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.
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
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
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.
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
Drop Down Ceiling That Hides Original
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
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
IT (Information Technology) Offices
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.
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 email@example.com or simply show up for a tour.