MEXICO — There’s an old saying, that when two people are arguing over something, almost anything, and one says, “It’s not the money,” it’s the money.
In the case of the town of Mexico versus the county of Oswego regarding the plowing of county roads within the town, Mexico seems to say it is the money, while it’s the county who seems to say it isn’t.
Here are four undisputed facts: The town of Mexico plowed the county’s roads within the town during the 2017-18 winter. The town submitted its bill to the county for doing so late. The county, therefore, refused to pay. Mexico thereupon sued the county for the $26,001 owed to them for plowing plus the expense of the lawsuit.
Legislator Stephen Walpole, vice-chairman of the Infrastructure, Facilities & Technology Committee, was instrumental in setting up a new way of paying towns for plowing county roads that year. Previously, towns billed for each time they plowed. Under the new system, called “cost-per-mile,” the towns are paid a set amount for the roads they plow regardless of how often they plow them. They receive $8,500 per year per mile of county roads plowed. So, for example, if there are two miles of county roads within a town, that town would be paid $17,000 a year for plowing those roads.
Part of the new system set a new bill submission deadline, and therein lies the seed of the problem.
“When we went to the cost per mile,” Walpole said in a recent interview, “we had to set certain guidelines and rules. And when we did that, I spoke to the entire legislature.” He said he told them, “when we make a set of rules, it’s not to change for anybody. If we’re willing to live with that, we can get this going in the right direction.” He said everyone agreed and “inevitably there was an issue” with two towns, Mexico and Minetto. The billing period was set at 30 days with no exceptions as decided by the committee. “It seems a little harsh, but we went with that way, especially off the get go, to run it tighter, and we can always revisit it down the road, and that’s what everyone agreed that they wanted to do,” Walpole continued. “We met with both towns. Town of Minetto understood it, it’s in black and white. They said in the future it won’t happen again, and with Mexico it didn’t go as smoothly. The bottom line is, on our end, we met and had an agreement that this was the way it was going to go, and then months later, that’s not exactly the way Mexico understood it. So, that’s when they filed the lawsuit.”
Afterwards, Walpole said he went to the committee and asked how they wanted to handle this.
“They said, ‘It’s kind of awkward doing business with somebody who’s suing you.’ So, until it’s resolved and there’s no longer a lawsuit, they agreed not to engage in a contract with them. We have our own highway department, and we can cover it. And that’s kind of where that’s at.”
The county highway department will therefore plow the county roads in Mexico again this winter. This is the second season they will do so. Mexico’s lawsuit against the county is still in court. County Court Judge James McCarthy first ruled against Mexico. That decision was reversed upon appeal, and now that reversal will be considered again by the higher state Supreme Court.
“By all means, I would just like to get it resolved and move on,” Walpole said. “I don’t understand why they didn’t just drop it. We FOILed the records, and they (Mexico) had more money involved in fighting it than they would get. And the worst part is, the taxpayers in that area are the ones who are paying the price. I think it was a poor decision on their part. It’s nothing personal. If they’d drop the suit, we’d go right back into contract with them.”
Town of Mexico Supervisor Dave Anderson says “that will never happen. We have to get paid. Here’s the bottom line on this whole thing. Prior to this occurring, the county would accept and pay the late submission of bills without question. During this time, with some towns, they accepted and paid the late submission of plow bills. Subsequent to our filing of the lawsuit, they have accepted and paid the late submission of plow bills to at least one town and possibly two towns. What they did is, they shorted three towns and refused to pay them. Those three towns were the three towns that have newly-elected highway superintendents, and for whatever reason, they decided not to pay them. The other towns settled for a fraction, and our position is it’s theft of services, and we expect to get paid.”
Anderson minces no words in decrying what he considers the unethical and disingenuous behavior of county officials in this matter.
“When this whole situation started,” Anderson said, “our former county legislator, Jack Proud, worked tirelessly to get this resolved. I have worked tirelessly to get this resolved. We were promised we were going to get paid by County Highway Superintendent Kurt Ospelt, who called me at my office, and we were not paid. Not only did they not pay us, they did not tell us that they were not going to pay us. They actually just tried to sweep it under the rug. The former legislative chairman would not return my calls. There was no response from the county, so we had no choice but to bring legal action. It’s a really lousy situation.
“All they had to do was pick up the telephone,” Anderson said, “and it would have never happened again, never. All they had to do was let our county legislator know, and they didn’t. They purposely didn’t inform him. All they had to do was provide training for the new highway superintendents on what the requirements were in the submission of the bills, and they didn’t do it. They decided they were going to take three towns and make an example of them. So, we’re not going to stand by and let that happen.”
In the meantime, Anderson said, Mexico still winds up plowing some of the roads that are now the county’s responsibility.
Anderson said the county pretty much ignores Mexico’s county roads. “We get called out by school buses off the road and things like that,” he said, “and we have had to go out and take care of the roads at our expense. So, that’s been a problem.
“Obviously, if there’s an unsafe situation, and we get called by 911, we go out and do that. We’ve even had an example where a school bus has been in a ditch without any emergency vehicles there, and a county plow slowed down and then drove right by and never thought to check and see if any of the students were injured or whether the bus driver was injured. So, it is problematic. Our people went out with salt and plowed the area so the emergency vehicles could get there.” Anderson said they weren’t reimbursed for any of that.
“This could be resolved very, very, very easily,” Anderson said, “if the county paid us the obligation that they owe us. I have reached out to them multiple, multiple, multiple times to try to get this resolved with the county legislative chairman and to no avail. He’s a good person. It’s not his decision. We’ve always had a good relationship with the county, and it’s deteriorated dramatically over the last few years because of the stance of certain people in the Infrastructure Committee and the county highway superintendent. In my 18 years as town supervisor, I’ve never seen it like this, and it’s unfortunate.
“We’ve never had a complaint on the quality of the work for anything that we’ve done with the county,” Anderson said.
He also sees irony in the county’s financial agreement with the state for plowing state roads and hypocrisy in the county’s payment practices.
“I find it interesting that the county will plow state highways for anywhere between $15,000 and $23,000 per mile (per year), and yet, for the same identical work they pay the towns $8,500 per mile, and previously, it was $5,000 per mile.”
Regarding payments, Anderson said, “Interestingly, they’ve been late paying towns the $8,500 per mile. They feel that they can do that. So, it’s okay for the county to pay their bills late, but heaven forbid a new highway superintendent submits something late. It’s pretty one-sided.”
Looking back on the past, Anderson noted, “Towns submitted consistently late for decades, and they were paid.”
Regarding the present, Anderson’s not worried. “We’re fiscally sound,” he said. “We just move on, and we’ll do just fine. But, there certainly is an ethical problem there and a problem of integrity.”
In some ways, as far as Mexico’s concerned, it is and it isn’t about the money. Anderson said he’s not alone in his determination to see this matter through.
“It’s not my decision,” he said. “It’s the town board’s decision. I’m only one vote of five, but we’re unanimous in our resolve to get paid. It’s wrong. It should have never happened. And the way it happened, and the way it’s been conducted, is unconscionable.”