Orangetown Questions Blauvelt Fire Budget

BY ROBERT KNIGHT

CITY EDITOR

 

Broadacres Still in Doubt, Youth Collaborative Created

Orangetown’s Town Board also serves as the Board of Fire Commissioners for the Blauvelt Fire District. Tuesday the board cast a critical eye at the department’s proposed budget for 2013, questioning why the relatively small district should have a reserve fund nearly as large as the town’s itself.

The board took no action on the request Tuesday, but promised to investigate the estimated $2.5 to $3million reserve fund with department officials before voting on whether to include the budget within the town’s own budget for next year, which it must complete within the next month.

In fact, council members said, they must approve a preliminary budget by Oct. 23 and the final budget by Nov.20 or face several financial sanctions by the state for failure to comply.

In other action at Tuesday’s workshop meeting at Town Hall, at least one council member broke ranks with his compatriots and said that based on information he has received to date, he will vote to keep the financially-beleaguered Broadacres Golf Course open again next year, despite the fact that it is slated to lose approximately $400,000 in excess expenses over anticipated revenues.

The Board also authorized the town’s Police Department to co-submit an application with the school district and four non-profit agencies to create a new youth services collaborative, aimed at combating violence, sexual assault and bullying against local teens.

Both the Blauvelt fire budget and Broadacres’ future, along with numerous other controversial issues, are expected to take center stage when the board resumes its regular business at a 7:30 p.m. meeting next Tuesday, also at Town Hall at 26 Orangeburg Road, Orangeburg.

 

Fire District

The Blauvelt Fire District budget was one of three items listed by Supervisor Andrew Stewart under the “discussion” category at Tuesday’s workshop meeting. The other two were the town’s preliminary budget for 2013 and a large grant the town is expected to receive from the federal government aimed at preventing violence and sexual abuse against teenagers, both by their own peers and by adults.

The first district dispute was explained by Town Attorney John Edwards, who has been working as a go-between to mediate the friction between the Town Board and the officers and commissioners of the Blauvelt Fire Department.

He said hamlet fire districts in Orangetown and throughout Rockland County have publicly elected boards of fire commissioners. Among their duties are hiring, training and disciplining of the volunteer firefighter members of their respective departments and creating their annual budgets, which are submitted to the town for inclusion in town tax bills to local property owners.

For reasons he said were unknown 75 years later, the Blauvelt Fire District elected long ago not to have a local board of fire commissioners, but instead to appoint the five-member Town Board to this position. The board has acted in this dual role ever since, without ever knowing why. Traditionally, the board has simply accepted the budget proposed to it by the fire company board of directors, and included the amount in the town budget, collecting it through local property taxes billed each January.

Orangetown contracts with the Blauvelt Fire Company to provide fire protection services to the Blauvelt Fire District, Edwards explained, and since 2002 the company has submitted two five-year budgets to the Town Board for approval, which were routinely approved with little or no debate. Last year the board first became concerned over the large reserve fund, and limited the contract renewal to a single year, 2012, which is now expiring. The fire company is requesting another five-year renewal, with an additional $125,000 pumped into the reserve fund annually, for a total of $625,000, bringing the total to well over $3 million.

 

Finances Questioned

This year, however, the town is facing a severe financial crisis, and is having great difficulty arriving at a satisfactory budget figure for 2013. By state law, the town is supposed to limit any real property tax increase to less than a 2% increase next year. To exceed that “cap,” the board must vote by a “super majority” of 4-1 or more, rather than the simple 3-2 majority needed for all other resolutions. So far, the board is looking at a 9.19% increase for 2013, based on the town’s preliminary budget.

As a result, council members are scrutinizing the entire budget with a microscope, looking to see where they can cut expenses or possibly even increase revenues.

One such idea floated two weeks ago was to close the town owned and operated Broadacres Golf Course in Orangeburg, saving a projected $400,000 loss the nine hole course is slated to suffer. The nearby 27-hole Blue Hill Golf Course loses less money, and is scheduled to remain open next year and into the future without interruption.

The budget examination also led council members to the Blauvelt Fire District budget, however, which they had never explored in detail before. Edwards said he and members of the council were startled to see a reserve fund, also known as the “slush fund,” of between $2.3 and $3 million, with no explanation as to what that huge bankrolled sum was for.

 

Fund Excessive

Upon questioning fire company leaders, Edwards said they told him it was their reserve fund from which to purchase replacement fire trucks when they became needed. By bankrolling the money each year to increase the fund, they would have sufficient money on hand to purchase new trucks for cash rather than having to float bond issues for their purchase, he added.

With typical fire trucks costing between $500,000 and $1 million, the fund right now could purchase three or more new trucks, which normally wouldn’t be needed for several years, Edwards said. Council members appeared to agree with the attorney, saying they could see no reason for such a huge reserve fund, which is taxpayer funded through property taxes, and which artificially inflates the town’s own budget.

Freezing that account and adding no more money to it, and eliminating a line item in the department budget of $17,000 for a company installation dinner, would save Orangetown considerable money, the councilmen noted. Several agreed with Edwards that throwing such a huge party for members at taxpayers’ expense was “highly unusual” and something the town itself never does for its employees, although workers are permitted to throw their own departmental holiday parties, at their expense.

Edwards also indicated the budget included an item for $15,000 for a chief’s fund, which so far remains unexplained but definitely under the microscope for possible trimming.

The council concluded its discussion of the Blauvelt fire budget by requesting Edwards and the town finance office to investigate the requested fire district budget in more detail, and to report back at the board’s next meeting with their findings. It was also anticipated that officers of the Blauvelt Fire Department may show up at that meeting as well, to defend their budget request and refute accusations against it including the reserve fund and the annual party, among other questionable line items.

Officials of the fire department were not immediately available for comment following the Town Board meeting Tuesday, which adjourned shortly before 10 p.m.

 

Budget Cuts

The council briefly discussed other potential cuts to next year’s budget at Tuesday’s meeting, including Broadacres Golf Course and selling or scaling back operations at the town’s sewer treatment plant in Orangeburg.

Councilman Thomas Morr broke from the Republican majority on the council when he said he felt operating the Broadacres Golf Course was a public service the town owed its residents, and that it should not necessarily be expected to make a profit any more than a baseball or soccer field, basketball or tennis court or hiking trail is expected to make money for the town. Moreover, Morr said, he was “very impressed” with the turnout of senior citizens at that previous week’s meeting, pleading for the continued operation of Broadacres. He said he merely wanted to let the rest of the board, and the public, know that as of this time, he remains in favor of continued operation of Broadacres next year, even at a loss, and despite how other members may feel when it comes time for a vote in the next few weeks.

Closing Broadacres had been proposed publicly by fellow GOP Councilmen Paul Valentine and Thomas Diviny the week before, and Democratic Supervisor Andrew Stewart a month ago, as a way to save $400,000 in next year’s budget. No other members of the board spoke on the Broadacres issue Tuesday, other than to indicate that it was still under review.

Diviny singled out the income Orangetown receives from Rockland County as its share of mortgage transfer taxes collected by the county annually. That figure showed Orangetown receiving $1.4 million each in 2010 and 2011, and $1.2 million this year. Next year’s preliminary budget shows it dropping again, to $1 million, for 2013. With the recession allegedly ending and economic recovery on the horizon, Diviny, a real estate attorney, said the town was underestimating this revenue and should raise the figure to at least $1.2 million again, if not more.

This was refuted however by Ann Maestri, the town’s deputy finance director, who said she had spoken directly with county budget officials and they remain firm in their belief that the mortgage transfer tax revenue will not go up next year, but rather remain static. The $1 million figure is “realistic,” Maestri insisted, while adding that the council was free to ignore her advice if it so decides, and take the chance that the current predictions will not materialize.

 

Sewer Plant

Joseph Moran, the town’s recently hired director of the Department of Environmental Management and Engineering (DEME), better known as the sewer department, also defended his plant’s operation, in trying to defuse the possibility of selling the Orangeburg sewer treatment plant to Rockland County, which operates its own sewer treatment plant 400 feet away.

That proposal was made by Councilmen Valentine and Diviny last week as a way to both save money on the operation of the plant, and acquire income from its sale to the county.

Valentine expounded on his idea this week, saying he had discovered a potential government grant Orangetown could get that is specifically aimed at making government more efficient at all levels by encouraging the merging of similar operations between various levels of government.

Such a study could show if it would make financial sense for Orangetown to combine its sewer plant with the county, Valentine said, adding that if this is too large an undertaking to accomplish so quickly, a smaller version could study the implications of combining just the chemical laboratories the two plants currently operate.

It makes no sense to have two laboratories, with two staffs, doing exactly the same job 400 feet away from each other, Valentine insisted. Their job is to test incoming and outgoing sewage for contaminants, he explained, and could be done cheaper and more efficiently in one facility with one crew of operators. Since Orangetown’s lab only operates weekdays and the county’s operates 24/7, he said it makes more sense to use the county facility and eliminate the town laboratory, thus saving money for town taxpayers.

Moran and budget officials said they would investigate Valentine’s suggestions and get back to the council with the results of their studies.

 

Sewer Upgrades

In the meantime, Moran successfully got the positions of three workers in his department upgraded Tuesday, in unanimous votes by the Town Board.

He and Edwards explained that in its rush to create the new position of deputy commissioner in the DEME several months ago, the Town Board neglected to include a provision within the job description that affirmatively asserts that one of the jobholder’s duties is to fill in and act on behalf of the commissioner when and if he is unavailable or unable to act. Like Commissioner Moran, the Deputy Commissioner is a Town Board appointee and is exempt from civil service rules and regulations. Rockland County’s civil service office, which bestows job titles to all county municipalities, picked up on the deficiency, Edwards explained, and requested the remedial board action to correct the oversight.

Moran also explained that the state Department of Environmental Conservation recently lowered the town sewer treatment plant’s status from a grade 4 facility to a grade 3, meaning the town’s Grade III Plant Operators need to be similarly reduced in rank to Grade II Operators. The two Grade III positions will be abolished by the county Oct. 19, Edwards said, noting that the town had two men pass the Grade III test who were about to be promoted to the higher positions that will no longer exist.

Neither is certified as a Class II Operator, Edwards and Moran added, but that can hopefully be overcome by appointing them to those positions on a provisional basis, and having them successfully pass the appropriate tests at some future date. The switch in positions, grade levels and duties will not affect the men’s pay, and thus will not affect the town’s budget for 2013, both officials said. At their request, the board voted unanimously to change the two job titles.

 

Youth Violence Grant

In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously approved authorizing Chief of Police Kevin Nulty to co-sign an application for a large federal grant that “addresses children and youth experiencing domestic and sexual violence and engages men and boys as allies.”

The grant and the program it funds will cost Orangetown nothing according to the lead applicant, Carolyn Fish, executive director of the Center For Safety and Change, Inc., formerly known as Rockland Family Shelter.

“The immediate and critical goal of the Youth Violence Intervention and Prevention Project Collaboration, or Youth VIP, will be to develop and implement a comprehensive initiative addressing prevention, intervention, treatment and response to dating violence, sexual assault, domestic violence and bullying among Rockland County youth, ages13-18,” Fish explained. “The long-term goal…will be to continue the project as an ongoing and permanent feature of the Rockland County safety net for young victims of gender-based crimes.”

Fish further described the Youth VIP project as including victim services for youth exposed to violence, training for professionals to improve interventions and responses, coordinated school-based and community-based strategies, supportive services for non-offending parents through school PTAs, coordinated community responses to violence targeting youth ages 13-18 and engaging men and boys as part of the solution.

The project “will have an outreach and education component involving a public education campaign addressing dating violence, sexual assault, domestic violence and bullying prevention strategies that focus on engaging men and boys as allies and influencers to end violence against youth,” Fish added.

 

Three-Year Grant

The first year of the three-year grant will be devoted to providing the described services to the six member agencies and their clients, while in the second and third years some of the services will also be expanded to include other schools and youth-serving agencies throughout Rockland County, and possibly beyond to surrounding counties.

The two governmental agencies participating in the project, Orangetown and the South Orangetown School district, will receive no cash from the grant, but will share their knowledge, expertise and services with the other agencies. Since they will both receive training and services from the other agencies, there should be no cost outlay to either the town or the school, Fish predicted.

Any money from the grant will go to the four non-profit agencies, which are all hard-pressed for cash and staffing. The only personnel to be hired under the grant is expected to be a youth educator who will be hired by CSC to coordinate the entire project.

The non-profit agency has a 33-year history of operating a shelter and extensive services and programs for victims of domestic violence in Rockland. To secure the grant from the Office of Violence Against Women of the United States Department of Justice, CSC has partnered with the Orangetown Police Department, the South Orangetown Central School District and three other non-profit agencies to jointly run the program, aimed at 13-18-year-old middle and high school students and their families. The other agencies are CANDLE, the Community Awareness Network for a Drug-Free Life and Environment; VCS, formerly Volunteer Counseling Services; and the Haverstraw Center.

 

CSC Agency

CSC is the lead agency, Fish and Nulty said, and the bulk of the money from the grant will go to the four non-profit agencies which will supply the training and the personnel to run the program for a three-year period. The town and the school district will also provide personnel on a shared basis, but will also receive the benefit of the services provided, but will not receive any direct cash from the grant.

Nulty said he fully and enthusiastically supports the program, and is eagerly looking forward to having his officers take the specialized training that will be provided, and to start working with troubled teems in the township. He already has one officer who has volunteered to participate, and foresees other officers acting as future trainers once they have completed the training themselves.

His officers come into frequent contact with troubled teens, the chief explained, and this program will better enable them to know how to react and what types of services they can offer, or refer the teens to for assistance.

Fish said CSC, operating since 1979 as RFS, has served more than 35,000 survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other violent crimes. Its programs include a 24-hour crisis hotline, an emergency residential shelter for battered women and their children, non-residential services at several walk-in offices, transitional housing support, sexual trauma services, services for children of domestic violence and sexual assault, a domestic violence law project, professional forensic examinations for sexual assault victims, a “Safe Moms/Safe Kids” collaboration with Rockland County’s Child Protective Services, community outreach, education and prevention programs; law enforcement and workplace domestic violence trainings, a crime victims assistance collaboration with the Rockland County District Attorney’s office, a collaboration with several other non-profit agencies assisting victims of felony domestic violence, sexual assault; child, elder and disabled abuse and multi-layered teen dating violence prevention programs.

 

CANDLE

CANDLE was specifically included in the grant coalition, Fish explained, because it is the only agency in Rockland County dealing specifically with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth through its TRUST division. Besides providing expert training in LGBT issues, the agency also runs support services and programs for LGBT youth on a countywide basis and in all county high schools, and is a leading local expert and leader in recent anti-bullying efforts.

The Haverstraw Center was chosen as a partner agency because it is a community-based, youth-focused program serving a predominantly Latina/Latino youth population where more than 67% of the total village population is Hispanic. It is also a leading member of the Haverstraw Collaborative, a 50-agency member organization dedicated to serving a historically underserved youth population.

 

Orangetown Police

Fish said the Orangetown Police Department’s role in the collaborative project will be to “provide prevention, identification and referral services for youth, ages 13-18, within the department’s jurisdiction (all of Orangetown except South Nyack, Grand View and Piermont, which have their own police departments) who are victims of dating violence, sexual assault, domestic violence and/or bullying, referring these victims to CSC for intervention and treatment services, as appropriate. The OPD will also administer or assist with training, outreach and education activities identified in our application as they apply to young people residing in small towns, villages and hamlets who may come in contact with local law enforcement officials.”