Charter Commission Financial Analysis: A Regrettable Misrepresentation

The Charter Commission Financial Impact Statement: Self Imposed Ignorance

The Charter Commission’s analysis of the financial impact of the proposed charter claims it will save $403,000.00.

 What Do The Current Deputies And Commissioners Contribute To The Effective Administration Of The City?

Pretty much all of these savings are the result of eliminating the tier of management held by the five deputies and four commissioners.

Jeff Altamari, a Commission member and author of the document, asserts that the deputies and the commissioners contribute virtually nothing to the operation of the city.  This seems a rather harsh characterization to me but if you observe his defense on LookTV this is in fact his position.  He asks us to look at other cities of similar size that have city managers and  have what he describes as “flat” administrative structures. 

Like so much of what the Charter Commission does, these assertions are delivered with a disturbing confidence.  It is difficult to assess the validity of his comparisons.  We do not know what kind of administrative support exists under the department heads of these other cities.  Do these other cities’ department heads have deputies?  What are the types and quality of services delivered in these cities? Who knows?  I don’t know, maybe they are more efficient but it’s hard to  tell from the information he gives us. Since New York State only has 16 cities with a city manager form, Mr. Altamari goes to states like New Jersey to do some of his comparisons.  With respect to Mr. Altamari, I think the comparison is based on very limited data, at least as he presents it. It would seem that he might at least be more qualified in asserting how accurate and reliable these comparisons are.  This is unfortunately emblematic of the way the charter is being promoted.

What Do Those Deputies Do All Day?

I would dearly love to have the opportunity to debate Mr. Altamari.  The fundamental flaw in his financial analysis is that he, and the other members of the Charter Commission, chose not to do what to me is fundamental.  After all the people they talked to, they chose not to interview the deputies.  Now I do not know how much of what the deputies do is redundant.  It is possible that they simply are another layer of bureaucracy where the department staff is burdened with sending them reports on what they are doing and recommendations for actions and the deputies simply approve this stuff.  It must be conceded that they could be an utterly wasteful layer of bureaucracy as the Charter Commission members assert.  Humility requires me to concede this could be the case.  It may, however turn out, that what the deputies do is in fact very important.  They may handle all kinds of Federal and State reporting requirements for instance.  They may absorb day to day functions of their departments which otherwise might fall to staff whose responsibilities would not allow them to effectively absorb that work.  I don’t know and neither does Mr. Altamari.

Sometimes Mr. Altamari and his fellow charter review members assume that the City Manger will absorb all the work of the four commissioners and five deputies but other times they assume that whatever duties the deputies and the commissioners have  can be absorbed by the existing staff, namely department directors and personnel such as the police and fire chief. 

The thing is, not only didn’t they interview the deputies to find out what work they do but they never asked these other employees if they could absorb  extra work.

I know that in the case of the Finance Department, the budget for the city is done by the deputy. The work load of the Director of Finance could not possibly allow her the time to take on doing the city’s budget as well.   According to the Director of Finance, her interview with the Commission was very brief and no one ever asked her if she could take on the additional work now done by the Deputy Commissioner of Finance.

Bob Turner, the chair of the Commission, has routinely denigrated the deputies as being basically political operatives rewarded for heading up the campaigns of their respective Commissioners.  Again, this is emblematic of the way they are selling the charter.  His defense of not interviewing the deputies is that it would be unfair to ask them what they think of the commission form of government. That could be unfair but what would not be unfair would be to rigorously interview them on what they actually do with their time.    I find it absolutely stunning that this was not done.  I have yet to hear from Mr. Altamari as to why he chose not to talk to the deputies before deciding their positions were so expendable.  I do not think it is uncharitable to speculate that interviewing the deputies might have put the anticipated savings he was able to project in jeopardy.

 What Exactly Do Those Commissioners Do?

I would also draw the reader’s attention to the fact that for purposes of selling their charter the Charter Commission members emphasize that the workload of the Commissioners is enormous and is one of the disincentives to get people to run for office.  I am in complete agreement with the charter people in terms of both the workload of the city commissioners and on the fact that this can be a problem in terms of attracting people to run.  They cannot have it both ways, however, and then claim that the removal of the Commissioners will not create the need for more staff to do the work they have been doing.

Commissioner John Franck who is a CPA calculated all the hours that the deputies and the commissioners work and then compared that number with the hours of one city manager.  Not surprising the numbers made the idea of the city manager absorbing those hours ludicrous.  Now as I have stated, I do not know how many of those hours are actually essential to the city’s operation.  What I do know is that without knowing those numbers Mr. Altamari could not possibly do a proper analysis.

The Short And Happy Life Of A Deputy

Finally, I would observe that the Charter Commission has a point that when a new commissioner is elected, most of the time (not all the time) the new Commissioner hires a new deputy.  This does require the new deputy to learn a new position.  A city manager form of government could address this weakness.  How large a problem is this, though?  I would concede that unlike the charter commission I do not know.  It is curious to note, though, that in their zeal to sell the charter they state that the transition to a new government will be “seamless” and do not anticipate any similar period of adjustment for a city manager who will be walking not into a job that others have done before and could help him/her learn. This city manager will be tasked with setting up a whole new government which will include evaluating the work done by the deputies and commissioners and figuring out who will do it now and how much the new positions will cost the city. Given that these new positions will be civil service we can safely assume the salaries will be quite a bit higher than what the current deputies receive.

The charter commission also ignored the fact that deputies work long hours beyond their regular day.  They are not civil service so the rules of overtime do not apply to them.

 Is It At Least Possible That Our Great Bond Rating Is Related To The Work Of Our Deputy Commissioners

 This city has a great bond rating.  It allows us to borrow money at very low rates.  The charter commission might acknowledge that it means that as far as Wall Street is concerned, that this city is so well run that someone interested in lending money which relies on a rosy view of the future of the city, can feel relatively safe.  It is possible, that the extra tier represented by the deputies and the work of the commissioners is not a liability but actually results in a better managed institution. This is something Mr. Altamari should have considered before doing his financial analysis.

 

What Responsibility Does The Charter Commission Bear For Mr. Kane’s Tactics?

I left out this link in the previous post (https://www.facebook.com/pg/SaratogaGreenbeltTrail/posts/?ref=page_internal).  As  a reminder the link is to the Greenbelt Trail facebook page.  The page has a notice that that due to abuses, their site is no longer accepting public posts. 

In a related matter, the Greenbelt Trail posted a comment on Pat Kane’s website taking exception to his posts on websites which apparently included the Greenbelt Trail’s.  The posted comment was meant to convey to Mr. Kane that his allegations (apparently posted on the Greenbelt’s website) that Commissioner Madigan was obstructing their work was a mischaracterization(see below).  Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Mr. Kane deleted this comment from his website page.

GreenbeltResponse

So since Pat Kane, is vice chair of the Charter Review Commission, I sent the email below to Bob Turner to be distributed to tonight’s (September 28th) meeting.  I thought it was time for them to take responsibility and address their Vice Chair’s behavior.  During the public comment period, Mr. Turner was asked whether he had gotten my email (I am away).  Mr. Turner denied having received it.  Readers, you will pardon my skepticism but Mr. Turner is a new media kind of guy.  While it is possible he did not receive it, it seems highly unlikely.  So here is the letter:

Bob:

I am sending this to you as chair of the Charter Review Commission.  I ask that you provide copies to the members of the commission for tonight’s meeting.  Hopefully you can email it to them, otherwise please hand it out at the meeting.

JK

There is little doubt that the conflict over the proposed charter has been spirited–make that heated– at times.  There is little doubt that both the proponents and opponents have often been angered by what they perceive as exaggeration or distortion.  As many of the members of the commission know, I have been highly critical of the way data has been used, of claims that have been made based on secret sources, and of events like the Skidmore survey.  Still, I have never indulged in questioning the motivation of anyone nor in name calling.

In the last several days, your vice chairman, Pat Kane, has made a serious, personal attack on Commissioner Madigan and then disseminated his comment on numerous websites.  The attack includes the following text:

“The back and forth of the vehicles would have created a natural trail and saved the city significant money of having to create a trail from new.  However, Michele Madigan did not permit it because the trail was seen as ‘the mayor’s project.’”

“This form of government breeds this type of behavior and waste.”

This kind of personal attack goes way beyond the scrum that has been the debate on the efficacy of your proposed charter.  Without the pretense of any kind of supporting information, Mr. Kane asserts that Commissioner Madigan is attempting to sabotage the city’s bike trail in order to hurt Mayor Yepsen.

This is a particularly disturbing attack given that the chair of the Greenbelt Trail Committee took exception to Mr. Kane’s assertion and posted a comment on Mr. Kane’s Facebook page.  Worse, Mr. Kane having received this, Mr. Kane removed it from his page.

When Mr. Kane agreed to be vice chair of your organization, he accepted that when he spoke on issues related to the charter, people would see him as representing your commission.  I use “representing” in two ways.

  1. Representing as in speaking on behalf of the commission as its vice chair.
  2. Representing the commission in that as a person he represented the kind of leadership selected by you its members.

I would note that it is also interesting that he presumes that people see the bike trail as the Mayor’s personal achievement.  In fact not only has the entire City Council actively worked on the trail, many volunteers have put in extensive time on its behalf.

Mr. Kane owes Ms. Madigan an apology.  His crude attack reflected the lowest kind of politics.  In the event that he chooses not to apologize, the question that arises is how will the Commission handle this?  Is this really what the Commission considers to be an acceptable tactic?

I would hope that the commission would use tonight’s meeting to make clear to the public that the members of the Commission disassociate themselves from this unbecoming behavior; that as the debate winds up, the Commission is committed to a level of civility that rises above these kinds of tactics.  Silence by the Commission on this matter can only be read that the commission sees this behavior as an effective tool in your pursuit of passing your charter.

 

 

Vice Chair Of Charter Commission Pat Kane’s Disgraceful Behavior

Below is a screen shot of a post by Pat Kane, Charter Commission Vice Chair, that he has put up on multiple websites.

Over the time I have been writing this blog there have been many times when I have been tempted to write something unflattering about the motivation of a number of public figures.  I felt extremely confident in those cases about the unseemly motivation but I have never indulged myself by actually posting it.  I do this for two reasons.  First, without clear and supporting documentation I think such conjecturing does not rise to the level of accurate reporting.  Most centrally, writing something like that would poison the environment on my blog.

Pat Kane, the vice chair of the Charter Review Commission, has posted the following comments to multiple websites.

One of the places he posted this was on the site of the Greenbelt Trail Committee.  To their credit, that site removed his post and put up a message saying that they would no longer allow comments to be posted on their site,  <Place link>

This is not the first time Mr. Kane has flirted with what  I consider ethical norms but in this cases he has gone way over the line.

In accepting the vice chairmanship of the Charter Review Commission he took on the burden of being seen as a leader of this group and with that position came the responsibility of behaving in a way that would not compromise the credibility of that body.

The Charter Commission meets this evening.  Mr. Kane should take the opportunity of this meeting to apologize to Commissioner Madigan, the members of the Commission, and the public.  Barring this happening, the Commission needs to pass a resolution in the clearest terms disassociating itself from Mr. Kane’s posting.  If they do not, they are complicit in this disgraceful behavior.

kaneattack

Charter Commission To Scrap adopted Financial Impact Analysis And Consider New One

For those of you who watched the video from my last blog, you may remember that Mr. Turner commented that this (the September 18 meeting) was the last meeting of the Commission.  At this final meeting the Commission voted to adopt Jeff Altamari’s financial analysis of the impact of the proposed charter.  It projected a savings to the city of $381,000.00.

Well, it was not the last meeting as it turns out.  WAMC reports that Mr. Altamari is coming out with a new financial analysis and the committee is meeting on Thursday, September 28, to consider replacing the “old” one with this “new” version.  Apparently following John Franck’s withering critique of the adopted impact analysis,  Mr. Altamari has come out with a new, revised version that the Charter Commission will now consider.  According to a report by Lucas Willard of WAMC, the new analysis now includes projected costs for the transition.  Interestingly, Willard reports that in spite of the newly acknowledged costs for the transition, the new report shows an even greater savings for the city.  Mr. Altamari now projects a savings of $403,000.00.

I guess we will find out more on Thursday.

 

Charter Review Commission: A Disturbing Discussion With Some Down Right Unpleasant Behavior

I am including in this blog segments of the  video of the September 18 Charter Review Commission meeting.    

I find the tone of the interchanges here reminiscent of the very kind of belligerence and self righteousness that this group characterizes as “politics” under the current commission form of government.  I grant that my observations are subjective and I invite the readers of this blog to take the time to view these relatively brief videos and make their own determinations.

Some background is in order to understand what is going on in the video: 

-First of all  the New York State law that establishes Charter Review Commissions makes them independent bodies and requires that municipalities fund them so they can carry out their duties.  The local government, in our case our city council, has no authority over what they do.  There is, however, a caveat.  Any literature that is produced by a Charter Commission with public funds must be educational and not advocacy. 

-The 2006 Charter Commission sent out a mailing that they expected the City Council to pay for. The then Commissioners of Finance (Matt McCabe)and Accounts (John Franck)deemed the mailer advocacy and refused to pay. 

-The current Charter Commission has two attorneys who are paid to provide services to it.  One of the attorneys is the city’s Assistant Attorney, Tony Izzo, who attends all the meetings.  The other attorney, Robert Batson, is an Albany Law School professor specializing in government law who has acted as a resource for the Commission 

-The meeting that is the subject of this video occurred the day before the City Council meeting at which Commissioner Franck took strong exception to the financial analysis that was adopted by the Commission that was supposed to explain the economic impact of the proposed charter.  Early in the meeting that is the subject of the video, Tony Izzo advised the Charter Commission that at the City Council agenda meeting that morning at least one member of the Council had expressed interest in having the Council review the Charter Review Commission’s materials before they are mailed.  At the subsequent council meeting which occurred after the meeting in the video, the council voted unanimously to request that the Charter Commission send them the materials to be mailed to the voters prior to the mailing.  The Council resolution also called for the two bodies to work together on the issue.

The video segment picks up with the Commission discussion of how they will respond to this Council’s impending request.

 I am disturbed by the tone and manner of the discussion as regards their attitudes towards Tony Izzo and the City Council.  This is not the first time a Commission member has accused Mr. Izzo of being an agent of a hostile city council. In this instance this leads them to decide not to hear Mr. Izzo’s opinion on the appropriateness of the materials they want to send out. Whether you agree with Mr. Izzo’s opinions or not, he has extensive experience in city hall and with charter commissions and it is always worthwhile hearing what he has to say.   Similarly, the other members of the Charter Commission dismiss Matt Jones’ suggestion that they have their attorney in Albany review what they plan to mail out to the public.  For me their hostile attitude towards the City Council and their disinterest in Tony’s legal considerations of what they are mailing are regrettably mirrored by the ugly nature of the interactions between the members of the commission.

 I find it particularly telling that the request to have the materials reviewed by the attorney in Albany came from Matt Jones and that it was so resoundingly dismissed.  Mr. Jones is himself an attorney with considerable experience in government.  He has both the humility and the experience to know that these kind of things benefit from the assessment of an attorney who specializes in a particular area of law.  I have experienced decades of listening to people who are not attorneys make confident legal assessments and then be shocked when judges find otherwise.  I offer the recent overturning of the convictions of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos as examples of how skilled attorneys can find strategies for overturning decisions that to most of us seem cut and dry.  With respect to the people who have worked so hard on drafting their charter, it is easy for group think to develop in a project like this and for people to become insular in their thinking.

 Bear in mind that the entire City Council voted to work with the Charter Commission to review the Commission’s materials that are to be taxpayer funded before they are mailed out.  Remember that both Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Mathiesen support charter change but voted for this.   It would be prudent to consider any issues of concern offered by the Council on the mailing whether or not the commission accepted any of these concerns. 

 Finally, I find it more than strange, and I think anyone who views this video will find it strange, that Mr. Turner is now quoted in the papers on his confidence that he can work with the Council on the mailing.  I did not include in the video the conclusion of the meeting.  In the end they passed a watered down resolution saying they will send a communication to the City Council advising them to go to the city website if they want to view the documents for the proposed mailing.  To me,  the hostility to interacting with the Council on the mailing is palpable and makes Mr. Turner’s comments appear more as political spin for the public than a serious offer to work with the Council.

 

 

Commissioner Franck Warns Charter Commission The City Will Not Pay For Their Mailing

According to the Times Union Commissioner of Accounts John Franck has stated he will refuse to have the city pay for a mailing the Charter Commission wants to send to Saratoga voters because it contains inaccurate fiscal projections.

State law says cities cannot interfere with the work of a charter commission and must supply the commission with public funds to complete their work and educate the public about their proposal.  Public money cannot be spent on efforts to advocate for the passage of the charter, however.

Franck stated that the financial claims made by the commission are not credible. The Commission claims the major savings of changing to a city manager will come from eliminating four part time  commissioners and five fulltime deputies and replacing them with one city manager.

“I’m a CPA by trade,” Franck said. “They want us to believe they will replace 18,000 working hours with one manager who will work 2,000 hours a year. It’s statistically impossible. If they come back with projections that are factual and truthful, I’ll sign off in five seconds.”

Some Charter Commission members have suggested department directors can pick up the work of the commissioners and the deputies but Franck disagreed pointing out that reassigning work will involve working with civil service and the unions.

“Other employees cannot absorb the work, and if they do, you’ll have to pay them,” Franck said. “It’s going to cost more. I’m telling you, I’m not paying for something that misrepresents the facts.”

Other criticisms of the Charter Commission’s financial analysis include the lack of any estimate of what the transition to the new government will cost and the omission of funding for such things included in the charter as an internal audit.

If the city refuses to pay for the mailing the Charter Commission wants to do, the mailing can be done anyway by using the private funds that they have raised and the Commission can try to sue the city after the fact to recover the funds.

The full article is behind a pay wall but some of you may be able to access it at http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/City-council-blocks-charter-review-commission-12225110.php?cmpid=twitter-desktop

 

Bob Turner, Charter Review Commission Chair Withdraws From Participation In This Blog

The members of the charter commission have continually defended the mayoral salary of $40,000.00 that is included in the proposed charter by citing  data from the  New York Conference of Mayors showing the average salary for mayors in NY Sate is $50,000.00.  This figure is glaringly misleading.

The proposed charter calls for a city manager to take over the running of all city departments so the mayor under this form of government will have significantly fewer responsibilities than is currently the case under the commission form. It is not surprising then that  the NYCM data shows that mayors in municipalities that have city managers are paid an average of only $22,000.00.  In fact the median salary, the more relevant measure, is only $12,000.00.

This problem of the misrepresentation of the NYCM data has been repeatedly brought to the attention of Bob Turner, the chair of the charter commission.  In spite of this, last week, he again used the $50,000.00 figure in interviews with the Saratogian and Gazette Newspapers.

This prompted me to email Mr. Turner asking why he persisted in using a number that appeared to me to be so clearly inappropriate for a comparison.

When I did not hear from him, I wrote him a note asking if he planned to respond.  I have always greatly appreciated Mr. Turner’s availability to me and his willingness to engage publically.  He responded that he would write me a reply.

Over the following week I wrote him several times indicating that I wanted to incorporate his answer in a post I was working on.  I know that Mr. Turner, in addition to the many hours he devotes to the charter has a demanding job and a family with two daughters so I always feel guilty pressing him.

Today I received the following reply:


From: Robert Turner (Government) [bturner@skidmore.edu]
Sent: Thursday, September 21, 2017 12:09 PM
To: John Kaufmann
Subject: RE: Requests

John,

I have been very open and transparent to and only said nice things publicly and privately about Jane.  However, given your wife sees fit to keep slandering me in the Saratogian, “How many times do you think Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission Chair Bob Turner or a commission member or one of their supporters has used faulty or secret information or cherry picked data to support the need for charter change? I’ve lost count.” I am going to pass on answering your emails.

Bob

Bob Turner
Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies and Sciences
Director, Environmental Studies and Sciences Program
Director, Faculty Student Summer Research Program
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

 

 


I regret his decision as I think his participation in this blog has been very helpful in educating the community on the charter.