By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Filling vacancies and replacing equipment were again topics of discussion at Thursday’s raft of County Legislature committee meetings.
Major upgrade plan
The Capital Planning Committee ruminated on a variety of items for 2013, including a projected $400,000 replacement of the Adult Care Center’s roof in Liberty.
But the big-ticket item was Public Safety’s $10 million plan to bring the 30-year-old emergency services communication infrastructure into the 21st century.
Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic and County Manager David Fanslau told legislators money will have to start being put aside for the county’s $7.5 million share of that effort, which will require a property tax increase.
What taxpayers will get for their money, said Martinkovic, is a vastly updated and improved emergency response system, with new and replaced radio towers, digital technology and the ability to more efficiently and safely coordinate police, EMS workers, public works employees and firefighters.
It’s not the most expensive, top-shelf system the county could purchase, but Martinkovic said many local fire departments and ambulance corps have already bought or set aside funds for the newer digital radios required to utilize the coming system.
And the new county-owned towers could be profitably leased by cellphone companies interested in expanding service.
Still, advised County Treasurer Ira Cohen, it’s a major expenditure for the county.
“If you do this,” he predicted, “you’re not going to be able to do a lot of other things.”
Martinkovic indicated the county basically has no choice.
“We’re using piece parts that you can’t even get on the Internet,” he told legislators. “There’s never a good time to ask for money ... but the equipment we have out there? It’s a kiss and a promise.”
Vacancies to be filled
In two informal votes, a slim majority of legislators agreed to fill three recently vacated positions in Community Services and the Sheriff’s Office.
Via two 5-4 “consensus” votes, Community Services will be able to replace a $22,457-a-year database clerk and $45,389-a-year staff social worker, while the Sheriff’s Office will replace a $51,172-a-year deputy.
All three positions’ costs will be at least $20,000 more apiece, however, when benefits expenses are factored in.
Informally voting for the replacements were legislators Scott Samuelson, Gene Benson, Jonathan Rouis, Ira Steingart and Alan Sorensen. Voting against were Kathy LaBuda, Cora Edwards, Cindy Gieger and Kitty Vetter.
Vetter in particular said she would continue to vote against filling vacancies until the strategic plan is complete and she can gain a comprehensive view of the county’s labor needs.
That elicited a strong response from Community Services Director Joe Todora.
“My support staff are becoming ill because they’re so stressed at this point,” he said. “[These positions are] critically important for us.”
After an executive session, however, the legislators took no action on a similar request from District Attorney Jim Farrell to replace an assistant DA at $60,088 a year (plus benefits).
That position, though, doesn’t become vacant until the end of September, and legislators indicated they would discuss it again this week.
DA’s salary increasing
Though the increase is mandated by state law, some legislators still voted against hiking DA Farrell’s salary to match a recently-enacted increase in county court judges’ income.
Earlier this year, the State Legislature approved upping county court judges’ salaries which haven’t increased in 14 years by 27 percent over three years.
As a result, their salaries are now at $148,700 and will hit $161,700 by 2014.
District attorneys’ salaries are required by law to match judges’ pay, though for some reason county legislators are still able to vote on the matter.
Farrell told legislators on Thursday that the state was persuaded to cover the $21,700 difference between his old salary and his new one, but that only is good through 2013 after which there’s no guarantee the state will still pay.
“This may be another one of them [unfunded state mandates] in 2013,” Farrell acknowledged.
Legislator Vetter found the timing and amount of the judges’ raises “absolutely objectionable,” but Legislator Benson pointed out that, if spread out over the 14 years they went without a raise, the increases would amount to less than two percent a year.
“We’re not in the gravy train right now,” Vetter replied.
She wondered what might happen if the County Legislature voted down the DA’s raise.
While that possibility was not explored, both Vetter and Gieger ended up voting against the resolution, which passed anyway.
Legislator Sorensen introduced an anti-nepotism resolution at the Government Services Committee meeting Thursday, which he chairs.
As he drafted it, the resolution stipulates that no relative of any county official in leadership (elected, appointed or hired) can obtain employment in county government or a contracted agency which receives county funds.
Relatives would include not just immediate family but nieces/nephews, in-laws and first/second cousins.
There would be three exceptions: if the relative is already employed by the county, if the employee becomes a relative of a county leader during the course of employment, or if the county can’t find a better job applicant.
Sorensen said he based his resolution on nepotism issues making the news in Orange County.
“I thought it would be prudent to have a policy,” he explained, “[to ensure hiring] is done in an objective and fair manner.”
Several legislators said the county attorney should first review it, as their own feelings were split.
“I agree with it,” remarked Gieger. “I think it makes sense.”
“Half of the townships in this county wouldn’t have highway departments if they couldn’t hire relatives,” disagreed Benson.
Turns out, however, that Human Resources Director Lynda Levine has been working on an updated personnel policy that includes an anti-nepotism section, so Sorensen and his colleagues agreed to have her and the county attorney look into the matter further.
County misses DPW commish
With Division of Public Works (DPW) Commissioner Bob Meyer out on leave due to injuries sustained in a motorcycle collision with a deer, Deputy Commissioner Ed McAndrew was unanimously named the county’s deputy superintendent of highways, in order to ensure a smooth transition.
Meyer is recovering in a skilled nursing facility in Pennsylvania but is expected to come back on the job. Officials simply aren’t sure when.
“I just know it’s going to be lengthy,” confirmed Fanslau, who called Meyer “a tremendous asset to the county” and an experienced engineer. “We’re looking forward to his return.”
“He’s a valued member of the family,” affirmed Samuelson, the Legislature’s chairman.
He urged Meyer to focus on his recovery and know that an entire county sends good wishes to him.
“He’s certainly in our prayers every day,” added LaBuda, who chairs the Public Works Committee. “He’s got a great team who will be able to carry on in his absence.”