“Everything’s kind of ballpark-y,” Littlefield said.
For a person with a $150,000 home, the project would mean he or she would pay $33 more next year in property taxes, which she called cheaper than a raffle ticket.
She noted that a lot of the town residents’ concerns with the project stems from the fact that they couldn’t vote in the referendum.
Littlefield said she thinks the project is a positive step for the community, and she thinks the town and village can work out an agreement.
“We’ll all sit down and we’ll figure it out,” Littlefield said.
Councilman David Tomberlin wasn’t at the meeting because he was on vacation. Councilman Jerry Fletcher, when Amell asked him if he had anything to say, responded “No comment. I just want to look at it and think about it more.”
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.