My friend, Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, has decided not to run again for public office next year. While Commissioner Madigan often struggled with public relations, there was no one more devoted to our city. I know from experience that she spent countless hours doing her job. Her hard work was reflected in the superb shape our city’s finances were in during her term. For over eight years she kept city taxes flat while helping the city achieve one of the highest bond ratings for a municipality in New York State .
What many people aren’t aware of is that she went well beyond the normal responsibilities of her office to work on important projects.
It was her effort that was critical to the establishment of the solar array on what had been the city’s landfill. It now generates electricity representing 40% of the city’s energy needs.
She was instrumental in overhauling the city’s website including publishing budgets and making possible the on-line payments of taxes and utilities. Her work was cited by the Empire Center and the Times Union as one of the three best websites in the Capital District.
She created a Smart City Commission to assist with technology projects. We now have public wi-fi in city hall and in Congress Park.
Her project to deploy a city wide fiber optic network with SiFi Networks is moving forward and expects to have its ground breaking in April 2021.
She advocated for using properties being foreclosed on to provide affordable housing that was developed by Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Saratoga.
She had the city partner with Spa State Park in the construction of a safe, fenced in dog park.
As with many of Wendy Liberatore’s stories in the Times Union the one published recently about city furniture being stored behind the city’s ice rink is pretty mundane and boring and has none of the drama and scandal the headline and opening paragraphs would lead the reader to anticipate.
The story bore the following headline:
“Saratoga Springs Guarding Its Pile of Discarded Furniture”
The subheading reads:
“When asked to get a look at what the city put out, a Times Union reporter was asked to leave”
While this has a certain dramatic, Nancy Drew quality to it, given Ms. Liberatore’s history, it is hardly surprising that she is not welcome to areas not designated as “public.”
For those who didn’t get beyond the headline (which I realize Ms. Liberatore did not write) and her opening paragraphs one would be left with the impression that something shady was going on. After all it would be reasonable to think why wasn’t the reporter allowed to take a look? If one actually read the whole story, as with others Ms. Liberatore has written, they would discover that the there is nothing actually in the story to support any kind of misdeeds. It is not a coincidence that these stories often have as their sources members of the charter change group. Readers will remember the story of Bill McTygue and Ann Bullock allegedly going to the Attorney General, Dillon Moran was the source of the city water non-story, and a story about alleged misspending on the restoration of city hall extensively quoted Ron Kim and Bob Turner.
So here is the background to this latest non-story:
When the city rehabbed city hall they transferred the existing furniture to temporary storage structures located behind the city’s ice rink. A significant number of items had been damaged in the fire and were covered by insurance. Other furniture had simply suffered the abuse of time. Some of it had been the property of the courts.
Subsequently, the city purchased new furniture for their offices. In the meantime employees from the city departments and the local court offices have been visiting the site and going through the inventory deciding on which items they wanted to keep.
The city’s plan was to allow time for departments and the courts to decide what they wanted to keep and then either to donate what remained to local non-profit groups or discard what was no longer usable.
Apparently Bob Turner and Pat Kane learned of the inventory and this week (the first week in November) decided to go out and inspect the area. When they arrived they were asked to leave. Turner left but apparently Mr. Kane resisted. DPW staff ended up calling the police who escorted Mr. Kane off the site.
Some time later, Wendy Liberatore, the Times Union reporter, arrived but the DPW staff on site refused her access.
‘…the furniture needs to be reviewed by the departments, and court staff to determine if they have a use for it.’
“If there is a use it will be kept. After the process it can be offered up to nonprofits or discarded. Much of the remaining furniture appears to be relatively old and would probably be considered depreciated to the point of having no present value.”
Veitch to Liberatore November 5, 2020
In her story, Ms. Liberatore reported that the city had allegedly spent $324,269.00 on furniture. Ms. Liberatore had FOILed the city for all invoices associated with the city hall restoration. As the reader can imagine, there was a motherload of invoices. The reader will pardon my skepticism but as someone who has closely observed these people I think it is likely that Ms. Liberatore depended on the pro-charter people to come up with conclusions about the information rather than independently reviewing all these materials herself. It remains to be seen how inflated the numbers being thrown around here are. The charter change proponents do not have a great record when it comes to accuracy. As documented on this blog, information published on the Common Sense Saratoga site has been not only shown to be untrue but easily debunked. I would urge the readers to be cautious about Ms. Liberatore’s figures.
Ms. Liberatore reported that Pat Kane had “perused” the inventory. According to Kane, he “discovered” about one hundred boxes of records.
The city had in fact stored a large number of boxes of documents in one of the tractor trailers during the restoration of city hall. These were simply stored while the offices were being refurbished. These boxes were not being thrown away. I was told that they are being reviewed to decide what needs to be kept and where to store these. Some of these papers will need to be located where they can be accessed while others being kept to meet legal requirements will need to find a home that is both secure but does not take up the most accessible and valuable space at city hall.
Below are photos taken on Friday of some of the furniture that still remains at the site.
3,237 mail in ballots have been received so far. The advocates for the charter would need to get approximately 70% of the mail in ballots to win. This is highly unlikely but it ain’t over til it’s over.
Common Sense Saratoga is the flagship website for the advocates of the proposed charter change that will be on the back of the ballot tomorrow (November 3, 2020), and they have been a major promoter of false narratives in this campaign. Their most recent attempt is to try to persuade Saratogians that the rehab of city hall has been an excessively lavish expenditure. They falsely claim that the city has chosen to buy expensive furniture and has made other profligate expenditures while laying off police and firefighters.
In an earlier post I have documented that the decisions and expenditures of rehabbing city hall predated the pandemic shutdown.
I thought it would be helpful to visit city hall now that it is again open to the public and see what the rehab actually looks like.
As the pro-charter people focus much of their disinformation campaign on the expenditures associated with Commissioner Michele Madigan and the Finance Department Office, my inspection focused on this area.
Commissioner Madigan’s office actually takes up only a small part of the space allotted for the Finance Department which includes workspace for a number of department employees and IT as well space for the public to come to pay their tax bills.
I first looked at the chair at the Commissioner of Finance’s desk. I thought if there had been lavish spending this chair in particular would be a good example of that. Perhaps given the accusations coming from the pro charter people, it might even be throne like.
Here is a picture of that chair.
A bit of a disappointment I thought.
And here is the Commissioner’s work area.
A nice poster of horses but where are the Picasso and Van Gogh paintings?
Below is the entrance to her office. This glass wall was part of the original building that the architects successfully urged the city to maintain.
Fortunately most of the original panes (see below) have survived.
Due to limited space the Commissioner’s office also serves as a conference room. This is the conference table.
Below are examples of the features that have made our city hall greener and will be energy savers now and into the future. These are state of the art cooling and heating devices.
Note the rug. As part of their disinformation campaign the pro-charter people have been circulating on social media that the rug cost $17,000.00. You will see in the photos and videos that the rug covers the floor of all the Finance Department offices, some 2,200 square feet and cost $7.73 per square foot. It has a twenty year warranty. Given the heavy use of the area it required high quality material.
The Deputy Commissioner of Finance and the person who manages the telephone system and the mail for all of city hall share a work area in this outer office.
This is one of the two new public bathrooms on this floor. The old bathrooms were poorly lit funky places.
Behind this wooden wall is the office of Christine Gillmett-Brown, Director of Finance. (Note the carpet)
These are the offices that handle people’s tax payments. The outer office is where payments are received. (Note the carpet)
This is a view of the outer office where the money is received. The architects constructed the barrier for security reasons given that payments are handled here. (Note rug)
This is the beautiful, original ceiling for this office. This ceiling had been hidden by a drop ceiling. When the architects had the drop ceiling removed they found the stored papers of New York Senator Edgar Brackett (1853-1924). Senator Brackett was a major player in local and state politics. The Wikipedia entry about him is well worth the read.
This is a short video of the kitchenette for the staff.
The chair of one of the staff members in the outer office. They liked their original chair and declined a replacement.
View of the public side of the Finance Office
Small room for staff to meet privately with citizens who have questions and concerns.
This is on the top floor of City Hall. A lovely window in the Planning Department’s office area.
Directory In Elevator
New Council chambers.
This picture shows the video screen in the Council chambers. Note the ducts high on the wall. When the chambers were filled by the public it was usually insufferably hot. Those near the pathetic excuse for a window air conditioner got little relief while the noise of the unit made it hard to hear. Hooray for greener and better heating and cooling.
Two views of the rehabilitated music hall on the top floor of City Hall (where the fire began).
This opening is in the music hall. It provides access to a small kitchen. The city expects to rent the music hall for events similar to the way it rents the Canfield Casino.
The architects saved this old “water elevator.” It is located just outside the music hall.
This is part of the tile floor at the entrance to the music hall.
These are some of the improvements that now make city hall Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)compliant. New elevators and newly designed hallways that have ramps incorporated into them.
Video of Commissioner of Finance’s Office
Video of Area in front of Finance Director Christine Gillmett-Brown’s Office (more carpet)
Video of office shared by the Deputy Commissioner of Finance and the telecommunications/Mail manager for city Hall (With a little unintended chatter in the background)
Video of Music Hall
Based on my tour of city hall, it appears to me that the rehab was thoughtfully done. I did not find anything that suggested excess. Those of us who frequented city hall over the years and those who have seen the “before” pictures cannot help but be struck by the improvements. The city hall belongs to the people of Saratoga Springs. These office spaces do not belong to individual commissioners. Others will occupy these spaces in the years to come. We are fortunate that the citizens of our city take great pride in its character and beauty and history. The fire that severely damaged city hall gave us the opportunity to make it greener and to redesign it to address long standing issues like where to put the police department and how to provide the city courts more space that the state required as well as making it ADA compliant.
It is just another example of the pro-charter people trying to turn what has been a laudable achievement into an alleged scandal.
I urge people to visit their city hall and decide for themselves.
The Common Sense Saratoga website is the flagship site for the pro-charter group. The latest disinformation campaign on this site is a twelve alarm warning, alleging that the city has dramatically increased water rates. The warning is false.
Here is a sample from the pro-charter website which includes shrill videos touting their allegations.
Are you shocked by the increase in your water bill–like so many in Saratoga Springs? It’s really time to put professionals in charge of City Hall. First, the Rec Center’s funding is cut to balance the budget. Now, this. When we look at other cities in the region, none of going through the type of funding cuts we are.
Common Sense Saratoga
The reality is that some residents’ bills have gone up considerably and the city did increase water rates in March but only by 2%. There were no water rate increases in 2018 and 2019 and the fund balance and overall health of the water budget is very strong.
So how to account for an increase in water bills beyond 2%?
Reftelis is a consulting firm. Working with Duke University they have been analyzing water consumption during the pandemic. Here is a link to their report. What they found was that residential consumption was up and commercial consumption was down. The drop in commercial water use is not surprising when you consider how the hospitality industry for example has been devastated by the pandemic.
On the other hand there have been multiple factors that have increased residential consumption. For one thing, during the pandemic people have been spending much more time at home resulting in greater water consumption. In addition this summer was extremely dry verging on drought conditions so people have been watering their lawns and gardens more. The fact that water bills are sent out quarterly can also contribute to sticker shock.
So if a resident’s water bill has gone up more than 2% then it can only be due to greater consumption (or a faulty meter which could account for a particular individual’s bill but not for widespread increases).
In this video from a news story on WRGB, Commissioner Scirocco explains the issues.
I can understand the quandary facing people who think the proposed charter is an improvement but who are fully aware of the profoundly dishonest nature of the campaign that is promoting it. How do you support changing the city’s government while maintaining your integrity by distinguishing yourself from these people?
One thing would be fundamental, I would never donate money to the people who maintain sites like Common Sense Saratoga. If I agreed to appear in a video on their site I would insist on including a statement that I disavowed many of the tactics on that site.
The only person I am aware of who was both a supporter of charter change and who was critical of the proponents’ tactics is Barbara Lombardo. On her personal blog during the 2017 campaign she both advocated for the passage of that charter while expressing dismay at some of the tactics employed by its advocates. She is opposed to this year’s charter change proposal.
[This post has been corrected. The two homes mentioned in the TU article were not in Geyser Crest but in the Meadowbrook area]
In order for people to abandon their form of government it is only logical that they would need to believe that serious problems exist that necessitate a change.
So let’s step back and consider Saratoga Springs’ situation, putting aside whether the reader thinks there is a form of government that would serve us better.
Up until the pandemic
* the city had maintained one of the highest bond ratings of any municipality in New York State.
*the city had not had a tax hike in eight years.
*the City Council meetings, led by Mayor Kelly have been a study in efficiency and decorum.
*the city’s streets have been well maintained, we have outstanding recreation resources in terms of our playing fields, our recreation center, and our ice rink.
This city is the envy of many and its strong real estate market serves to demonstrate that people love living here or wish that they did.
Hey, we live in a wonderful place.
This has not been a great environment to try to convince people that Saratoga Springs is in desperate need of restructuring its form of government.
So utilizing social media the pro-charter people have attempted to conjure up a virtual Saratoga Springs where corruption is rife, the infrastructure is in a state of decay, elected officials are hostile to their constituents, the city’s finances are collapsing due to profligate spending by officials, and a sclerotic bureaucracy is impenetrable to all but well connected insiders and developers.
Fortunately for the pro-charter people, they have a willing partner in this mission in the Times Union whose quest for readers is aided by publishing the group’s dubious accusations. The actual stories usually include information that undermines the group’s claims but, the TU’s sensational headlines (“Lead In City Water”) are weaponized by posting them all over social media.
I have already reported on the complaint submitted to the New York State Attorney General (AG) about alleged collusion between the Independence Party and the members of the City Council. Bill McTygue and Anne Bullock made the same allegations in 2019 to the AG. The AG took no action. Now, just before this year’s election they did the same thing. The Times Union had reported on the previous complaint but wrote a new story as though this were some new revelation. Ms. Liberatore, the author of the article, failed to remind her readers about the previous complaint and the fact that the AG had apparently dismissed it.
Last week (October 23, 2020) the Times Union ran a story, again by Wendy Liberatore, about two residents who had experienced water problems. Neither resident agreed to be interviewed for the story.
The story reported that the neighbors had allegedly reached out to Dillon Moran regarding their problems. Moran ran unsuccessfully against Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco last year. Moran has been among the leadership of the pro-charter group and enjoys the dubious record of having created at least one fake website meant to confuse people looking for the website of those opposed to charter change.
The TU story is actually quite fair in its substance. Both homeowners had their water analyzed by a firm in Ballston Spa and in both cases their lead levels were elevated. Following the flushing of the city’s water system, the lead levels dropped to acceptable levels in one of the homes and while the turbidity continued the report noted that it has “no health effects” and the Department of Health said the water was in compliance with standards. In the case of the other homeowner, unfortunately the TU story did not report on the results after the flushing.
The story goes on to report that the health department affirmed that “…the city water is in compliance with standards.” The TU article quoted a NYS Health Department email that stated:
The [health] department was made aware of elevated lead levels in the drinking water sample collected from two homes on Saddle Brook Drive in Saratoga Springs. Although the city remains in compliance with current standards, the department, through its Glens Falls district office, is working with the homeowners to troubleshoot potential sources of lead within their homes.
New York State Health Department
In response to an inquiry by the TU, Commissioner Scirocco wrote to the newspaper:
No test results have been submitted by the resident to the city for review or confirmation to date…This would appear to be a home plumbing issue, it is not indicative of the city’s overall water as demonstrated by the annual water quality report.”
Commissioner Skip Scirocco
So the problem, according to the NYS Health Department, is not systemic but rather unique to the home. Instead of approaching the city about the problem, someone other than the homeowner, presumably Dillon Moran, went to the Times Union to generate a news story.
The Times Union is in the business of selling newspapers so with that in mind, consider the headline that ran over this story:
Report Finds Lead In Water
Just as bad if not worse was the subheading:
Search ongoing for source of Spa City contamination
It makes you wonder if the author of these headlines bothered to read the full story or just went with the sensational first paragraph.
The result has been a social media blitz by the leadership of the pro-charter advocates taking off on the headline and lead paragraphs and ignoring the counter information that comes later in the story.
Pat Kane, aside from being among the leaders of the pro-charter group, was the person who doctored a picture meant to get someone who works for the city fired. Here is one of many, many posts he has done claiming city water is unsafe:
Thank you. I stopped using tap water for our dog’s bowl. They are white dogs that have brown stains around their mouths. Since I gave them only filtered water, the brown staining has been fading every day. I am having a full house filter installed next week. I am now using Zero Water for all of our drinking water.
Pat Kane on Next Door
Or this one from Joanne Yepsen:
Until the rest of us on the eastern plateau have our water tested, we won’t know the extent of the problem. I don’t think we want to mess around with the water quality that comes into homes that our family drinks. I started by replacing a new filter for my refrigerator and will buy more bottled water.
Joanne Yepsen on Next Door
The threads on Next Door are really both sad and disturbing. Kane et al have fostered in some anxiety over the safety of the water on which they depend. There are posts where people worry about a ring of discolor in their toilet.
With local disinformation like this there is no need for bots or foreign hackers to undermine people’s sense of security and faith in their public institutions.
Public Officials Gone Wild?
The pro-charter people have seized on the current pandemic driven economic crisis to promote the idea that elected officials are lavishly spending money for fancy offices while laying off police and firefighters and cutting back on rec programs.
This story began several years ago when the pro-charter people got Wendy Liberatore to publish a false story that part of the capital improvements in the Finance Office included a private bathroom for the Commissioner.
Again, the story that just appeared in the Times Union was largely accurate. The bathroom is no longer “just for the commissioner” but for the fourteen members of the department. Up to now they have had to use the public bathroom that is small and that must meet the needs of the public as well as the members of the Finance Office. If you ever have visited this bathroom late in the day, you will have sympathy for the city employees who have endured using it.
The reality, as reported in the article, is that the decision to do the capital project was made in 2016. The city bonded for the project and the payments fell well within the city’s budget.
In fact, the contracts for doing the work had been awarded and the work was underway before the full impact of the pandemic hit.
The pro-charter people would have the public believe that the city chose to refurbish the offices rather than pay for police and fire. In fact, the bond money was restricted to the rehab work and most of the money had already been encumbered.
Let’s remember that this is part of a larger project to make our city hall “greener,” safer, and more accessible. It resolved the issue of the overcrowded police department and addressed the continuing demand from New York State for larger space for the courts among many other issues.
I would observe that this is our community’s city hall.
The Hyped Version
Again the headline for the Times Union story was the titillating, “$1.16M in Saratoga Springs finance office renovations raises eyebrows.” This was all the pro-charter people needed to play on the public’s fear about spending. The story allowed Ron Kim, a leader of the pro-charter group, to opine about how the city “…should have pulled away from spending on anything that was not necessary.” He also asserted that the city could have “…withdrawn from its spending agreements,” when, in fact, the money had basically already been spent.
In a social media post representative of the kind of liberties the pro-charter people took in their campaign, Mark Pingel wrote on the website NextDoor:
And in light of the Times Union article on over spending and palatial officers (SIC) for our commissioners, we need to make a change to get checks and balances. We must prevent our government from running amok any longer.
Mark Pringel, NextDoor
This city now finds itself under considerable financial stress, but it is plainly dishonest to attribute the problems we now face to the kind of gross mismanagement and corruption that the pro-charter people would like the voters of our city to believe exists. The reality is that the city’s income has experienced a severe blow from the pandemic all the more so as we are a tourist town dependent on visitors to fill our restaurants and hotels.
Hopefully the cynical campaign by the leadership of the pro-charter group will not prevail. Hopefully thoughtful people will see through all this and make up their minds based on the merits of the proposed charter rather than hype and misinformation.
The Times Union is reporting that the Saratoga County Board of Supervisor’s attorney Stephen Dorsey has announced his retirement to take effect at the end of December. He claims his retirement has nothing to do with the debacle over Covid related pay raises.
His advice not to explicitly authorize the bonuses in the Board of Supervisors’ resolution was central to the chaos that ensued.
His contention that the special Covid committee that granted the raises was not subject to the Open Meetings Law was identified in the independent investigation as not supported by New York State law.
It appears likely that the insurgent Supervisors will have the votes to take power in January. It is reasonable to assume he would not have survived such a change. It’s too bad that Spencer Hellwig doesn’t have the good grace to join Dorsey.
The Commissioner of Finance zeroed out the Rec Department budget (She didn’t.)
The pile of discarded items shown in the video was furniture bought by the city (It wasn’t furniture, and the furniture the city did lease for the temporary offices at the Rec Center was returned to the vendor. The items shown in the video were in fact the partitions used to set up the temporary work areas and had been sold at auction to the high bidder who was scheduled to pick them up.)
Ron Kim and Julie Cuneo are the co-chairs of Common Sense Saratoga and the following is an open letter to them:
Dear Ron and Julie:
This is a follow-up to my email to you both regarding the video that falsely purports to show furniture discarded by the city. In my email I documented how the video contained demonstrably false allegations, and I asked you to take it down.
Your website continually displays banners calling for transparency and accountability. In this age of bots and fake websites, the spirit of that clarion call is welcome.
What I do not understand is how your site can so blatantly violate those principles by displaying that video.
I had taken the liberty of posting comments on your website Common Sense Saratoga exposing the falsehoods in the video. I went up on your site tonight and discovered that my comments are gone. I also found that the text about “somebody sending you the video” was gone.
While I do not support your charter I am sympathetic to your commitment to improve our city. I believe that the value of your proposed ward system is the kind of idea that people of good faith can disagree about.
What I cannot understand is how you can undermine the credibility of your entire proposal by highlighting a video that is so clearly false. I would also have thought that both of you would be embarrassed by such a nakedly dishonest set of claims.
I find it even more troubling that you appear to assume that if you remove my comments from your website that you will be able to take advantage of an innocent public unaware of the truth.
Paraphrasing the late Ronald Reagen, “Mr. Kim and Ms. Cuneo, take down your video.”