Saugerties residents decry budget increases for police, ambulances in packed meeting

A packed house of residents decried Saugerties Town officials’ proposed plan to override the state’s two percent tax cap at a recent public hearing regarding the Town’s 2022 budget and the tax cap override.

Town officials brought forth an eight percent spending increase that they say is necessary to add a third ambulance and crew for the not-for-profit Diaz Ambulance which contracts to provide ambulance services in Saugerties.

Town Supervisor Fred Costello said that’d cost $540,000 and that equals 5.5 percent of the eight percent. The meeting lasted nearly three hours and was dominated by the public comment period.

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Diaz has seen a crushing increase in calls and the Town is facing a diminishing service that’s forcing them to lean more heavily on volunteer fire companies answering “third-out” calls.

And because volunteer firefighters can only provide basic aid and can’t transport, that puts patients at risk, Costello said.

The increase would also allow them to significantly increase pay for paramedics who are making $15, $16, $17 less than other jobs that are offering signing bonuses and sometimes less than area fast-food restaurants.

“These are people who are there when someone is really injured and their life is in jeopardy,” the supervisor said and added that the eight percent increase is down from the original draft 2022 budget that proposed an approximately 9.98 tax increase for property owners in the Village and approximately a 7.28 percent jump for property owners in the Town.

Under that plan, first presented to residents during a workshop the week before the meeting, the average tax bill for a property assessed at the average assessment of $235,829 would have risen to $1,148,49 from $1,044.27 in 2021 for a Village resident. In the Town, the average tax bill, also assuming the $235,829 average assessment, would’ve increased to $1,649,09 from $1,537.23 in 2021.

Costello said as Town officials continue to finalize the budget, they will work to find more places where they can reduce the tax increases. But this did little to win the support of the residents on hand who railed against the increase.

Kelly Myers said he could understand the request Diaz Ambulance is making. “It’s very important to pay our first responders a fair wage,” she said. “They shouldn’t make less than kids working in unskilled fast-food workers.” But she asserted she’s not supportive of additional expenses beyond the ambulance services tacked onto the budget. “It’s a tough year, it’s a tough time to ask for more,” she said.

She said the board should be looking for cuts in the part of the budget officials can control.

When she inquired about how Diaz meets its budget, Costello said they only bill insurance companies when the call results in a transport.

Bob Lipmann said he felt Town officials were using the ambulance to “cover up a whole lot of crap” and he had a laundry list of questions for Town officials including the Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex and Kiwanis Area.

He said while he feels the ambulance is needed, he questioned the proposed Town police budget which includes an $11,618 raise for Town Police Chief Joseph Sinagra that increases his salary from $107,932 to $119,559.

“This should not be the opportunity to raise salaries for the police chief,” he said. “If he wants to make more, he should move on.”

Seniors can’t afford these kinds of property tax increases, he said.

Ken Swart, a retired police officer also questioned the requested 2022 police budget that totals $2,876,959.

The department has six sergeants, four detectives and 21 police cars,” he said. “There are two dogs, one that does building searches and handles unruly crowds,” he said. “One dog is explosive only.”

As for Diaz, he said they’re really needed, but the Town should work to not exceed the two-percent tax cap and look to state and federal funding to help offset the cost of the additional ambulance and crew.

He said the Town should also contact the state and see how they could turn the police over to the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and town-maintained highways over to the county. “They can also take advantage of the booming assessments,” he said.

Another speaker suggested reducing the third Diaz crew to eight hours a day from the proposed 12 hours and dialing back the raises for Diaz crews a bit.

Brian Donaghue, a local business owner demanded that the Town Board go back to the drawing board with the proposed budget. “This is another nail in the coffin for people and businesses,” he said.

Donaghue questioned why if the ambulance service, which presently has two ambulances staffed 24-7 and has a budget of $750,000, needs $600,000 to add one more unit. He also questioned if the HITS horse shows were taxing the ambulance services.

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Costello asserted that’s not the case and those needing transport in Saugerties get priority over the horse show.

In response to several comments about the request for a third ambulance, Town Board member Mike Ivino reiterated his support the ambulance service and he said the “third-out” calls represent an extreme danger for residents, pointing to a recent call that could’ve gone either way, depending on response times.

“That guy could’ve died if we had to wait for Mobile Life,” Ivino said, referring to the Town of Ulster-based private ambulance service that services Ulster and the City of Kingston and along with Woodstock’s ambulance responses to third-out calls.

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