Town of Leicester stops plowing for village
With heavy snow in the forecast Tuesday afternoon, Leicester Mayor Wendy Garagozza was looking into hiring a private contractor to plow the streets of the Village of Leicester which, until now, have always been taken care of by the Town of Leicester.
Less than 24 hours earlier at a meeting of the village board, four members of the Leicester town board presented the village with an ultimatum: Sign a contract whereby the town would supply snow removal service to the village at a new, higher per hour labor rate — or face suspension of town services.
When the village board balked at the proposal, members were informed that all town highway department services to the village were suspended, effective immediately.
“I and the board of trustees are responsible for the village,” Garagozza said. “If it is necessary, we will pay a contractor to come out tonight and remove the snow from the village streets.”
Garagozza noted that the state-owned major highways within the village will probably be plowed by the town, because the town receives separate compensation from the state for their maintenance. However village streets will be receiving no maintenance from town plows when the snow or freezing rain comes.
“What do village residents get from paying town taxes?” asked Garagozza.
Hourly labor rates at heart of disagreement
The scene at the Monday village board meeting climaxed a two-year period of unsuccessful negotiations between Leicester town and village.
“We are trying to get this intermunicipal agreement in place,” stated Leicester Town Supervisor Lisa Semmel. “We are working on it two years now and we are massively butting heads.”
The most recent contract by which the village secured services from the town is dated 1970. The $15 per hour labor compensation has remained unchanged for 43 years. While the village pays for materials needed for its projects, the town has continued to bill nothing above $15 per hour, and adds nothing for the use of the town equipment.
An issue of contention in the new contract has been the discretionary power to be ceded to the Town of Leicester highway superintendent in determining when and how often to send out snow plows. But before the village board agrees to the new, higher labor cost of $31.86 per man-hour, it feels it needs some veto power over the highway superintendent’s absolute authority.
However, Semmel has stated unequivocally, “We are not willing to grant authority over the highway department to the village.”
“When you hire a contractor, you don’t just pay that person’s salary. You have to pay for their benefits and the overhead,” Semmel pointed out. Semmel noted that the Town of Leicester paid just $9,500 for its employee benefits in 1970, but projects paying $246,000 in 2013.
The ongoing negotiations have consumed hours of town board members’ time and have resulted in substantial attorney costs, Semmel said.
Town councilmembers Terrence Grant, Gerald Hull, Karen Roffe and Dave Fanaro were at the Monday meeting of the Leicester village board, attended by Mayor Wendy Garagozzo and trustees Michael Constantino and Tom Frantz.
When the councilmembers’ request that the village take immediate action and sign the proposed municipal agreement covering snow removal, leaf and brush pickup, and other services rendered by the town highway department was rejected by the mayor and trustees, a previously adopted unanimous resolution of the town board went into effect: All work for the village is stopped until the contract is signed.
As a technical legal point, Semmel advised, the town is not supposed to be supplying any services to the village in the absence of a written agreement which under state law needs renewal at five year or shorter intervals.
Semmel defends the town’s drastic action, pointing out the village’s refusal to sign the contract at both its January and February meetings and the village’s failure to pay bills presented for work done by the town.
The village reportedly does pay for the salt applied to its highways and, for a brief period in 2012, did pay a $30 labor rate, but then reverted back to the old $15 rate.
Speculating on the politics of the situation, in a statement to The County News written with Councilman Terrence Grant, Supervisor Semmel stated, “It has become the opinion of many that the village mayor has been prolonging any agreement with the town in an effort to delay things until the fall election when she (has) hopes of replacing three current town board members — Jerry Hull, Terrence Grant and Dave Fenaro — with people sympathetic to her cause, in an effort to continue to receive free or reduced labor from the town taxpayers.”
Village contract concerns
“The village was not happy with the contract the way it was written,” Mayor Garagozza said.
She and Supervisor Semmel had met about two weeks ago, at which time she submitted suggestions for changes proposed by the village. The village disagrees with the explicit sole discretion which the contract gives to the town highway superintendent.
The village thinks the clause is unnecessary when, “we have never had a problem in the past,” Garagozza qualified. “We’ve never overstepped our bounds in telling the highway superintendent what to do. We’ve always worked together.”
Historically, the old contract did not initially call for labor reimbursement — only for material expenses in a bill submitted at the end of the year. Noting that every village taxpayer is also a town taxpayer, Garagozza suggests that this old arrangement was simple and cheated no one.
Furthermore, Garagozza pointed out that neither village board members or the village attorney had time to go over the ultimatum contract as it was presented Monday night — at a meeting where two of the five board members were not present.
“There were concerns,” the mayor said, taking note of the five-page contract written in legal language not instantly comprehensible by the board.
She said the town had mailed copies of the contract to village board members’ homes. The contracts were received Saturday, but left no time for the village’s lawyer to review them.
“This has taken two years because we have not gotten the information we have asked for,” Garagozza added, qualifying, “I’m not putting this all on them, but when you sit down to a meeting, you don’t always have all the information needed.”
“It’s sad,” Garagozza reflected. “We’ve gotten together so well for so long, and now this has happened.”