JOHNSTOWN – The Common Council Wednesday night voted unanimously to authorize City Treasurer Mike Gifford to go to the municipal bond market to obtain up to $12.2 million for capital projects — the largest bond procurement in the history of the city.
The borrowing was reduced from what has been called a $13.7 million “wish list” from the city’s department heads presented to the council on July 19.
The lion’s share of the bonding is part of approximately $7.2 million worth of capital projects requested by the city’s independently-elected Water Board, and will be repaid by the city’s water customers and not through property taxes.
The most expensive city project included in the bond proposal is the $1.1 million Department of Public Works roof replacement. The second most expensive item was the $635,000 cost of replacing the Fire Department’s 1991 vintage frontline pumper truck.
The council met for the special meeting to discuss the municipal bonding at 7 p.m. Wednesday night and discussed each of the requested spending items with the city’s department heads: Police Chief David Gilbo; Fire Chief Bruce Heberer; City Engineer Christopher Vose; and Water Board President Mike Capparello.
The council went into a closed door executive session at approximately 8:35 p.m. to discuss the “procurement of securities” and appears to have hammered out the final cuts to the bond proposal during the executive session.
First Ward Councilman Bradley Hayner said City Attorney Michael Poulin had advised members of the Common Council prior to the meeting that “the procurement of securities” was sufficient reason to go into executive session.
Poulin did not attend the meeting, but Mayor Vern Jackson said he communicated with the attorney during the meeting via cellphone.
City Treasurer Mike Gifford also did not attend the meeting. Members of the council on July 19 said they tabled the initial bond proposal list in part because they had many questions of Gifford regarding how the process will work and about the financial health of the city.
Political newcomer Thomas D. Herr, winner of the June 22 Republican Party primary for city treasurer, attended Wednesday night’s meeting. Herr is the only candidate who will appear on the November ballot for city treasurer, and was referred to by Councilman-at-large Craig Talerico during the meeting as the city’s “next treasurer.”
Herr said one question he would like answered is how much money the city has in its fund balance reserve of unspent tax revenues.
Talerico and Jackson said the last they knew they had been advised by Gifford that the city’s financial position is strong, but admitted they don’t currently know how much the city has in reserves and Gifford has not updated the council on that issue in months.
Talerico provided an itemized list of the largest cuts made to the initial $13.7 million list of projects. Some of the list of eliminated items included different costs from the ones provided to The Daily Gazette by Gifford earlier this month.
These were projects cut from the bond proposal:
• HVAC indoor air system for City Hall — $775,000, higher than the $723,708 estimate provided by Gifford.
• Window replacement for City Hall — $215,000, slightly higher than $213,050 estimate provided by Gifford.
• 2 plow trucks — $110,000 in savings, less than the $396,145 in costs, which included body gear, listed in the project requests provided by Gifford.
• Mini Excavator with hammer and trailer — $89,469.
• 1- “Live Body” truck bed — $52,000.
• 1 heavy-duty pickup truck — $35,000.
• 1 2021 Dodge Durango pursuit vehicle — $55,000
• Water Department equipment — $13,000
Talerico said most of the savings came from eliminations to the capital projects to improve City Hall, and from the city DPW.
“It gets a little uncomfortable [in City Hall] and it would be nice to have new windows, but it’s a huge bite out of the taxpayer’s money for us to have to pay that back,” he said.
During the meeting, Fire Chief Bruce Heberer rejected the notion that his department’s $883,000 worth of capital projects constitute a “wish list.”
“Not to sound wise or disrespectful, but I didn’t get the ‘wish list’ memo,” he said. “Can I add stuff? I only put in necessities, but there are a lot of things we have to buy, but I only put in things we need immediately for operations. The pumper I’m asking [to replace] is 31 years old, but I have a 25-year-old one that is going to need to be replaced too. I have a 20-year-old breathing-air compressor that needs to be replaced in the next five years, and I didn’t put that in there either, so the things I’ve asked for are necessities.”
The item most questioned by council members during the meeting was a $200,000 second ambulance for the city Fire Department’s ambulance service.
Hayner said that although he supports the fire ambulance service he was not inclined to support the second ambulance because the council still lacks clarity on the financial status of the service.
Heberer said the ambulance services’ financial records are provided to Gifford and it is up to him to share the information with the council.
James McCredie, a Johnstown firefighter who also works as a paramedic for the ambulance service, spoke at the meeting and said federal law requires the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements paid to the ambulance service to placed in a designated account separate from the rest of the city’s finances. He turned the financial questions about the ambulance service back on the council.
“My question to the council is: Where is the money we’re bringing in?” McCredie asked. “where is it? Because it’s coming in. Where is it?”
“That is what we’re asking,” Hayner responded.
Jackson said he was recently told by Fulton County officials that the county was in the process of applying for a Certificate of Need for an ambulance service in the county that would be supported by a subsidy from the county, which he believes will result in some funding for Johnstown’s ambulance service. He said the city should also be getting approximately $800,000 in pandemic funding from New York state, some of which could be used to offset some of the capital purchases for public safety in the bond.
Hayner said he ultimately agreed to support the second ambulance as part of the bond because the rest of the council was in favor of it.