TU Reporter Liberatore Responds To Blogger On Renovation Issue

On Friday I received a response from Wendy Liberatore  to my email to her which I posted in a recent blog and which I reproduce below.  I think Ms. Liberatore deserves a great deal of credit for engaging in a discussion on the coverage of the Finance Department’s renovations issue here.

I continue to disagree with Ms. Liberatore on the coverage of the issue but I think the matter has been pretty thoroughly discussed, so I am simply posting her response without further comment.


My Original Email To Ms. Liberatore

From: John Kaufmann <>
Date: Thursday, September 22, 2016 at 8:57 PM
To: Wendy Liberatore <wliberatore@timesunion.com>
Subject: Study By Architects

Per your recent blog, I have reviewed the study done by the architects for the proposed renovations to the Finance Office in Saratoga Springs.   They seem to me to be extremely thoughtful in their attempt to improve the offices of the Finance Department to make them both more efficient and to better serve the staff in doing their work.  Your original article and headlines like ““Taxpayers On Hook For $750K” strongly communicate that there was something improper in these plans that was newsworthy.  Could you take the time to email me what it is in the study by the architects that you found problematic?  The Facebook headline for your article stated “Finance chief Michele Madigan’s budget request includes a private bathroom, a new ceiling, and a kitchenette for her use”.  Could you please cite the section of this document that would support this statement.  Let me note that it would seem highly disingenuous to argue that these headlines would not lead the public to believe that these amenities were for the Commissioner’s personal use rather than for everyone in the department.

I look forward to your response.


Ms. Liberatore’s Response

From: “Liberatore, Wendy D” <wliberatore@timesunion.com>
Date: 09/23/2016 9:37 AM (GMT-05:00)
To: John Kaufmann <j>
Subject: Re: Study By Architects

Dear John,

The details you described were amended in the article to state the bathroom was for her and her staff. The original post mentioned the ceiling would be restored and that there was a kitchenette. It did not mention “for her use” in connection with the kitchenette, only the bathroom.

This is what has been printed and has been online.

http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Saratoga-Springs-finance-chief-wants-750-000-9227194.php

We even printed one article on her defense of the project:

http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Commissioner-defends-750K-in-renovations-for-9236043.php

Here are the blog posts, which allowed the public to weigh in:

http://blog.timesunion.com/saratogaseen/finance-office-renovations-will-cost-taxpayers-750000/27933/

http://blog.timesunion.com/saratogaseen/read-the-specs-for-finance-commissioners-750k-renovations-project/27956/

In every instance, Madigan’s point-of-view was clearly stated. We feel that she has been treated fairly in this matter.

As for the headline, that was the editor’s choice.

We did the story because we all felt that the price tag was high and that taxpayers would be interested in how their money was being spent.

I don’t believe there is anything in these articles that is factually erroneous.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to write to me.

— Wendy Liberatore
Times Union

518-454-5445

518-491-0454

Liberatore Responds To Criticism (Sort of)

As the readers of this blog will recall Wendy Liberatore of the Times Union wrote a story which this blog challenged for accuracy.  In apparent response she posted the following blog on the Times Union website.


THE SARATOGA BLOG

Read the specs for finance commissioner’s 750k renovations project

By Wendy Liberatore on September 21, 2016 at 9:26 AM

There has been a lot of back and forth on the merits of the Saratoga Springs’ Department of Finance Commissioner’s office renovations.

To read the specs and decide for yourself, click here.

You can also see for yourselves by taking one of Commissioner Michele Madigan’s office tours. They are planned for 2 p.m. Tuesdays from Oct. 4 to Nov. 1 in City Hall, Broadway.


I went to the link and what I found was the study done by the architects who were hired by the city to look at what renovations were needed for the Finance Office.

I encourage the readers of this blog to take the time to read the study which is actually relatively brief.  [financedept-revonvations] I am sorry to be so harsh but I find it difficult to believe that Ms. Liberatore could have read this study and written the story that she did.

The architects interviewed all of the employees of the Finance Department to learn what their work involved in order to better understand how best to design the offices.  What then follows is a very thoughtful explanation as to the design changes recommended by the architects to improve the work flow and environment for the employees.  They also make special note regarding the damage that previous restorations have done to many important architectural elements of the building and what they recommend be done to save what is left.

Of particular note was the fact that they recommended that the Commissioner and her deputy give up their existing space for smaller space in order to provide the IT staff with an area large enough for their needs.  There is no reference anywhere in this document to a toilet or a kitchenette being constructed for the private use of the Commissioner.  In fact, the floor plan of the option that has been selected  has neither the toilet nor the kitchenette adjacent to the Commissioner’s office.

How Ms. Liberatore can construe this document as anything but a thoughtful effort to address the Finance Department is really difficult to understand.

I have sent her the following email soliciting a response:

Per your recent blog, I have reviewed the study done by the architects for the proposed renovations to the Finance Office in Saratoga Springs.   They seem to me to be extremely thoughtful in their attempt to improve the offices of the Finance Department to make them both more efficient and to better serve the staff in doing their work.  Your original article and headlines like ““Taxpayers On Hook For $750K” strongly communicate that there was something improper in these plans that was newsworthy.  Could you take the time to email me what it is in the study by the architects that you found problematic?  The Facebook headline for your article stated “Finance chief Michele Madigan’s budget request includes a private bathroom, a new ceiling, and a kitchenette for her use”.  Could you please cite the section of this document that would support this statement.  Let me note that it would seem highly disingenuous to argue that these headlines would not lead the public to believe that these amenities were for the Commissioner’s personal use rather than for everyone in the department.

I look forward to your response.

 

It’s A Mean Old World: Two Prominent  Figures In Saratoga Business Community “Separated” From Their Companies

Rita Cox: Gone from Saratoga Casino Hotel

According to the Albany Business Review, Rita Cox who served as vice president for marketing and public affairs is no longer employed by the Saratoga Casino Hotel.  Ms. Cox worked for what had been the Racino for thirteen years.  Ted Engle who the ABR described as the casino’s “media specialist” originally announced that the Casino would be issuing a statement shortly about Cox.  Subsequently the Casino told the ABR that they do not comment on personnel matters.

Scott Varley: Gone From RealtyUSA

The headline in the Albany Business Review announced that “RealtyUSA Ends Business Relationship with Scott Varley”.  Readers of this blog may remember that Mr. Varley’s face appeared on at least one billboard at an entrance to the city.  He had worked for RealtyUSA for twenty-seven years.

Al Picci, President and General Manager, would not discuss the “separation” with the ABR telling them that “It’s a private matter.”

Mr. Varley told the ABR that the decision was mutual and that it was the right move for him.  When asked about his future plans he told them, “When I know, I will let you know.”

According to the ABR, Varley and his “team” had about $90 million in sales last year which was the most of any team in the region.

The ABR described Mr. Varley as “a natural showman and self promoter.”

 

 

Appalling Story On City Finance Department Renovations By Times Union

 

tufrontpage
Front Page Of September 17 Times Union
tufinancefrontpage
Detail From Front Page

I try to restrain myself from hyperbole when writing this blog, but a front page story in the Times Union on proposed renovations to the city’s Finance Office had a headline that was simply outrageous.  After Commissioner Madigan contacted the newspaper about the original post on their website, the newspaper did correct numerous inaccuracies in the article.  Regrettably, the tabloid headlines remained.

The headlines asserted that the city was spending three quarters of a million dollars on the Commissioner of Finance’s personal office.  A photo caption on the front page claims the work will include a “private bathroom and storage area as well as a private conference room.”  Given the wretched excesses we have seen in numerous stories about government waste, an uniformed reader would rightly be outraged at the supposed excesses of a profligate commissioner.

It is my understanding that the reporter, Wendy Liberatore, told Ms. Madigan that she had come upon the story when reading the city’s capital budget.  I worked closely with her predecessor, Dennis Yusko, when his beat included Saratoga Springs, in fact, his beat was huge and included military affairs as they related to the Capital District, as well as other breaking news North of Albany.  In this blog, I often lionized Dennis for the extraordinary reporting he did, especially in light of how much he had to cover.  It is simply not credible that Ms. Liberatore would have the luxury of reading our city’s capital budget to simply better inform herself.  Would that our sadly depleted newspapers had the resources to do that kind of digging.  It is especially ironic that having studied the capital budget she did not take the time to look at the actual plans for the improvements nor to visit the offices to assess their conditions.

This is a link to the latest iteration of the story.  The TU protects many of its stories behind a pay wall so you many not be able to access it.  Link To Story

I invited Commissioner Madigan to respond to the Times Union article.



Commissioner Madigan’s Statement

The recent Times Union story on the proposed renovations of the Finance Office is a sad example of the on-going decline in journalism.  With a sensational title that panders to the public’s legitimate concerns about waste in government, they have done an injustice to not only myself, but to the staff that has worked under some really trying conditions.

The front page includes the accusation that the city will be paying for a private bathroom and “kitchenette” for me as part of a $750,000.00 renovation of my office.  I am sure that such a shocking title will sell newspapers but it has little to do with what I hope will be a long needed renovation that will serve not only the needs of the employees who serve the citizens of our city but the citizens of our city as well [See The Proposed Schematic Below].

It also is unfair to the members of the Capital Budget Committee, composed of representatives of all of the city’s departments and chaired by the Mayor.  These dedicated individuals spent months, reviewing and prioritizing the critical needs of our city mindful of the need for fiscal restraint.  Their decision to include the improvements to the Finance Office in the capital budget and rank it nineth was not done frivolously.  Consistent with this, no one spoke against any of their recommendations at any of the public hearings.

The Finance project is about renovating the front Finance Office and other employee space including space for the Information Technology Department, Benefits and Payroll.  It is not about renovating my personal office to include a private bathroom, kitchenette and new ceiling for “her use.”  The offices of the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner and Director of Finance, have become useful in the new configuration, but they have nothing to do with the motivation for this renovation nor do they impact majorly the cost of this project.   I am not getting a private bathroom or my own kitchenette or a new ceiling.

The “private bathroom” is simply a single stall bathroom for the employees who work for the Finance and IT Departments.  It is worth noting that Finance is the ONLY department in City hall that has no bathroom.  We share a public restroom, this bathroom sees much use, and is often found covered in urine, feces, blood, dirt, hair, dirty diapers, vomit, etc.  It is a highly utilized public restroom and one of the few available to the public in our downtown.  The public bathroom is a busy place and often unavailable to staff.  The public bathrooms are locked after 5:00 PM, leaving no bathroom for staff who work later than 5:00 PM or on the weekends.

Bathroom

bathroom

Our current “Kitchenette” is a storage space that houses numerous boxes of paper, wires, and old IT materials. A small refrigerator that currently sits in the public space, next to filing cabinets containing private, confidential, HIPPA protected health care data will be removed from the front office and placed in that space along with a toaster and microwave that are of unknown age and origins “ that is our new” kitchenette.

“Kitchenette” Current Kitchenette Area   

Current Refrigerator By Public Area Beside Filing Cabinets

refrigeratorinpublicspace

The Times Union’s updated article on this project provided a financial comparison of the Finance project with the Canfield Casino, but they used inaccurate figures stating that for the entire structure, repairs for the Casino total $600,000.  The Canfield Casino is in the 2017 list of capital projects for $600K to cover the final phase of plaster repairs and painting in the ballroom & parlor, rewiring the sagging parlor sconces and replacing electric boxes.  However, Casino renovations are yearly, and have been an ongoing project that easily has cost millions of dollars, it’s an important building and our commitment to it has been exemplary.  The TU comparison is unfair and not remotely accurate.

The front Finance Office is the first office the public sees when they enter City Hall. Finance probably has more visitors than any other office in City Hall.  Over 11 thousand tax bills per year are processed in the Finance Office, totaling 16 million in receivables.  Finance also processes all utility bills, recreation fees, etc.  All these invoices are paid to the Commissioner of Finance via the front office and total more than 20 million dollars that we receive every year, and with nothing more than a piece of plywood for staff safety.

Front Desk / Office Area

frontspaceofficearea

In addition, numerous City Hall employees stream in and out all day, everyday, for various payroll, financial tasks and issues, healthcare questions, retirement questions and advice, because the Finance Office houses the health benefits coordinator and city payroll.  When an employee or family member approaches to discuss private and confidential issues such as health insurance coverage for breast or prostate cancer, wage garnishment and child support, retirements or terminations, they must stand at the counter in the open space with employees and taxpayers within a few feet of them.  There is no private space for employees to discuss these confidential matters.

Payroll

payroll

Benefits

benefits

Carpeting

financecarpeting1   financecarpeting2

The front Finance Office has never been renovated, and renovations are at least 20 years over-due.  There are no safety features, no privacy for confidential business matters, soft flooring with asbestos, no bathroom, leftover and broken file cabinets and desks, old raw sewage leaks and more asbestos.  Our new ceiling is not new at all, we are simply removing a dirty and stained drop ceiling to show the existing original ceiling.  We are not putting in a new ceiling for my use.

Original Hidden Ceiling

existing-ceiling

Drop Down Ceiling That Hides Original

ceilingtoberemoved

Finance furniture includes desks and chairs that were literally picked out of the trash, an assortment of ill shaped and oddly designed file cabinets with no locks, cabinets with plywood doors, which house highly restricted health care, payroll and personnel data.

File Room From Two Views

fielroomwithnodoor img_8794

The staircase to the basement is a winding one, barely two feet wide, with an overhang that is dangerous to a person of even average height. The basement has a lower than standard ceiling with little ventilation and poor air quality.  The City IT Department spent over 10 years in this moldy and substandard space. The IT Department’s current space is cramped and inappropriate for its people and equipment.  The City Fire Department has declared it unsafe.

Stairs To Basement

stairs2  stairs

IT (Information Technology) Offices

 

Basement

With the help of an architect we have devised a plan that not only puts front office to more appropriate use, it allows the City IT department to exchange its cramped and inappropriate area for more suitable space.

The City’s Director of Finance is willing to swap her office to go into the basement space, but it must be renovated.  The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Finance are willing to swap their office for the current IT space.  This will provide IT with much needed space for equipment and staff, eliminate our cited fire code issues, while relocating the Commissioner and Deputy to a smaller space in order to accommodate the needs of staff employees.  The majority of the Finance Department project cost is for the front offices (asbestos removal, removing a dirty and stained by raw sewage drop ceiling, etc.); swapping space with IT is a smaller but necessary part of the plan.

Every area in City Hall has had some sort of upgrade.  Finance, one of the most visible parts of the building, has waited patiently and been overlooked.   We cannot force our citizens and employees to conduct business under these conditions. A disgusting workspace may eventually cost us in grievances and employees.  What employer forces employees to work in a potentially unsafe environment that is dirty from years of neglect? You simply cannot clean this sort of dirt, with sagging floors, holes in the walls, trash picked furniture, a cacophony of wires in the open space, no privacy and no bathroom.

I believe we must maintain City Hall and the work-space that our staff is required to call home for the major portion of each day.  This project is not just about the front Finance office; it is about taking care of City Buildings responsibly.  We are the stewards of these buildings for the taxpayers who own these buildings.  They are city assets, aesthetically, historically, functionally and financially.  This is not the frivolous project it has been portrayed as, and exaggerated about, in the Times Union newspaper and via their social media sites.  It is our job, as elected officials, to maintain the City’s buildings, parks, streets, and places that citizens and employees conduct City business.  We don’t allow property owner’s buildings to fall into gross disrepair; we have city code enforcement to work on such properties.  Why should the City be allowed to do so with our valuable city assets?

At this point, the front office and the finance configuration cannot be fixed with a coat of paint and new carpet.  We cannot even change the carpet without getting involved with the hole in the floor and asbestos issues.  How long do we let it go before it is too far-gone? Saratogians are proud of their commitment to the preservation of its beautiful buildings and architecture.  This project should be considered among them.   Citizens and employees will be served better, more effectively and safer space means better service and better value.

Finally, I will be inviting the public to tour with me to view the Finance space and other space in City Hall that is desperate for renovations every Tuesday at 2:00 pm, beginning on Tuesday October 4th – Tuesday November 1st.  Taxpayers deserve to see their money in action and this is their space too.

Proposed Schematic

schematic

 

Thank you,

Michele Madigan

Commissioner of Finance

Please feel free to contact me at 518-587-3550 ext. 2557 for any questions regarding this project or email me at michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org or simply show up for a tour.

More on Moore Hall

Robin Cooper of the Albany Business Review had a piece on the Moore Hall demo.

According the ABR, Jackson Demolition of Schenectady is the contractor for the take down.  Bonacio has placed the cost of the whole project at $23 million dollars.

Bonacio expects it to take a month to complete the removal.  He expects to start excavating the foundation in October.

The project manager is Christopher Levitas.

Norstar Development whose corporate offices are located in Buffalo paid Skidmore College $1.12 million dollars back in 2009.  Rick Higgins, who lives in Saratoga Springs is one of the principle executives at Norstar.

Balzer + Tuck Architecture did the design.  Brett Balzer is the architect.

Capital Demolition of Amsterdam removed the asbestos and the internal structures such as the drop ceilings, furniture, etc.

Levitas estimates it will take sixteen to eighteen months to construct the five buildings that will contain the condos.

 

Sustainable Saratoga Seeks Volunteers For Annual Urban Tree Planting

TREE TOGA #5 on October 1, 2016

Sustainable Saratoga’s Next Planting Day

[From the blogger: With regrets to our friends at Sustainable Saratoga, I could not properly format their invitation to volunteer.  To view it properly visit their website.]

 previousvolunteers
Tree Toga Volunteers – April 30, 2016 Photo courtesy of David Aimone

 

Since 2014, Sustainable Saratoga’s fabulous volunteers have planted 114 trees in key locations around town. And our great tree hosts have given needed care (mostly water) to help the trees thrive and mature.   On Saturday, October 1, with the help of many people, we will put another 25 trees in the ground. Generous donors to Sustainable Saratoga’s tree fund have made this planting possible.

 

 

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Here are four ways you can contribute to our success on October 1st.

 

Would you like a FREE TREE? Know someone who would? Share this Free Tree Flyer to help us place the trees in good sites. Send us an email at trees@sustainablesaratoga.org to volunteer as a Tree Host. Believe it or not, helping us to identify good planting sites (with tree hosts) is one of the best things you can do for Sustainable Saratoga’s tree efforts.

Join our team for October 1st. Sign up as a planter. Or help behind the scenes to organize the event. Send us an email at trees@sustainablesaratoga.org and let us know how you can help. Planting at Tree Toga is a great family activity.

 

 younggirlvolunteer

 

Spread the word about our progress. Help celebrate our efforts by enjoying and sharing this map of the 114 trees planted since 2014.  Click the image to download a map of trees planted since 2014.

mapoftrees

(Colored pins indicate different planting dates. Blue pins are the first to be complete with photos, showing how much fun the planters had in 2015.) Fire up Google Earth and then follow these instructions to explore the map. Share it widely with your circles of friends.

 

 

Donate to Sustainable Saratoga. The generosity of donors like you has enabled Sustainable Saratoga to purchase and plant trees since 2015. The October 1 planting will bring the total of our donor-funded trees to 64. Your donation can help us blow past the 100 trees threshold in 2017 !!  (Sustainable Saratoga volunteers have also planted 75 trees that were paid for from the tree budget of our partners at DPW.)