CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — A proposal by the town supervisor to consolidate two departments was stymied last week when three members of the Town Board questioned its necessity and the effects it might have on town employees.
The verbal exchange between board members Amy Standaert, James Whalen, and Lynda Walowit and Supervisor Philip Barrett at the Board’s Oct. 19 meeting was an unusual sight for this normally composed and unified board.
With continued shortfalls in the revenue being produced by the town Transfer Station and the looming retirement of a longtime department employee, Barrett unveiled a plan to consolidate the Transfer Station into the town’s Building and Grounds Department.
In his presentation of the proposed changes, Barrett reminded the board of the ways the town has worked over the years to lessen its subsidy of the Transfer Station.
Noting his operational philosophy of seeking ways to reduce costs, streamline operations, remove silos between departments, and invest in equipment, Barrett said going forward with the reconfiguration was a way to accomplish three of the four items.
His presentation included specifics like eliminating the Transfer Station permit system in 2021-2022 and switching to a household garbage bag purchase system, closing the Transfer Station on Wednesdays, redeploying its employees on that day to Buildings and Grounds, and enhancing the pay of three town supervisory staff for handling the increased responsibilities.
When the floor was opened to comments from the Town Board it became obvious almost immediately that none of the other four Board members had received word of the proposed changes prior to a 5:30 p.m. email. Questions from Standaert, Whalen, and Walowit followed and the heat in the room rose exponentially as they continued.
“You want to combine two departments and put more work on Mr. Clemens (Buildings and Grounds Supervisor) and Mr. Lynch (proposed Maintenance and Recreation Supervisor),” Standaert asked.
“Yes, the employees and the union are for it. I find if you give more work to someone who’s busy, nine times out of 10 they will not dispute you,” Barrett said.
As the discussion continued Standaert and Whalen questioned the financial computations surrounding the savings from the $97,000 a year salary with the retirement and the proposed $5,000 per year increases for the three affected employees.
“I don’t think eliminating a position and asking our employees to take on more responsibility, knowing how busy they already are; that concerns me a lot,” Standaert said.
In response, Barrett noted he was around town hall all the time, had his ear to the ground, and was aware of what’s going on, and didn’t think the changes coming with more responsibilities were too much.
“I don’t see where people are maxed out with work,” he said. “This is a great place to work with great benefits. We have no trouble filling openings.”
“I have my ear to the ground too,” Standaert said, “and they [are] struggling. I’ve been here on the Board eight years and I see vacant positions eliminated rather than filled and the work is put into other departments. They are busy.”
Whalen agreed with Standaert and noted that the finances surrounding the reconfiguration didn’t seem reasonable.
“Taking a position that paid $97,000 and distributing responsibilities among three employees for the cost of $15,000 is unrealistic and unfair to those employees. It’s insufficient,” Whalen said.
“Walowit said she wanted to speak with the three employees and Whalen and Standaert agreed they did too.
When Barrett moved on from discussing the proposed departmental reconfiguration to changes that have been made to the preliminary budget since the tentative budget was presented, he found the other Board members just as stubborn there.
When he asked the Board to approve the preliminary budget minus the financial arrangements surrounding the proposed Transfer Station issue, the three councilmembers had more questions.
Focusing on the removal of a $200,000 budget line item expenditure for law enforcement and getting what he viewed as an insufficient answer to his question, Whalen said he believed Barrett’s answer had been “designed to be incendiary”.
“It’s not the way it’s been in the nine years I’ve been here,” he said.
The town has no police force. Instead, it has contracts for coverage with the New York State Police and the Saratoga Sheriff’s Department. The contracts total slightly more than $200,000 each.
In an email response clarifying the proposed $200,000 law enforcement line item change, Barrett said it relates to the town’s contract with the New York State Police.
“I have been working with them on a new Memorandum of Understanding,” he wrote. “As we discussed current operations and the future of our partnership, the new proposed MOU incorporates the results of our conversations.”
The town provides 5,500-square-feet of space for the NYSP at no charge.
No action was taken on the preliminary budget as presented.
Discussing the Board meeting events days later, Standaert said she and the other Town Board members had not been informed of the departmental reconfiguration plan beforehand and saw it the night of the meeting the same as the public. It bothered her that something so detailed, down to the price to be paid by residents for a household garbage bag, had not been communicated to all Board members.
“It was like we were part of the public rather than elected representatives,” she said.
Asked to clarify which law enforcement agency’s contract was being considered for elimination in the 2021 budget Standaert said she was unsure.
“The proposed reduction was a surprise to me,” she said. “If anything we wanted more money for that. Clifton Park wants to be safe and secure.”
Asked to comment on her feeling at the conclusion of the meeting Standaert said Barrett’s communication had always been stellar and she has no reason for what took place at the meeting.
“It felt like our input was not required; that’s not why we were elected,” she said. “Some of what we’re being asked to do require changes to the town code. I cannot vote for a budget I can’t understand.”
A public hearing on the 2021 preliminary budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 5 in town hall.