Appalling Story On City Finance Department Renovations By Times Union


Front Page Of September 17 Times Union
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.



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.






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


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

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



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



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 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.]

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.




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 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 and let us know how you can help. Planting at Tree Toga is a great family activity.




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.


(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.)


Moore Hall About To Come Down


Moore Hall Cake– Front with dining hall

Sonny Bonacio contacted me a few days ago. He indicated that the asbestos abatement is done and this week they expect to start to demolish the main building.  You can see by the attached photos that they have already removed the trees that were located on the Union Avenue side of the site and are well advanced in demolition and removing the one story dining hall that extended toward Union Avenue.

There was a neighborhood block party on Sunday and one of the more creative neighbors baked a Moore Hall cake. As a good omen the cake was completely dismantled (eaten) and there was no need to remove anything but the platter.

Moore Hall Cake–back

Owner Sues City Over Murphy Lane Stop Work Order

Jean D’Agostino, owner of the property that hitherto contained a small barn on Murphy Lane, has filed suit challenging the stop work order on her construction.  The suit filed by attorney  James A. Fauci on behalf of Ms. D’Agostino names city building inspector Stephen Shaw and the members of the Zoning Board of Appeals.  This is a link to the document.   south-alley-llc-notice-of-petition-etc

In addition to the lifting of the stop work order, it seeks damages which include D’Agostino’s legal bills, loss of income due to delay, and damage to the materials left idle on site.

Central to the suit is the argument that the actual approval of the variances granted to Ms. D’Agostino was unconditional.   The document cites the city’s codes as follows:


A. A non-conforming structure may be extended or expanded the proposed extension or expansion does not violate any dimensional requirements other than the current nonconformity.



The ZBA, in granting a use or area variance, shall have the authority to impose such reasonable conditions and restrictions as are directly related and incidental, to the proposed use of the property.  Such conditions be consistent with the spirit and intent of this Chapter and shall be imposed for the purpose of minimizing any adverse impact such variance may have on the neighborhood or community.

See also: 8.5 (D) DECISIONS

The ZBA shall have the authority to impose such reasonable conditions and restrictions as are directly related, and incidental, to the proposed project.

As the people who have been following this blog know, Ms. D’Agostino, in her application for variances asserted that not only was she not going to demolish the existing barn but that to do so would bring harm to the neighborhood.  She therefore committed herself to the conversion of the existing structure.

Mr. Fauci notes that Ms. D’Agostino originally jacked up the barn at considerable expense in order to construct a full basement.  He offers this as proof that it was her honest intention to save the barn.  He then alleges that the condition of the wood in the structure was so deteriorated that it necessitated its demolition.  Unlike his letter of appeal to the ZBA, he does not argue that reusing some of the original materials represented a conversion rather than a demolition.

It is important to note that the original stop work order only referenced the need for a variance to raise the height of the building.  As noted above, Fauci argues that since the height limit for the zoning in that district was sixty feet, there was no need to seek such a variance.  As also noted above, he argues that if the ZBA did not want the building on the lot to be higher thant the original building then they needed to specifically state this as a condition in their approval of variances.

I am not a lawyer but it would appear on its face that the central issue will be the significance of the failure of Ms. D’Agostino to adhere to the strictures of her application to the board upon which they made their decision.  Was Ms. D’Agostino required to maintain the original structure as she had stated in convincing the board to approve her “renovation” ?  Was it necessary in the ZBA’s approval of the variances to include explicit stipulations on height and, in fact, the protection of the original structure?

I would also note that it seems very strange that Ms. D’Agostino did not have an engineer thoroughly inspect the building to determine its soundness before alleging to the ZBA that she would rehab rather than demolish the structure.

Mr. Fauci also documents the confusion and awkwardness (a  charitable characterization) of the building inspector and the ZBA’s handling of this matter.   The fact that the ZBA ended up issuing a full explanation that went far beyond the original explanation many months after the original stop work order and that they were unwilling to have the building inspector explain the reasons for his stop work order when challenged by Mr. Fauci at a public meeting is both accurate and embarrassing.

One can only marvel at the gross mishandling of this project by the ZBA.  In defense of ZBA board members Susan Steer, Keith Kaplan, and James Helicke, they did vote against approving the variances.  The other members of the ZBA created the conditions for this law suit.  They were, unfortunately, assisted by Mr. Shaw.  In his defense, the building department is understaffed.  Still it is apparent that were it not for the neighbors strong opposition, this project would have, in all likelihood, simply gone on to completion.  Mr. Shaw retroactively approved the excavation of the full basement instead of the slab as submitted in the original plan which might have triggered a cleaner stop work order.  This was just another example of the ZBA and building department’s tolerance for “do it and ask for forgiveness later.”  This seems to be standard operating procedure for the ZBA.  Fauci notes the approval of the basement in his suit.  What is quite clear is that there were problems with Mr. Shaw’s correspondence to Ms. D’Agostino that Mr. Fauci is fully exploiting.

One can only hope that in the interest of the neighborhood, the judge will find Ms. D’Agostino’s abrogation of her commitments in her application to the ZBA sufficient to find for the city.



Statistics Documenting the Continuing Bubble in the Hotel Business Continue

The Albany Business Review reported the opening of two more hotels in Saratoga County and a further decline in the economics of the local hotel industry.

Last week the 107 room Home 2 Suites opened in Malta.  Obviously they are directing themselves to  Global Foundries which is located in the same town.

According to the Review:

  1. As of this last July, the average rate of occupancy has fallen every month for the last fourteen consecutive months.
  2. During the same period the average occupancy rate is down a whopping 13.5 percent.
  3. The supply of “room nights” has increased by 5 per cent.
  4. Demand has fallen a whopping 9.2 per cent.
  5. The amount paid per room is down 11.5 per cent.
  6. The average amount paid was $85.27.
  7. The average daily rate demanded of guests is up 2.4 percent to $139.94.

Bonacio Empire Heads Marches South

Further proof as to the small world we all live in, Sonny Bonacio has purchased the land in East Greenbush where the owners of our local casino had hoped to build a new gambling mecca in East Greenbush. Vigorously opposed by the locals there, it lost out to Schenectady. The 74 acres was offered for $2.5 million dollars following the casino debacle and as a sign of how fluid these numbers are, Bonacio picked it up for $1 million. What a deal!

In the meantime, the sound of construction has come to Moore Hall as the abatement for asbestos has begun there.