New York State recently enacted a law authorizing local municipalities to adopt tax exemptions for firefighters. Chapter 670, passed in 2022, authorizes towns and villages to allow firefighters to deduct ten percent of the value of their residences from local property taxes. The property on which the exemption is based must be the firefighter’s primary residence.
In adopting the exemptions at its regular meeting on Wednesday, January 18, the Town law states that “The Town of Saugerties finds that volunteer firefighters provide critical lifesaving and protection of property services to our community and that the Town of Saugerties has greatly benefited from the services that they provide. In providing these individuals with the partial tax exemption from real property taxes provided for by Chapter 670 of the laws of 2022, it is hoped that the brave and selfless acts these volunteers perform on a daily basis are acknowledged.”
Members of the Town Board have worked closely with fire departments in the Town, “and we’ve all been through emergencies together,” said supervisor Fred Costello. “We are certainly fortunate. When I go to other communities and listen to the challenges that they face with emergency services, I am very grateful for our volunteer corps. I believe it’s at least 200 strong across all the fire districts.”
Randy Ricks, a 42-year member of the Centerville Fire District, said that he had served as assistant chief for 13 years and as chief for 12 years, as well as having served on the Board of Fire Commissioners. The big issue facing volunteer fire companies is recruitment and retention, Ricks said. He explained the training and work requirements firefighters must meet. His company has 67 active members between the ages of 16 and 85. Last year, firefighters put in 13,685 hours at fire scenes, with 65 members responding to calls, plus additional training, fundraising and meetings. “When you add in the other four fire districts and the Village, you can see there’s a lot of volunteer effort that goes into it, and we appreciate the working relationship we have with the Town.” Ricks noted that councilman Mike Ivino has been a firefighter since he was 16 and is now a deputy chief, “so he is well versed on what we put into it.”
Michelle Munson praised the state law signed by governor Kathy Hochul, and noted that the law allows benefits to be extended to the widows of firefighters after their deaths. “Would the board consider adopting this option and any other options that might improve and extend this benefit?” Costello said that he believes the Town will do this.
Councilwoman Peg Nau said that the benefit is long overdue, and she hopes that it will provide an incentive for young people who want to stay in the area to join their local fire departments. “I’m glad that the state finally came to its infinite wisdom and passed this.”
Councilman Ivino pointed out that some volunteer firefighters serving in the Town of Saugerties don’t live in the Town, and that some Saugerties residents serve in departments that are just outside the Town’s borders. He also suggested that if part of a qualifying firefighter’s property is used for business purposes, “At a minimum, the entire property should qualify, regardless of what you do with your property at that time. The percentage could also be a little higher, and I believe there are already some precedents set for that.”
Saugerties resident challenges cable contract terms
Only one speaker addressed the Saugerties Town Board at a public hearing on the Town’s cable franchise agreement with Spectrum Northeast/Charter Communications. The five-year agreement sets the fees, operations and service that the company provides and the charges that it can levy. At the meeting on Wednesday, January 18, Mary O’Donnell asked a number of questions about the agreement.
First, she asked for a definition of gross revenue, as used in the agreement: “The gross revenue that the company will use [on which] to base the franchise fee. The part I am questioning is the exemptions. Under this contract, revenues that go to the cable company, such as the franchise fee, state tax, federal tax — they are exempt in counting gross total revenue. I would ask the board to think about that, particularly because the concern is here, how much revenue is the Town losing because of these exemptions? I notice on my bill it’s almost $10 a month.” Over the course of a year, multiplied by the number of subscribers, that’s a lot of money, she said.
The second question O’Donnell raised was the percentage of the cable company’s payment to the Town. The agreement calls for the Town to receive three percent of the gross revenues; but O’Donnell pointed out that under the current law, the Town is entitled to receive five percent of gross. “The Town is saying, ‘No, we’re just asking for three percent.’ Once again, how much revenue is the Town losing with the cable company?”
O’Donnell’s third point was that the Town is permitted to have administrative fees included in the payment the Town can receive, but these are not included in the franchise fee. While she does not know how much money this is, the Town is entitled to it, O’Donnell said.
A section of the agreement reads that “If there is a change in the state law or the federal law, that the agreement the Town is going to enter into would cease to exist, even if the law allows the agreement to be continued until the expiration date. What’s the ramification of that?”
Finally, O’Donnell wanted to know if the agreement states that any area of Saugerties that is not served by cable will be served in the future. “In the past it’s been an issue: There have been areas of Saugerties where people could not get cable access.”
The company has pledged to continue its buildout in Saugerties, supervisor Fred Costello said. The reason for the agreement to allow the company to pay three percent, rather than five percent, is that in the past, when the Town has asked for a higher fee, the cable company increases the bills by that amount, he explained.
O’Donnell said that, while she understands the board’s concern for less affluent subscribers, “I would suggest that it is not the responsibility of the Town to limit what the subscribers pay. That is the job of the cable company.” She argued that the Town Board’s responsibility is to gain as much revenue as possible for the Town, while setting rates is the prerogative of the cable company.
“One of the things we learned from the pandemic is the need for reliable broadband access,” Costello said. “ Fiber to the home is currently considered the best technology for that. We have two companies that we’re working closely with, Fiber Link and Archtop, in addition to Spectrum/Charter Communications.” The supervisor said that he could see a future when residents would have three cable providers to choose from, but he cautioned that only Charter could also offer phone and Internet service; customers would either have to drop their landline phones or find another supplier.
Saugerties Town Hall, Police HQ upgrade to LED lights
The Saugerties Town Board voted at the board’s January 18 meeting to dispose of 313 light fixtures from the Town Hall and police headquarters, which were replaced by high-energy-efficient LED lights obtained through a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). The replacement came at the recommendation of the Parks and Building superintendent Greg Chorvas.
“One of the things that has helped us manage costs over the years has been the Parks and Building Department’s dedication to replacing existing fixtures that are reaching the end of their life with energy-efficient alternatives,” Saugerties supervisor Fred Costello said. “The LEDs will do this, and their longevity seems to be significantly better than traditional incandescent and in many cases fluorescent. I think there will be not only an energy saving, but also a maintenance saving with this project.”
$1.24M pricetag to replace Kiwanis Ice Arena chiller
The chiller in the Kiwanis Ice Arena in Saugerties is wearing out, and the Town Board and Parks and Recreation/Buildings and Grounds superintendent Greg Chorvas have been discussing its replacement with a more efficient unit that will, in the long run, save money.
At its regular meeting on January 18, the Town Board voted to accept a bid of $1,256,407.92 from Davis Mechanical of East Syracuse for a new Climate Smart air-cooled chiller. The unit was recommended by engineer Richard Praetorius, CPA Gary Newkirk and Chorvas, according to the board agenda.
The bid “would appear to be an extraordinarily high number,” said supervisor Fred Costello. “To give it a little bit of perspective, this chiller is one of the most advanced and efficient designs available. It will do two significant things to bring savings to the ice rink’s operation: One, it will use less electricity, and two, it will entirely eliminate the need to purify water.” These savings will help offset the cost of the new chiller, Costello argued, adding, “We have a plan in place that will enable us to pay this off within five years.” The cost will also be partially offset by a $500,000 grant from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, he added, and the project will probably take as much as a year.
The upgrade follows improvements that have recently been made at the rink, including a new Zamboni and a roof replacement. “The rink is doing well,” the supervisor said. Following approval of the purchase, the board voted to authorize the borrowing of $1,200,000 to pay for the project, which will be partially reimbursed by the Climate Smart Communities grant.
Public hearing set on Route 212 eyesore cleanup
The Saugerties Town Board voted at its regular meeting on Wednesday, January 8 to schedule a public hearing at 6 p.m. on February 8 to consider the removal of structures, vermin, nuisance, hazard, debris and unregistered vehicles at 309, 311 and 331 Route 212 by the Town of Saugerties or its designer, with the cost to be assessed against the property. Supervisor Fred Costello said that the Town has been working to clear up the debris at the property.
“The Town adopted a property maintenance law last year, and now it’s coming into play. Our efforts here are to motivate the ownership to make the cleanup and improvements to the property that are impacting the neighbors. We’re going to hold a public hearing and hopefully garner a response from the ownership. If we do not, the Town will reserve the right to go in and make those improvements ourselves. That will be a last resort, but these legacy problems are, in many cases, eight or nine years old. They haven’t been resolved through the courts, and there hasn’t been meaningful progress,” Costello explained.
He said that he hopes the owner will come forward and work with the Town, but if he doesn’t, the Town will have the property cleaned up and add the bill to the owner’s tax bill.