Lebanon Sets Budget Hearings, Challenges Assessor Appointment

Submitted by James Goldstein

(Town of Lebanon, NY – Oct. 2012) Propane problems at the Smith Valley Community Center in Randallsville had the town board relocate to the 1210 Bradley Brook Road town office Oct. 8 for their monthly meeting. Board members established the preliminary town budget for 2013 for the Town of Lebanon and set budget workshop and hearing dates.

The board also discussed actions to be taken regarding a disputed assessor appointment and concerns about the records and practices of Town Justice John Bartlett.

As of press time, a budget workshop was expected to be held Monday, Oct. 22. Supervisor Jim Goldstein submitted a tentative budget that was established as the preliminary town budget for 2013 that shows a very small increase in the town tax rate and has a proposed tax levy under the 2-percent tax cap established by the state Legislature last year.

Town officials are still waiting to hear from the Town of Eaton regarding ambulance and fire contracts and are unsure if Georgetown will be able to contract with the town for ambulance service in 2013, or the town will have to explore dividing that coverage area between Eaton and SOMAC, which covers the Hamilton and Earlville fire contract areas.

Lebanon officials also set Thursday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m. for the public hearing on the proposed 2013 town budget.

In other matters, town officials had requested Bartlett appear to explain current record filing practices and the small amount of revenue collected for 2012. Bartlett has collected $387 in town justice fines and fees to date for Lebanon, according to town budget records; more than $1,800 was collected in 2011.

Goldstein discussed his conversations about Bartlett with the Office of the State Comptroller, which oversees his financial records. A risk assessment audit has been scheduled, but the OSC is backlogged. Town Attorney Steven Jones reported on his conversations with the Office of Court Administration on the matter.

While Bartlett had been requested by letter to attend the meeting, he was not in attendance, and there have been no phone calls or other communication between his office and the Town Board or Town Attorney since these concerns came to light. Town officials asked Jones to draft a letter that would go to the OSC and the OCA formally requesting audits of financial records as well as a review of the operations of the office to determine how Bartlett is processing cases and reaching dispositions, as well as collecting fines.

Town officials also discussed the appointment by the towns of Eaton and Georgetown of Brian M. Fitts to the position of assessor for the three town Coordinated Assessment Program without Lebanon approval or consent. Jones provided the town board with copies of the local law drafted and adopted by all three towns in 1995 when the CAP was formed that makes it a requirement that any appointed assessor must be agreed upon by the majority of all three town boards.

Lebanon board members objected to the decision by Eaton Supervisor Priscilla Suits, who told Goldstein Aug. 14 at a Madison County Board of Supervisors meeting that Assessor David Gray had announced his retirement effective Sept. 30 and that her town board would be appointing Fitts Tuesday, Sept. 11.

According to Goldstein, Suits said Lebanon was invited to attend but that there would no canvassing for candidates, no interviews and that the decision had been made. Goldstein reported to his board that Suits said if they don’t like it, they can leave the CAP.

Town board members directed Goldstein Sept. 10 to explore the legal options for leaving the CAP, despite the additional potential costs of hiring an assessor, purchasing a computer and software and housing the assessor in the Lebanon office or to pursue starting a new CAP with other towns.

Madison and Hamilton were approached but were not interested at this time, Goldstein reported Oct. 8. Jones advised the board he had contacted James Stokes, attorney for Eaton and Georgetown, and advised him of the dispute. Town board members were specific that they wanted the position canvassed for, they wanted a process where they were included in the interview and selection process and that they did not agree with the process or the way the candidate was chosen.

Fitts is currently in the position but, according to the local law adopted by all three towns in 1995, his appointment requires the approval of the majority of each town board of each town. In addition, the local law makes it clear that should the appointed assessor for the CAP resign or otherwise be unable to remain in office, the parties agree that a single individual shall be appointed as assessor in all participating assessment units within 60 days of such resignation or removal.

In such event, the parties agree to “jointly conduct interviews of persons seeking the office of assessor.”

Lebanon officials say this was not complied with.

Jones recommended that the town await the result of his discussions with Stokes prior to deciding to leave the CAP. If the town chooses to leave the CAP, by law, they must do so by Jan. 15 and have their own assessor in place at that time.

Draft Road Use Law

Jones also reviewed the first draft of a proposed road use law with the town board and Highway Superintendent Alex Hodge to discuss the language and challenges. Town officials agreed to do more research on the traditional weights of milk trucks, water trucks and other heavy vehicles in determining how best to draft a road use law that protects town roads, bridges and infrastructure without unduly burdening current local businesses.

In other business, town officials:

* Authorized installation of replacement windows in the Lebanon town offices at a price not to exceed $1,509.14 – the town will acquire the windows and highway employees will install them. The town hopes to improve energy efficiency and use of fuel heating oil as a result of this action.

* Agreed to a payment plan for a new 2012 state bid John Deere payloader over four years, which will cost the town with trade-in $87,120 on four installments of $21,780 each. The town explored five different payment options including paying cash or extending payment plans longer.

* Approved fund transfers to balance out accounts in the town justice computer maintenance account and to increase funds for highway road machinery repair parts that are over budget year-to-date.

* Placed a 2004 Fisher Plow in surplus equipment and put it out to bid for sale to the public at the Nov. 12 town board meeting.

* Discussed the decision by the state to delay issuing regulations and permits governing high-volume hydraulic fracturing of natural gas until after Election Day while a health impact assessment study is conducted by the governor and state agencies.

The town board meets again Monday, Nov. 12, for its regular monthly meeting. The public hearing on the budget will be held Nov. 8 at the Town Office, 1210 Bradley Brook Road in the hamlet.

James Goldstein is supervisor, town of Lebanon.

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