Sharing services? Yes. But highway department consolidation unlikely
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO/FORESTBURGH August 20, 2013 A standoff between Forestburgh Supervisor Bill Sipos and Highway Supt. Dan Hogue has spurred changes to the way highway departments interact.
The feud has particularly spilled over into the neighboring Town of Thompson, where Sipos has asked Thompson’s town board to consider consolidating Forestburgh and Thompson’s highway departments.
According to Sipos, Forestburgh highway workers recently aided Thompson in repairs on Adam Road, just over the town line in St. Josephs. He asked Thompson to either reimburse Forestburgh $1,492 for the use of its men or help its highway dept. repair Lena Road, which is adjacent to Adam but sits in Forestburgh.
But, as Sipos himself acknowledged, “with no shared services agreement, they don’t have to pay us.”
As a result, Thompson’s town attorney, Michael Mednick, and Highway Supt. Rich Benjamin had the town board this month approve a shared services intermunicipal agreement form to be used in such cases.
It’s a matter of protecting the town, said Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini, even though highway departments throughout the county (and neighboring counties) have shared personnel, equipment and supplies for decades.
Hogue said the form has been in the works for years and is now being distributed to the county’s other town boards through the Sullivan County Highway Superintendents Association, which he chairs.
He did acknowledge that the timing of that distribution has to do with Sipos’ demands with Thompson but said the agreement duplicating one in use by the NYS Dept. of Transportation basically formalizes a working arrangement that has been the norm for years.
“We’ve all been working hand-in-hand,” Hogue explained. “Most of us towns [individually] don’t have a lot of resources, but when you put us all together, we have a LOT of resources.”
Hogue claimed no town is ultimately shorted in the process, even though the shared work isn’t always precisely tracked.
“It all works out in the end,” he assessed. “I honestly don’t believe anyone is getting anything more than anyone else.”
Yet with the NYS Comptroller’s Office investigating Forestburgh and Thompson’s sharing of highway services for the past three years and the Orange County District Attorney’s office also involved (due to potential conflicts with the Sullivan County DA’s Office), Sipos feels there’s cause to worry about the liability, the cost and the fairness.
Indeed, Thompson Town Attorney Michael Mednick, in an email to the Thompson Town Board, said, “The only problem with the sharing of services is documentation and accountability. It is impossible to quantify the mutual benefits ... without an intermunicipal agreement between the towns for it.
“... The public has a right to have 100 percent accountability as to how the municipality spends taxpayers’ money, which includes all expenditures and employee’s salaries.”
Mixing departments, politics
But there’s more at play here than simply drawing up an agreement.
Sipos is engaged in a long-running power struggle with Hogue. Both are elected officials with a large degree of autonomy, and both are up for reelection this fall.
Sipos is the highest official in the Town of Forestburgh, but other than controlling the town budget’s lines for the highway dept. and certain large purchase requests, neither he nor the town board have direct authority over the highway department.
That authority falls to Hogue, and the two men have often feuded in public meetings about where, when and how to provide services.
“Being elected, they feel they’re basically anointed,” Sipos charged, frustrated with unanswered requests.
“He’s not the boss of the whole town,” Hogue shot back.
In a letter sent earlier this month to Cellini, Sipos suggested combining Forestburgh’s highway department with Thompson’s possibly even turning it into a Dept. of Public Works with an appointed leader answerable directly to the two town boards.
“Why not just consolidate the two and save the taxpayers money?” he told the Democrat last week.
Claiming there’s no accountability with Forestburgh’s highway dept., Sipos said “it’s time” for a consolidation.
“Highway dollars are the greatest portion of all our towns’ budgets,” he observed.
But he’s facing deep disagreement from the involved highway supts., from Cellini, maybe even from his own town board, with whom Sipos has yet to discuss the proposal.
Benjamin has already said he’s against such consolidation.
“This entire conversation is truly a waste of all our time,” he wrote in an email to the Thompson Town Board. “The demand for payment is purely politically and personally motivated and part of long-time embarrassing actions in Forestburgh that have now spilled over to Thompson in more ways than one. Let’s not for a minute believe any of these shenanigans are for the benefit of the taxpayer.”
Cellini’s willing to discuss it with his town board at tonight’s regular meeting (7:30 p.m. at the town hall in Monticello), but he’s skeptical himself.
“I’d like more information before I determine it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’” he remarked Wednesday. “If they think we’re going to be their hatchet body to get rid of their highway supt. ... I won’t be part of that.”
Hogue, who is Benjamin’s brother-in-law, paints Sipos’ request as less than altruistic.
“Honestly, it’s all politics,” he told the Democrat. “I don’t want to get involved with politics. I want to serve the people.”
Agreement being adopted
Where the legal or political issues are headed is uncertain, but it appears that in the future, Thompson and Forestburgh and probably the majority of Sullivan County’s 15 townships will share highway services via a more formal agreement than existed before.
It’s a move Benjamin supports but nevertheless laments.
“Sometimes you can’t legislate fairness or common sense,” he wrote in an email to the Thompson Town Board. “I always think that, many years ago, very smart men with common sense wrote the Highway Law, granting superintendents broad, independent responsibilities concerning the towns’ roads.
“Unfortunately, I have come to believe Superintendents of Highways are like dinosaurs, destined to become extinct in a time when common sense and fairness are a quaint reminder of days gone by. Civility is replaced by pettiness and quick judgement without fact for personal gain and fleeting self-gratification. Sad.”