BALLSTON SPA -- The Village Board is moving ahead with plans to spend about $1.5 million on new fire fighting vehicles, despite the village's financial struggles.
The board will conduct a special meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Eagle-Matt Lee firehouse on Washington Street to discuss and approve the purchases.
Mayor John P. Romano said the proposal, in keeping with a 10-year plan for fire department improvements, calls for the purchase of two new firetrucks and a new chief's vehicle. One truck each would be assigned to the Eagle-Matt Lee and Union fire stations; the two volunteer companies together function as the Ballston Spa Fire Department.
The new trucks would replace aging vehicles. The village would borrow the money to pay for them, Romano said, and because of increased funding from the towns of Milton and Ballston, and paying off of other fire department debt, he expects the purchases will have no impact on the village tax rate.
The village has a new multi-year fire protection contract with the town of Milton, which includes a funding increase. The total amount paid by residents in the part of Milton protected by the Ballston Spa Fire Department will increase from $185,000 this year to $296,000 in 2019, and will continue to increase in coming years.
Under a previously negotiated contract with the town of Ballston, the fire protect payment will rise from $149,000 this year to $160,000 next year.
The planned purchases come as the village grapples with a financial crisis that was highlighted by a critical state comptroller's audit in October, which found that required financial reports had not been submitted to the state in years.
Romano said he expects questions from residents about the truck purchases and village finances, and that's why the meeting was moved from Village Hall -- which has limited seating -- to the nearby firehouse.
"The whole idea is to move it to a bigger venue in case people have questions," Romano said.
Larry Woolbright, chairman of the citizen budget committee formed in the wake of the audit's release, said the firetruck purchases were already in the works when it was appointed, and the committee hasn't discussed them.
By the time the critical audit came out, Village Treasurer Chris Hickey had resigned, and the internal claims auditor has since left, as well. Romano said the village is continuing to search for a new treasurer, and two retired clerks are now helping the village stay on top of day-to-day bills and other financial needs.
The village is also preparing a required "corrective action plan" to submit to the comptroller's office in response to the audit.
"Our first priority is getting a treasurer, and then completing the annual financial report," Romano said.
The village’s financial situation has deteriorated in recent years. In the spring, the Village Board enacted a 17-percent property tax hike. It originally proposed a 26-percent increase but secured a $600,000 loan to cover expenses. The prior year, the village borrowed about $390,000 to cover operating expenses.
“Given the village’s weakening financial condition, it is even more important for the board to have useful financial information,” state auditors wrote. “However, even after repeated audits alerting the board to significant problems with the accounting records, the board has failed to resolve this problem.”
The village's response has included forming the citizen committee, which has already recommended the village change financial software to be compatible with the state's, and a freeze on some spending. The panel is also going to make recommendations for the 2019-20 village budget by the end of January.
The village has hired an outside auditing firm to review the village books, Romano noted.