An article by Wendy Liberatore was published in the May 20,2020, edition of the Times Union under the headline “Saratoga’s Cost for Homeless Lodging Won’t Get Federal Reimbursement.”
The unflattering story based mostly on an interview with Tara Gaston alleged that due to the ineptitude of the Saratoga Springs administration, the city ended up having to pay for housing the homeless in the Holiday Inn for a month during the pandemic. The story was inaccurate on multiple levels but the source of the misinformation appears to be primarily Supervisor Tara Gaston.
This is a classic story that documents the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.”
Before going into the details of Supervisor Gaston’s unfortunate role in this episode it is important to tell what should have been the story.
Karen Gregory, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga (SOS), was facing a crisis. Covid-19 threatened the homeless she was sheltering because the available facilities did not allow for social distancing.
In Boston one in every three homeless persons has contracted the virus.
The issue was not only the danger to the homeless persons but to the wider community that they might infect and to the first responders and hospital staff who would need to assist them.
The reality was that earnest attempts to get assistance from Saratoga County proved fruitless when the pandemic hit. It was the city through the intervention of Mayor Kelly using federal Community Block Grant money that funded the first month of housing. Through Ms. Gregory’s tireless fundraising along with the generosity of our community the money for an additional month was raised.
As a result of their efforts none of the homeless people they served came down with the virus. This was an extraordinary achievement. Pretty much every other city’s homeless populations were badly hit by this virus but our people were spared.
The headline should have been: “COVID19 Infection of Homeless Population Averted”.
I congratulate both Ms. Gregory and Mayor Kelly along with their respective staff for this wonderful achievement.
The Unfortunate Story of Supervisor Gaston and Our County Government
Around the third week in March Ms. Gregory contacted Tina Potter, the Commissioner of the Saratoga County Department of Social Services (AKA welfare department) for assistance. Now an uninformed person might have expected Commissioner Potter to recognize the urgency of this situation and suggest they team up to find the resources necessary to address this pressing issue. Instead Commissioner Potter dismissed the query. She informed Ms. Gregory that support would only be available for persons who were diagnosed with the disease.
Ms. Gregory pointed out the obvious, that by the time a person was diagnosed with the disease they would have infected many people around them including staff and any businesses like a Stewarts that they might have been in contact with. Commissioner Potter made clear that this was not the county’s problem and that Ms. Gregory would need to find another solution.
Ms. Gregory then approached Mayor Meg Kelly. The Mayor recognized the urgency of acting with all speed and contacted Cathi Duncan, Director of Public Health. The motto on Ms. Duncan’s website reads:
It is our mission to assess, improve, and monitor the health status of the community
Mayor Kelly and Ms. Gregory then met with Director Duncan. Director Duncan acknowledged the seriousness of the situation but told the Mayor that there was nothing she could do until someone tested positive for the disease.
In the meantime, counter to the headline of the Times Union that alleged the city was unable to secure federal money for the housing, Mayor Kelly drew on $61,950.00 from Federal Community Development Grant moneys to pay for the initial housing for the homeless at the Holiday Inn. She did not draw from the city’s fund balance.
I spoke to Mayor Kelly regarding her role in this matter. She told me that she did not seek reimbursement from the county to cover the initial month. She explained to me that she understood that SOS would be seeking money to cover the additional time for housing and she offered her support to Ms. Gregory for her efforts.
Ms. Liberatore actually acknowledges in the body of her story that the funds the Mayor used were federal. Whoever crafted the headline can be forgiven for their confusion because the Liberatore story begins with:
The nearly $62,000 the city spent to house the homeless at the Holiday Inn during the pandemic, which the city hoped would be federally reimbursed, will not be refunded.Liberatore May 20, 2020
Having been turned down by the Department of Social Services and the Department of health, and having allocated money from the Community Block Grant, no one was seeking reimbursement for the initial month as purported in the Times Union article.
On April 20, 2020, Tara Gaston wrote to the members of the City Council and to Karen Gregory offering two options for getting money from the county to assist in paying for sheltering the homeless at the Holiday Inn. Option #1 was to secure FEMA funding which would cover 75% of the housing costs. Option #2 was to seek discretionary money from County Administrator Spencer Hellwig. This could provide as much as $15,000.00.
Her email to the Council included her assertion that there was a FEMA requirement that SOS would have to first use moneys from fundraising they did during the pandemic to pay for the temporary housing before FEMA money could be used. This was a red herring as the fundraising done by SOS was not subject to this regulation (this will be covered in a later post).
The next day at the April Board of Supervisors meeting Gaston introduced a resolution to authorize the county to apply to FEMA on behalf of Saratoga Springs. The resolution passed unanimously.
Neither Supervisor Gaston nor anyone else from the county government ever contacted the city or SOS seeking additional information as a follow up to that meeting.
So how does one explain this from the Times Union story:
…Gaston said neither she nor her fellow city Supervisor Matthew Veitch were given access to information they needed. They wanted to know who was paying the Holiday Inn, Shelters or the city. They also asked about a contract between the city and Shelters. She also doesn’t know if Shelters has to pay back the city
“We can’t help if we don’t know that,” she said.
Without knowledge of what is going on, Gaston said, it jeopardized both the reimbursement and the money raised during a Shelters’ fundraiser, which FEMA could have subtracted from its reimbursementTimes Union May 20, 2020
Neither Supervisor Gaston nor Supervisor Veitch contacted the city or SOS following the April 21 meeting when the Board of Supervisors approved applying to FEMA. I contacted the Mayor and asked her to review email correspondence relevant to the FEMA money issue. Contrary to Supervisor Gaston’s allegations the Mayor never received any emails or requests of any kind from Supervisor Gaston or Supervisor Veitch for the information referenced in the TU story.
Even more bizarre is the fact that Supervisor Gaston attends every Saratoga Springs City Council meeting. She is on the agenda and she addresses the Council directly about matters relevant to the county and city. If she had actually wanted this information could she not have used any of a number of these occasions to request the needed information from the Council? If she had there would have at least been a video recording documenting her efforts. There is no such record.
Similarly, Karen Gregory was never contacted by Supervisor Gaston.
Why Should This Be The City’s Problem?
The county has a Department of Social Services, a Department of Health, and a Department of Mental Health. They also run a FEMA funded group that is charged with addressing problems related to COVID19.
No one has argued that the homeless are not particularly threatened by COVID19 or that they do not pose a risk to the wider community. For that matter no one is even arguing that all these people are just from Saratoga Springs. So why has the county not been a proactive force on this issue? Why isn’t someone from the county administration not working directly with SOS to find a solution for this problem? The role of Supervisor Gaston should have been to alert the appropriate authorities in the county to the problem and ask them to resolve it. That should have been the extent of her role . Putting aside the issues of credibility raised in this post, resolving this problem through her makes no sense. She adds an unnecessary layer that only serves to muddy the waters. Someone from the county should have formally written directly to either the city or SOS laying out what they needed in order to apply to FEMA.
Why Is The County Administrative Staff Not Making The FEMA Funding Happen?
Carl Zeilman is the Commissioner of Emergency Services for Saratoga County. He runs the county’s COVID19 response operation. There have been articles in the Saratogian and the Gazette in which Zeilman’s operation has been trumpeted for its efforts to combat the COVID19 epidemic. Where has Mr. Zeilman been in addressing this issue of the homeless?
In addition to his position at the county, Mr. Zeilman is also the chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Party. The following post which included a link to Wendy Liberatore’s article appeared on the County Republican Party’s Facebook page It reads reads as follows:
Mismanagement cost the taxpayers in the city of Saratoga Springs more than $60k. In a time when the city is furloughing it’s employees there is no excuse for this. Why no comment from Karen Gregory or the Mayors office? Because they are directly responsible!Saratoga County Republican Party WebsiteSaratoga County Republican Committee Facebook Page
As documented above, the allegation that this was paid for by taxes raised in Saratoga Springs is false. It would have been more productive if Mr. Zeilman had used the resources of his office to try to assist in finding a solution to this problem rather than making a partisan attack based on false information.
As for Supervisor Gaston, her decision to, in effect, praise her own efforts while ignoring the failures of the county and denigrating the city are disheartening. Mayor Kelly and Karen Gregory deserve better.