Latest Developments Of Saratoga County Pay Controversy: I Don’t Know Where To Begin!

It is hard to avoid hyperbole in describing the descent of Saratoga County’s government into chaos.

The County has now retroactively withdrawn the 50% raises for all but forty employees. They are going to recover any moneys of the now unlucky employees of the County who may or may not have actually gotten that money in a pay check yet.

The Deputies in the Sheriff’s Department had been required to agree to not take any outside employment as part of the original bonus agreement. Apparently, while the money is being withdrawn, they are still going to hold the Deputies to the work limit provision.

In the meantime, the employees who will continue to receive these moneys are part of something they are calling the COVID-19 Command Center.

So I went to the Saratoga County website and attempted to look up the COVID-19 Command Center. The search turned up one hit. What was that hit?

It was a single sentence from a statement by Preston Allen, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, regarding the County’s efforts to combat the virus. In his statement he assured the public that:

The only employees getting time and a half are those who are working in our COVID-19 command center. This group varies day to day but is on average staffed with 40 employees.

Preston Allen

What are the duties, responsibilities, and activities of those working in this “command center?” There is nothing on the website to tell us. Who are the 40 employees staffing this “command center” who are enjoying this time and a half pay and what are their positions? Nothing.

As there is a County COVID-19 hotline number listed, I decided to call it. Granted, I was calling it at 8:00 PM, but one of the reasons given for the raises was the 24/7 burden the County was enduring in dealing with this crisis. I let the phone ring for over five minutes. Not only did no one answer the phone but there wasn’t even a recorded message. Further research uncovered that the hotline operates from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

So I am afraid that if you want to call the Saratoga County COVID-19 Command Center, unless you know someone important, that will not be possible outside of regular business hours.

The County Takes On Its Morale Problem

In a previous post I documented the disparaging remarks about county employees made by the Saratoga County Human Resource Director, Marcie McNamara.

It is truly hard to imagine what granting a generous pay raise to the County staff and then not only withdrawing the raise but clawing back any money they may have already gotten will have.

So what did the County do to attempt to address the morale problem? They paid an Albany based public relations firm to issue a press release and produce a video. You can try to access the video through the link in the release, but you will learn that you need a password to view it.

The following is the press release. I don’t think the release needs any analysis from me except to note the presence of bounty hunter Duane “Dog” Chapman. It speaks for itself. The only thing missing is what the County, that is what we, the taxpayers, paid for it.

For Immediate Release

March 31, 2020

Media Contact: Ridge Harris, 518-378-6530

SARATOGA COUNTY WORKFORCE GETS THANKS FROM NFL LEGEND, REALITY TV STAR, AND LOCAL ELECTED OFFICIALS


Ballston Spa, NY – Saratoga County employees and others working on the front lines to stop the spread of COVID-19 today received a round of thank you messages from local elected officials and nationally recognized figures.

“On behalf of the community I’d like to thank you and your attempts to keep our neighborhood and our families safe,” said NFL Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, a Saratoga County resident and former head coach of the New York Giants.

“Words ‘thank you,’ ‘good job,’ and ‘atta boy’ are not near what you deserve,” said Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of the reality TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter.

The video included messages from county, state and federal elected officials directed to the county workforce who are working around the clock to support their neighbors during this pandemic.

VIDEO LINK: Saratoga County: COVID-19 Workforce THANK YOU!

——————————

Don’t Blame Everyone Associated With County Government For This

It would be unfair to blame everyone serving on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors for this debacle. While the original vote that created this debacle was unanimous, ten Supervisors have written several times to Chair Preston Allen calling for a meeting to address all this. Unfortunately, although they represent a majority of the Board of Supervisors’ weighted vote [for most business conducted, a Supervisor’s vote is recorded as the population of the town/city they represent] and could pass a resolution, to force a special meeting a majority of the actual number of Supervisors is needed. To date they have been unable to secure the 12 votes needed for this. It’s quite stunning and sad, I think, that given the degree of ineptitude the County has exhibited in dealing with this crisis that not even half of the Saratoga County Supervisors apparently see this as a problem.

It is also critical to acknowledge that there are many highly dedicated people who work for the County. It is unfortunate that they should suffer because of the stunning ineptitude of the management.

All of this Is Rooted in the Violation of the Open Meetings Law

The reason we know so little about all of this is that the Board of Supervisors has transferred its power to make staffing and payroll decisions to a special committee that meets entirely in secret.

One odd item in Chair Preston Allen’s public statement was his description of the committee.

In accordance with the resolution adopted by our Board of Supervisors, I hold a weekly meeting of the Chairs of our Law and Finance and Human Resource Committees and County Administration to determine the effectiveness of the current employee matrix, and it is adjusted accordingly to maximize the work we do for you while protecting taxpayer money.

Preston Allen

The resolution establishing the committee included Human Resources Director Marcie Anderson, who originally benefitted from the committee’s payroll decision, as a member. Her name is now absent. Has she been expunged from the committee?

Without any notice of when this very powerful committee meets or any record of what happens at their meetings, the public is left in the dark about what decisions are being made as to how to use tax dollars and County staff to address this crisis.

Good News: VLT Money Is Back

Press Statement

March 31, 2020
Restoration of VLT Aid in the 2020-20201 Budget Process
Contact: michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org or 518-526-9377

Today the City of Saratoga Springs received news that the elimination of VLT aid to all municipalities outside of Yonkers was rejected/omitted by the NYS Assembly and Senate. The restoration of VLT Impact Aid in the 2020-2021 State Budget is a very positive outcome at this stage in the state budget process especially as we manage through the COVID-19 related fiscal uncertainties and hard choices confronting Saratoga Springs. I want to thank Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and my colleagues Mayor Meg Kelly and Commissioner Robin Dalton for their efforts to protect this crucial revenue stream for our City. As I have previously stated, the Finance Department is working closely with the entire City government to minimize any disruption to essential City services and to protect our employees, citizens, and taxpayers. The restoration of VLT Impact Aid – which is approximately 4.27% of our projected revenues for the year – will help us to meet these challenges. 
 
The need for support covering the costs of hosting VLT facilities will continue for as long as we are hosting these facilities, and in the face of the current economy, this aid will be critical to our ability to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens, visitors, and taxpayers.  I would also like to thank all those in State leadership with the foresight to understand our message and our needs.

Thank you

Michele Madigan

Commissioner of Finance

City of Saratoga Springs

TEMPORARY LOCATION 15 Vanderbilt Avenue

Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

518-587-3550 

Times Union Story Adds More Insight To Saratoga County Pay Debacle

Wendy Liberatore has written a terrific story on the debacle over Saratoga County’s time and a half raises.  Fortunately, the Times Union has raised its pay wall so readers can access it through this link to the full story. 

The story focuses on Marcy McNamara who is the County’s Director of Human Resources.

In a recording of the March 17 Law and Finance Committee meeting Ms. McNamara offers a series of inaccurate and dubious statements. 

At one-point Ms. McNamara credits herself (she earns $119,000.00/year and will receive the special pay increase) with the idea of increasing employee salaries citing that it “…creates a better, more manageable situation so everyone is not faking sick…”

“[Without the raises] you would get half of the staff saying they need to be on leave”

“It’s an employee relations move, we wouldn’t have staff in the offices”

For a person who is the head of Human Resources, her attitude toward the employees of the county is an eye opener. Are the county employees so poorly motivated and unprofessional that without a time and a half raise they would desert their duties and call in sick en mass? Do her comments apply to herself and the other salaried staff who are also receiving these raises?

Contrast this with the employees in Saratoga Springs who are soldiering on despite the risk and with no special pay incentives. I see police cars regularly driving our streets and when I go to the transfer station with my trash and recycling, the regular staff is always there.

Our county has many outstanding people serving us. If there is poor morale among the county’s employees the fault appears not to be with the employees but with the attitude of management.

Supervisors Matthew Veitch and Tara Gaston Double Down on Social Media: Implausible Deniabiity

Saratoga Springs Supervisors Tara Gaston and Matthew Veitch have taken to social media to deny having responsibility for granting 50% raises to “essential” workers in Saratoga County even though there is evidence to contradict this.

Here is what Supervisor Veitch posted on his Facebook page:

I felt it was necessary to comment in regards to various media reports regarding pay for essential employees during the current crisis.

First, I appreciate all the hard work that everyone in Saratoga County Government is doing in response to the crisis, in fact I commend all of their efforts in serving the public with a reduced staff in this difficult time. They are doing a fantastic job.

Yes, the County is currently operating under a policy where most of the essential employees are getting 1.5 times pay for hours worked. I was informed of this decision on March 15th by our County administration, and was not involved at all in developing this policy. (Emphasis added)

Last week, the board of Supervisors voted on a resolution that appropriated $1M toward the response to the COVID-19 current crisis. I believed it was right and necessary to appropriate resources to respond to this crisis and voted for it. Nowhere in that resolution does it approve or dictate time and a half rates for essential employees. (Emphasis added)

I am not in agreement with the blanket time and a half policy for the County employees. The County employees have great, secure jobs and great benefits. I am open to finding a way to show our appreciation for the first responders and front-line employees who are taking a risk by just doing their jobs every day. At the current time there are many who are being laid off, and business that are struggling and not able to benefit during this crisis, so time and a half for they County is not the right decision.

I have signed on with Supervisors from other towns who also feel this way in asking for a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors as soon as possible to rectify this situation and properly propose a pay policy that does not include time and a half pay for our employees, and is appropriate for emergency response to this crisis.

On her Facebook page Tara Gaston offered a similar defense.

On March 15, 2020 administrator Hellwig notified the board of supervisors that essential workers were to recieve time and a half during the COVID-19 emergency. I immediately sought details, including who created the policy.

On March 17, 2020 the board debated resolution 84-2020 to amend the budget. The time and a half policy was not included in the resolution and was not voted on. Nevertheless, the topic was discussed. I requested that the pay discussion be taken to executive session to allow frank conversation about the origins and details of this policy. Chairman Allen, on the advice of county attorney Dorsey, denied the request.

So both Supervisors Veitch and Gaston state correctly that the raises were not in the resolution they voted for. But now they both write that the County Administrator Spencer Hellwig informed them two days before they voted that “essential” workers were to receive the time and a half raise. How did they think that was going to happen?

Keep in mind that both Supervisors were present at the Law and Finance Committee meeting on March 17 when the raises were discussed and that the raises were discussed also that day at the full Board of Supervisors meeting as documented in a previous post. Supervisor Gaston even restates in her Facebook post that she “requested that the pay discussion be taken into executive session to allow frank conversation about the origins and detail of this policy.” When her request is denied she makes no further attempt to pursue this.

Did the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors vote directly to grant a 50% salary increase to “essential” workers. No, they did not. But what they did do is knowingly vote to establish a committee (that included some who would benefit from the increase) to implement these raises.

After having been informed of the pending raises by the County Administrator and discussing the raises at both the Law and Finance meeting and the full Board meeting the resolution they all voted for stated that they agreed to establish a committee that would “have authority to ….determine appropriate County employee staffing levels and rates of compensation...”

Wikipedia defines the term plausible deniability as follows:

Plausible deniability is the ability of people (typically senior officials in a formal or informal chain of command) to deny knowledge of or responsibility for any damnable actions committed by others in an organizational hierarchy because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their participation, even if they were personally involved in or at least willfully ignorant of the actions. In the case that illegal or otherwise disreputable and unpopular activities become public, high-ranking officials may deny any awareness of such acts to insulate themselves and shift blame onto the agents who carried out the acts, as they are confident that their doubters will be unable to prove otherwise. The lack of evidence to the contrary ostensibly makes the denial plausible (that is, credible), although sometimes it merely makes it unactionable

Sometimes it’s best just to say you’re sorry.

County Committee Authorizing Raises Violated NYS Open Meetings Law

It appears that the committee which authorized the raises for “essential” county employees was in violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law which would make their action null and void.

Most meetings of public bodies that transact business are covered by the New York State Open Meetings law. This law was adopted so that decisions affecting the public would not be made secretly. It requires public bodies to give notice of when they meet, allow the public access to the meeting, and publish minutes of the meeting.

The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors’ resolution which allowed for the 50% increase in salaries for “essential” workers authorized a committee made up of three Supervisors and two administrative staff members to decide staffing and set salaries for County employees. The committee was not given a name. For our purposes I will refer to it as the “Special Committee.”

At some point following the meeting that adopted the resolution, this committee apparently met outside of public view and instituted the time and a half raises.

I contacted the New York State Committee on Open Government and spoke to Kristin O’Neil, the Deputy Director of the office. I reviewed with Ms. O’Neil the section of the County resolution that created the “Special Committee”. She told me that if the committee had been simply operating in an advisory capacity to the Board of Supervisors it would not have been covered by the Open Meetings Law. As the “Special Committee” was empowered to actually take action on behalf of the County government, however, it was required to follow the provisions of the Open Meetings law.

The law requires that the public be notified as to when and where such a meeting will occur prior to the meeting. The meeting must be open to the public and the minutes of such meetings must be available to the public.

Following my conversation with Ms. O’Neil I went to the County’s website and accessed the calendar that lists public meetings. I could find no entry for this “Special Committee.” I also went to the page on the website that provides access to the minutes of the public meetings and could find no entry.

Any action take by a public body in violation of the Open Meetings Law is invalid. My experience observing the courts is that they would permit the County to take corrective action. At a minimum the “Special Committee” would, following proper public notice, be required to meet again to retroactively approve their action.

I have written to the County Attorney, Stephen Dorsey, asking him to address this issue. The full text of my inquiry is at the end of this post.

It is also unclear whether the Board of Supervisors had the authority to delegate the power to set salaries to an ad hoc committee. I will be writing to the Comptroller of the State of New York advising them of the County’s actions and asking for an opinion.


Email To County Attorney Stephen Dorsey

I contacted the New York State Committee on Open Government regarding the committee established in resolution 84 at the March 17, 2020 meeting held under the auspices of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.  I spoke with Kristin O’Neill, Assistant Director of the State’s Committee.  I reviewed the resolution with her with special attention to the following:

RESOLVED, that the Chair of the Board, the Chair of the Law and Finance Committee, the Chair of the Human Resources and Insurance Committee, the County Administrator and the Director of Human Resources shall have the authority to jointly determine appropriate County employee staffing levels and rates of compensation that are consistent and in compliance with the current directives of any Executive Order issued by the Governor of the State of New York relative to local government staffing levels; and be it further ….

Ms. O’Neill confirmed my reading of the text that the committee was not charged to act in an advisory capacity but was manifestly granted full authority to establish “staffing levels and rates of compensation.”  As such she advised me that the committee would be subject to the Open Meetings Law.

 I have looked at the calendar on the County website.  As the resolution did not ascribe a name to the committee, I cannot be sure, but am impelled to note that none of the names in the calendar appeared to be that group of officials.  I also looked in the minutes option and similarly could not find anything related to the committee at issue.

 Was there notice provided to the public prior to the committee meeting?  Are there minutes that memorialize the deliberations and actions of its members, and are they now available to the public?  I note that, as a clear matter of law, two verities dominate this inquiry: (1) the Freedom of information Law (FOIL) pertains to and defines the public’s right to government records; and (2) the Open Meetings Law pertains to and defines the public’s right to attend the meetings of public bodies.  Both of these statutory enactments are settled matters of public policy in New York, and are grounded in a presumption of meaningful and timely access.    

In light of the above, would you concur that the committee was and is covered by the New York State Open Meetings Law, and that records of its proceedings are likewise covered by the FOIL?

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

John Kaufmann

518-281-2173
Sent from my iPad

Beyond Greed: Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Flying Blind In A Typhoon

The Saratoga Prosperity Partnership reported the results of a recent poll they did of local businesses. Over two hundred and thirty businesses responded.

According to Shelby Schneider, president of SPP:

“Fifty-nine percent of the business [sic] reported that they’re at risk of closing and they’re concerned about how to retain and pay [sic] workforce they still have. Forty-one percent of those surveyed say they have already had to lay off their workforce. A majority of businesses say that they need working capital now.”

The difference between Saratoga Springs’ response to this pending economic crisis and Saratoga County’s

It is indisputable that both the County and the city of Saratoga Springs are going to experience a precipitous drop in sales tax revenue. It is instructive to see how the city of Saratoga Springs is addressing this fiscal challenge in contrast to the County.

Yesterday (Thursday, March 26, 2020) Michele Madigan, the Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Finance, issued a press release addressing the City’s financial condition and providing estimates to the public of what the loss of revenues this year could look like (the full release can be found at the bottom of this post).

The following is an excerpt from the release:

“The 2020 General Operating Budget projects total 2020 revenues of approximately $48.7 million. At this time we are considering a scenario of a $7.8M loss of revenue for the first half of 2020.  It is harder to judge through year-end, but we may be facing a total 2020 revenue shortfall of $16 million. This scenario equates to a 33% shortfall in 2020 revenue. We are planning to manage through this loss of revenue – and we are well positioned to do so.”

March 26 Press Release

Having acknowledged the problem, the release discusses the state of the City’s finances and the release describes the Finance Department’s approach to managing this shortfall.

Contrast this to how Saratoga County is addressing the fiscal disaster we are entering. As documented in an earlier post, when the County Board of Supervisor’s Law and Finance Committee was told that the projected additional cost for the proposed raises for the County’s “essential” employees was $325,000.00 per week and that there was no way to estimate how long it would be necessary to continue this policy, one would have expected a discussion of the County’s finances similar to the review done by Commissioner Madigan. No such discussion took place. Not one County Supervisor asked “Where are we going to get the money to do this?”

When you consider that, according to the County Administrator’s own estimates, the liability for these raises could exceed $1,000,000.00 a month, one has to ask, where are our Saratoga Springs Supervisors in all of this. It is good Supervisors Gaston and Veitch have announced that they are now opposed to the existing policy but conspicuously missing is precisely what their alternative would be. News reports show that at least one Supervisor from another town who opposes the policy would still continue the increase in wages for some employees.

It would seem that essential to making any decision regarding these raises, there needs to be an airing of what if any plans exist for addressing the anticipated loss of County revenue. If for example, the county were to lose 20% of its sales tax income over the next six months, are there the reserves to absorb this loss? If not, would there need to be layoffs? Would funding for some services be curtailed?

It is time for Supervisor Matthew Veitch and Supervisor Tara Gaston to step up and show some leadership. We are heading into uncharted waters. They need to insist that the County address how it will respond to the potential short falls in revenues it faces. They need to show that they have the courage to go beyond the cronyism that dominates our County government.

The two Saratoga Springs Supervisors attend our City Council meetings. At each meeting they report to the Council. To say that their reports are banal is to be kind. They need to address the Council at the next meeting about the state of the finances of the County. If they do not volunteer this information, the members of our City Council should insist that they do.


Finance Department Press Release

The City of Saratoga Springs is fortunate to have a healthy financial foundation as we face the COVID-19 pandemic.  The City’s economy is based on a diversity of sources, many of which are closely tied to tourism, entertainment, social activities, and our yearly racing season. We have been assessing our revenue, expenditures, and cash-on-hand as well as various fiscal tools available to the city based on near term, long term, moderate and severe outcomes.   

The 2020 General Operating Budget projects total 2020 revenues of approximately $48.7 million. At this time we are considering a scenario of a $7.8M loss of revenue for the first half of 2020.  It is harder to judge through year-end, but we may be facing a total 2020 revenue shortfall of $16 million. This scenario equates to a 33% shortfall in 2020 revenue. We are planning to manage through this loss of revenue – and we are well positioned to do so.

Since circumstances are changing daily, we are proceeding with caution regarding how to address this loss-of-revenue scenario.  Both over- and under-estimating our response has consequences.  Given the City’s good financial position and excellent community partnerships, we have many options, including cash-on-hand, healthy reserves, borrowing, various bonding tools, and shared services. 

It is too soon to determine what combination of these efforts will fit our needs.  But it is not too soon to state that all options will be considered very carefully, against the sustainability of the City government, the needs of our taxpayers, and most importantly, the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. We will not make rash decisions, and we remain confident that we can manage through this crisis while minimizing disruptions to essential City services.


Thank you,

Michele Madigan

Commissioner of Finance

City of Saratoga Springs, NY

474 Broadway 

Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

518-587-3550 

City Initiates Video Community Event Addressing Mental Health Issues and COVID-19

[JK: Commissioner of Public Safety sent me this notice about a Face Book video event addressing mental health issues related to COVID-19]

Link to event.

” We can’t underestimate the impact this pandemic is having on mental health” ~Gov Andrew Cuomo, March 25

The fears and anxieties brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak are significant and widespread. Please join us on Friday from 11am-noon to ask questions and discuss addressing these issues with your family and children-this is the first topic in a series addressing the mental health concerns stemming from the Coronavirus. The FB live will be moderated by Mayor Meg Kelly and Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton, joined by guest Alex Capo, LMHC. Alex is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with over 15 years of clinical experience working with children, adolescents and families. He is currently the Executive Director of the Charlton School.

**For 24-7, free emotional support, consultation and referral to a provider, call 1-844-863-9314. a mental health hotline for New Yorkers set up to help with NY’s COVID-19 response**