By REBECCA WEBSTER
Recorder News Staff
Amsterdam city officials are in the heat of budget review sessions, and with continued eyes on the living budget document, each official is zeroing in on their questions, concerns, and triumphs.
Earlier this week, the Common Council sat down with Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane, Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis, and Deputy Controller David Mitchell to continue going over the budget.
Tuesday's review session focused on the police and fire department portions of the budget.
First Ward Alderman Joseph Isabel, who chairs the council's public safety committee, said on Friday that their portion of the session seemed to really run smoothly.
"I feel that their budgets were very simple," he said. "(Fire Chief Richard) Liberti kept his budget very tight, and (Police Chief Gregory) Culick's was also very tight."
Isabel's biggest concern and question that evening, he said, was about the police vehicles. When Isabel first became alderman, police vehicles were getting replaced at a rate of two per year, he said, but the department hasn't gotten any in the past couple years.
"Now, we're trying to do it as a capital project."
Though not related to the public safety portion of the budget, Isabel said he was also positively drawn toward the raise for Recreation Director Robert Spagnola, something that had been briefly mentioned by Thane toward the end of the meeting.
"I think Robby does deserve to be brought up to an area where he's equal to some of his other department heads," Isabel said.
According to the living budget document, Spagnola's salary is proposed to increase to $51,500 for the coming year.
Thane said on Thursday that a raise for Spagnola was more than warranted, as one of the tasks he was given this year was maintenance of all the "dilapidated properties" throughout the city, which was not formerly a task handled by the recreation department.
On top of that, Thane said, the department took on both the Bacon Recreation Center and the Creative Connections Arts Center and all of the programming along with facilitating new partnerships for them. He additionally fostered a new relationship with Union College for use of Shuttleworth Park, she added.
"There's so much more that this recreation director does than has been done in the past and I think he should be compensated in a way that is commiserate with what these other department heads make because of the additional responsibilities that he takes on," she said.
Aside from the recreation department salary changes, Thane said she additionally has the sewer rates on her mind right now.
"The city did pay for the assessment to be done and we're waiting for the final surveying and report back," she said. "I do believe that yes, we will be making some changes, again to more fairly distribute the cost of infrastructure."
Last year at this time, council members were waiting on the results of a water rate study done by Engineer Jack McDonald.
When the 2012-13 budget was adopted, it resulted in changed water rates, rates that officials said at the time corrected disparities in the system.
Thane said this year the focus is on the sewer rate study, but every year officials assess where they want to be with the water rates.
"We are moving money from the increase in water to decreases in property taxes, and the changes in the sewer rates may also decrease the (rates). We're hoping that there's not a significant change from last year, but it's allowing us to still increase functionality and move the city forward."
Thane said however that they are still awaiting the study results, and setting those rates is a task often done on the last day of the budget process.
But the big topic of discussion this week was pension amortization, something Fourth Ward Alderman David Dybas called "a casino game."
Dybas spoke openly at Tuesday's budget review session about his distaste with the fact that pension amortization was automatically added to the budget document.
On Friday, he reiterated some of those concerns.
"It means they will allow a municipality to defer part of their expense associated with paying state pensions or municipal pensions for the current year," Dybas said. "Does there have to be a resolution by the council to allow the borrowing of that money?"
Dybas's questions continued, and he said that he is still waiting a reply from the New York state comptroller's office on all of them.
He called the idea " mortgaging the future."
"All we're doing is deferring a cost that should be paid by this generation of taxpayers and not be put on the back of future taxpayers," Dybas said.
Thane said on Thursday that she's anxious to hear what Mitchell has to say about amortization.
"It will be very difficult for the city in next year's budget to manage going forward without making huge cuts unless we stabilize this year, so that's something I'm looking at," she said.
Isabel also brought up the topic as one on the top of his mind right now.
"A lot of major companies use amortization over a few years," Isabel said. "These have been a tough few years for everyone. There's not a lot of economic growth to take the tax burden away from homeowners in the city. The state came up with the amortization plan which I feel that sometimes is necessary."
Dybas said this was just one of his concerns, another being the tax overlay.
"In this budget, I'm looking at a tax overlay of $645,000. Last year it was $200,000. Has anybody audited this to see if it's correct?" he posed.
Dybas said he doesn't mean to "dominate the conversation" at council meetings, but "I happen to take my oath of office seriously."
"These are major issues that will not only affect this budget, but will have unknown and possible far-reaching affects on next year's and the next year's budget."
Second Ward Alderwoman Valerie Beekman, 3rd Ward Alderwoman Gina DeRossi, and 5th Ward Alderman Richard Leggiero could not be reached for comment.