The Times Union’s apparent obsession with Michele Madigan has reached a new level of craziness.
Commissioner Madigan has put off appropriating money in the capital budget for the greenbelt trail until the grants that the city has applied for are awarded. Ms. Madigan has made it clear that she is in support of the project but as the chief financial officer of the city she believes that the city should not commit its own funds until there is a viable fiscal basis for going forward. Given the costs and scope of this important project, Ms. Madigan’s deferral seems wholly reasonable. I expect that she will be supported in her budgeting at Tuesday night’s meeting by a majority of the Council. The Mayor has indicated that in spite of the fact that the grants remain an unknown she wants the city to move forward anyway.
There is little question that the relations between Commissioner Madigan and Mayor Yepsen are not cordial. It seems to me utterly unreasonable for the Times Union to cast this disagreement, though, as driven only by petty conflict and to characterize Commissioner Madigan as the villain whose policies are put forward because she has (in the words of the Times Union) an axe to grind.
I have to wonder, where is the Times Union getting their analysis from?
What follows is the Times Union’s editorial and Commissioner Madigan’s rebuttal.
The Spa City’s priorities
By TU Editorial Boardon October 27, 2016 at 2:37 AM
As the Saratoga Springs City Council prepares to vote next week on a budget that includes – and excludes – some noteworthy projects, council members might consider how this might read in, say, a promotional brochure for the city.
As things are looking, it will read like this:
“Saratoga Springs is investing in its historic City Hall, with almost $750,000 in renovations to the finance commissioner’s office that include a new private bathroom and break room for the staff and some ceiling work.”
With some tweaks to the budget, on the other hand, it could read like this:
“Saratoga Springs is investing more than $830,000 in its citizens and its future, starting work in 2017 on a Greenbelt Trail that will eventually create a 24-mile walking and biking trail. The first phase of this more than $16 million plan will be a downtown connector linking parts of the trail in the heart of the city. The local commitment will leverage millions more in state, federal, and private investment.”
We’re all for preservation of historic buildings like City Hall, but clearly, the Greenbelt Trail would be a boon for the city and its residents, and yet another attraction for the many tourists who visit in the summer. A feasibility study of the trail estimated that it would mean several million dollars a year in health and environmental benefits.
A committee comprising the mayor and representatives of the four departments, in fact, ranked the connector project seventh on a list of 22 capital projects; the work in the finance commissioner’s office ranked ninth. There’s nothing to say both can’t be done.
But Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, whose job it is to merge the recommended capital budget with the proposed operating budget and present the council with a comprehensive budget proposal, has her own priorities – and they don’t include the Greenbelt Trail.
Her stated reason is that she can’t justify borrowing $833,000 unless the city knows if outside grants will come through. The city doesn’t expect an answer from the state until December, nor from the federal Department of Transportation until early next year.
We’re not buying it. It’s no secret that Ms. Madigan is at odds with Mayor Joanne Yepsen, for whom the Greenbelt Trail is a priority. This smacks of petty politics at their worst – a worthy community project that would benefit the entire city financially and in terms of quality of life sidelined by a single public official with an ax to grind.
Because of the quirks in Saratoga Springs’ system commissioner form of government, the budget is normally presented in its entirety for an up-or-down vote. Mayor Yepsen suggests that rather than force the council into an all-or-nothing decision, the operating and capital budgets be voted on separately. It’s a fair approach – one that would allow the council to tell Ms. Madigan to get her priorities straight.
Commissioner Madigan Responds
A recent Times Union Editorial took me to task over two of the 30 plus projects that currently sit in our Capital Budget (Finance Department Renovations at an estimated cost of $750K) and Capital Program (Greenbelt Trail Connector at an estimated cost of $2.3M, of which $833K would come from the taxpayers). The Editorial reduced my entire proposed budget down to these two projects and pitted them against one another as if there is some kind of rift between departments, and giving the impression that the City Council must choose between these two projects.
The budget I proposed for the taxpayers and residents of Saratoga Springs consists of a $45M Operating Budget, an $8.4M Capital Budget, a Debt Service Budget, and the Water and Sewer Budgets. I presented this “comprehensive budget” with no increase in property tax rates for the taxpayers of our city. The various budgets include funds for many high priority projects, funds for essential city services, wages and benefits, infrastructure and safety needs. It is important to remember that adoption of the city’s budget will require a majority vote of the Council.
I immediately responded to the Times Union’s first inaccurate article about the City Hall Finance Department renovations, which falsely claimed that I was getting my own private bathroom and kitchenette (for my exclusive use) with the following letter http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/Letter-Maintaining-City-Hall-essential-9240182.php. It seems I need to respond yet again. I’ve been offering weekly public tours of the Finance Department since the publication of the first inaccurate article; many have participated in these tours and all have concluded that this space – which occupies approximately 1/3 of the first floor of City Hall – is “desperate” for renovations.
The $2.3M Greenbelt Trail Connector, which began under Mayor Scott Johnson in 2013 (and for which I’ve publicly stated my support, repeatedly, on the record), has always been presented to the City Council as a project that would be primarily funded by grants and that the City would not be expected to commit any of its own funds until this grant funding had been secured. As a procedural matter during Council discussions of grant applications, I always ask for the record “is the City expected to provide any matching funds? If so how much, under what form, and does this obligate the City financially if we are successful at receiving the grant?” This is my duty and obligation as a Finance Commissioner exercising her fiduciary responsibilities to the City and its taxpayers. Since its inception the plan has always been that we would not move forward on the Greenbelt Trail Connector project until the applied for grant funding had been secured – which is expected in 2017. Therefore, this project is still in our 6 year Capital Program, which means we still plan to move forward with it, but is not included in the proposed 2017 Capital Budget. It would be irresponsible for me to propose that we borrow funds in 2017 – and ask our taxpayers to make principal and interest payments on those borrowed funds during the year – for a project that may not even move forward until 2018 or thereafter. I have stated, for the record, my support for amending the Capital Budget in 2017 if our grant applications are successful, as has Mayor Yepsen and at least two other Commissioners. I do not anticipate that getting the required votes to make this change in 2017 if the sought after funds are secured will be a problem, but I do not speak for the entire City Council.
Furthermore, I have been discussing all of this with members of the Greenbelt Trail Committee and Sustainable Saratoga. They understand what we are doing here and that this is not intended to jeopardize or delay progress on the Trail Connector.
This is merely an issue of timing. I say we shouldn’t borrow the funds until we actually know we need them. The “fiscally conservative” Times Union urges me to go ahead and borrow them now, and bake the repayment of them into the 2017 property tax rate, even if we don’t yet know we need them. I say lets wait a few months and borrow the money when we know we need it – and know how much we’ll need – there is no guarantee we will receive the full grant amount. The TU says this means my priorities are skewed and that I am engaging in petty politics. I say that this shows the TU editorial was written without a full understanding of the issues.
Another issue that needs to be considered is that the $2.3M cost estimate for the trail is just for one of eight phases of the proposed trail. The total cost is still not known, and has not been discussed with the City Council, but latest estimates are between $16.5M and $20M. For a full overview of the proposed Greenbelt Trail and it’s cost please visit https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BxfrGj3VKIbcMVJIa09pZjROOFU/edit