Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thank You Rick Matters

Rick Matters ended his tenure on the EG Town Board tonight with the same principle and character which has informed his entire time of service.  He acted in the interest of Town residents in acting to NOT approve a contract with Bruen, which in his analysis needed further review with the Board.  He offered a three-month contract with an adjusted quarterly payment while additional issues were being reviewed which was rejected by Malone and Mangold. So both resolutions failed for lack of a majority.

The fact is that there are a host of issues which have been cited by the State Comptroller's office in audits of the Town's Ambulance District which have not yet been acknowledged or implemented.  (Bringing the financial operation of the Ambulance District under the control of the Town Comptroller is just one of them.)  The proposed Bruen contract still calls for quarterly payments of about a quarter of a million dollars to the Squad.  Something like this has been going on for a long time.  And there has NEVER been an audit of the Squad's financial operations.  A million a year in tax levy and insurance payments collected and disbursed by an entity which has never been audited. 

So in his final official act as a Town Board member, Rick did the right thing in making sure that a contract was not approved pending further review.  I hope that this is a sign of what we can expect from the new majority. 

Thank You Rick Matters!!!!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Labor Union Negotiations

----  By an Anonymous Guest Gadfly

The topic of labor union negotiations has reared its head.  This is often times considered a “taboo” subject in East Greenbush.  The elected officials appease the Unions and the Unions agree to back certain parties, as is evidenced by the political contributions made by some of our town unions.  Visit the BOE site and peruse the political contributions to each Party and/or candidate for the past 5—10 years and you will see a pattern.  East Greenbush has found itself in a financial pickle, of which there is no doubt.  The information shown at the end of this thread pinpoints the evidence of that.  

Do we, as residents, want to see the Political Parties negotiating the contracts?  Chances are they will “negotiate” favors and gifts with our tax dollars and we, the taxpayers, will pay the price for the gifts that we had no intention of giving.  Maybe it is time to play a neutral position with the Unions and NOT a political position.  The fact is unions do not want their pensions touched, none of us want our financial futures toyed with and gambled.  It seems, due to a recent court decision regarding Detroit, our Town’s poor financial condition can be used to the Town’s advantage…maybe there is a silver, (or at least a pewter) lining to the East Greenbush decrepit financial condition.  East Greenbush is NOT declaring bankruptcy however, if the finances continue on the downward side of the slope than who knows how things can turn out and that benefits NONE of us, including the unions.  Very few thought Detroit would go bankrupt.  

You are asked to review the information regurgitated below.  Then, after review ask yourself, do YOU want political cronies involved in the Town’s union contract negotiations?  Do YOU want the Political Parties beholden to the Unions?  Do YOU want prudent contract negotiations between individuals that do NOT have a political stake in how our tax dollars are spent/squandered?  To the Union leaders and members, do YOU want your pensions put on the line?  Do Union members want to worry about their pensions’ futures due to political games and favors?  Do union members want their pensions safe from financial ignorance?  Do union members in East Greenbush want the security of knowing Detroit is not East Greenbush’s ugly financial cousin?  Think about all of that and then ponder this……who is involved in contract negotiations on behalf of the Town and on behalf of the Unions?  Are they people we can all trust to put the interests of tax payers ahead of their own political gain and put the safety of union pensions ahead of their personal goals and aspirations?  Scroll through this information and it will cause you to take pause at what is happening with the Town’s finances and Union negotiations.  It will cause you to ask questions.  

Read that link and you will understand why the current East Greenbush labor negotiations and contracts are so important to residents as well as the union members.  Due to a court’s ruling regarding Detroit’s situation, the union pensions are NOT protected from the city’s declaration of bankruptcy.  What was once considered a “sacred cow” is now open for negotiations with municipalities?  The article begins as follows:

A federal bankruptcy court’s decision in Detroit last week putting that city’s constitutionally protected public pension on the table for cuts cracks the door open for pension reductions in New York.
The concern among unions is that the assurance that New York’s public workers have operated under since 1938 — that pensions “shall not be diminished or impaired” — could now be threatened by local governments fighting off insolvency.
“It’s a turning point. ... What has been sacred — pensions — are not sacred anymore,” said Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who has been a leader in seeking action to save New York’s distressed municipalities from insolvency. That has so far been avoided through higher taxes and layoffs and reducing services.
The Detroit decision could give struggling municipalities leverage in negotiating other concessions to avoid bankruptcy court.”
Please keep in mind, in August 2013 the following was printed:
WSJ editorial writer Stephen Moore, on the conservative Newsmax  website, is wondering if East Greenbush and Newburgh of all places may be the new Empire State poster children for unsustainable municipal governments.
He notes that the Albany suburb of East Greenbush has a record of “questionable employment contracts and illegal payments to town officials, and Newburgh has a $2 million budget gap in its schools and 26 percent of the population below the poverty line.” 
The article continued, “The East Greenbush consideration may not be that far off, I recall doing a story a while back about how their police pension costs in 2009 caused their credit rating to fall to junk bond status and my colleague Alysia Santo has noted the town’s other problems

2. East Greenbush, N.Y.

A New York state audit concluded that years of fiscal mismanagement — including questionable employment contracts and illegal payments to town officials — left East Greenbush more than $2 million in debt.

In conclusion I will again ask both residents and union members, “WHO DO YOU WANT INVOLVED IN NEGOTIATING UNION CONTRACTS?” 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Fine Morning

Here are some thoughts from "The Original Gadfly" on what the future should hold for the new majority.

            -----  By Ray Mooney

An Open Letter to Ms. Matters, Ms. DiMartino and Supervisor Langley  

You did not ask, and you may not care, but I do so here goes: 

·         Don’t gloat over your victory. Be gracious. Work to unite the town – not drive people further apart.
·         Do an immediate deep, even forensic audit. You have to know the true state of the town’s finances from the very get go. Check to see if politically connected citizens are even paying their taxes. It is remarkably easy to hide that.
·         Invite/request that the OSC come back and dig into specific areas of concern from the last audit. Report openly and to the public on any concerns and corrective actions required.
·         Purchase an up to date version of today’s best accounting software. Recognize that, for the moment, it will be “garbage in; garbage out” but you have to start somewhere to improve the town’s accounting practices and systems.
·         Open up town board meetings, be more transparent. Share information without the need for FOILs. When in doubt share – don’t hide. If a town board agenda does not provide time for full public participation schedule a second, separate meeting for just public comment.
·         Negotiate collective bargaining agreements for the good of the town’s taxpayers not to curry favor with employees and their unions. Look to the long term. How will we afford health care and staggering pension expenses down the road?
·         Bruen is totally and completely out of control. Make an audit a condition in the contract and create a corrective plan. Set standards and hold the Buren leadership accountable.  You might even consider putting the contract out to bid.  And as OSC recommended, move the fiscal activity into the Town Comptroller's Office.
·         Retain Dave Van Wormer as DPW Commissioner. He is the best, by far, of the last three people to hold that position.   You will need Dave’s knowledge and support to reduce overtime and eliminate DPW excess positions. Use his expertise.  You might want to consider making the Highway Commissioner position elective as the law allows. 
·         Appoint a real accountant with an advanced understanding of modern accounting practices and up to date accounting software to the Comptroller’s position. If Pete Stenson is that person retain him.
·         Eliminate the practice of burning up taxpayer dollars at the end of the year for absolutely nothing  in a “use it or lose” way to maintain budgets for things like DPW overtime.
·         Resist the urge to appoint your political cronies. Your political hacks will not be one darn bit an improvement over their political hacks. That applies especially to your party chairperson, by the way.
·         Install computer monitoring software on all the town’s computers. It is high time to eliminate selling on eBay and surfing the Internet as valid things to do on the taxpayer’s dime while at work.
·         Set goals for all the town’s department heads.
Ø      For the DPW plan to reduce headcount by 2 to 4 positions by seniority. Set a goal of reducing overtime in the DPW by 10%.
Ø      For the PD plan to reduce headcount by 2 positions. Set a goal of reducing overtime in the PD by 15%.
·         Eliminate positions:
Ø      Deputy PD Chief. This was a purely political appointment to award a party loyalist. Eliminate it.
Ø      Automate the collection of taxes. It is soon to be 2014 for goodness sake. In automating the collection of taxes eliminate the two deputy tax collector positions.  The law allows for the tax collector position to be appointed and not elected.
Ø      Eliminate the town attorney position. Almost all serious legal work is farmed out to legal specialists so the position,  a political appointment anyway, can easily be eliminated.
Ø      Eliminate one or both deputy building inspector positions. Might be a good place to begin a work-load analysis.
Ø      Eliminate the town attorney secretary position.
Ø      Eliminate the data collector position.
·         At the January Town Board meeting pass the original, unrevised Code of Ethics.
·         Re-appoint Jack Conway to the Ethics Board.
·         Appoint serious people to the Ethics Board and the Citizens Fiscal Advisory Committee (CFAC)
·         Have the CFAC support, monitor and report publicly on the overtime and headcount reduction goals for the DPW and the PD.
·         Clean up town hall. It looks terrible and gives an equally bad first impression.
·         Re-evaluate the $14 million waste treatment plant expansion project. It makes no sense to put so much debt on taxpayers when the county option is so viable, simple and inexpensive.
·         Explore every opportunity to consolidate services. Evaluate the dispatcher function as a starting point.  It seems like a duplication of expense to have town employees doing what can equally and easily and less expensively be done through the county’s services.
·         Ask for assistance and help. Promote volunteerism. There are dozens of people, with all kinds of expertise ready and willing to support positive change in East Greenbush. Access those available resources.
Congratulations on your success.  We all look forward to your driving positive change and fulfilling your campaign promises.
The Original Gadfly

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Devil We Know or the Devil We Don't Know???

Here are some perspectives on the election and the candidates from the Gadfly and guests to stimulate some thinking and commenting as we approach "the Decision" on Tuesday.

 Campaign 2013:

Like most election campaigns, I’m glad this one is almost over.  Although there has been a good deal of substantive discussion we have also seen personal attacks and unsubstantiated rumors about candidates and, more disturbingly, their families and friends.  But such is politics here in East Greenbush.  We have four candidates for two seats: if the republicans win both seats they will take the majority on the town board whereas the democrats only need one to maintain their current advantage.  The winners will take the places of Ginny O’Brien and Rick Matters, who in terms of tenure and contribution are the two most distinguished members of the current board.

The two primary sources for direct information about the campaigns have been mailings and articles in the Advertiser.  The republicans advanced proposals for fixing the financial problems facing the town while the democrats stressed the qualifications of their candidates.  Both were intelligent strategies as republicans used financial distress as the basis of their criticism of the current regime and democrats sought to underplay our problems and shift the focus from their role in creating the financial crisis to the positive qualities of the two candidates.  Each strategy brought out the best in the candidates – Mary Ann Matters and Deb DiMartino appear to have a number of good ideas for change, Mike Bottillo and Cheryl Vallee appear to be well qualified to sit on the board.  This is only a matter of emphasis as the republican candidates also seem qualified and the democratic candidates had some good ideas, especially in their focus on rejuvenating the 9 & 20 corridor.

The election also brought out the best in our town government.  In a rush to pre-empt issues they knew could hurt them during the campaign, the democratic majority passed a new Code of Ethics, approved funding for audits, and offered a plan for improving the fiscal condition of our town government.  The plan was slight and insufficient but its appearance did make me wish we had an election every six months since campaign season seems to be the only time the interests of taxpayers take center stage in the workings of our local government.  In fairness, the republicans deserve as much credit for these accomplishments as the democrats because there was little indication any of these things would have been done without having first been raised as campaign issues.   The democrats are asking for a chance to continue what they see as an upward trend in fiscal responsibility; the republicans are asking for a chance to see what Supervisor Keith Langley can accomplish with a board majority and a new direction in financial planning. 

My concern is that all of this is campaign blarney and what both sides really want is another chance to feed at the public trough.  So when deciding how to vote it’s also important to consider what appointments will be made in key positions.  The best argument for voting republican is that the democrats have run our finances into the ground and taking a chance on change is likely to yield at least some improvement.  In this case, the devil you don’t know is better than the one you do.  There will be a race for Supervisor in two years and some people want to see what Supervisor Langley can do with a majority before deciding to re-elect him.  The best argument for voting democrat is that the current majority has done some good work – the roundabouts, the plans for and clean-up of Hampton Manor Lake, the funding for the wastewater treatment upgrade – and their recent appointments have been good ones – Meghan Webster as director of planning, and Angelina Cadena and Pete Stenson as Comptrollers.  Dave Van Wormer has done a good job at DPW.  We can only speculate on who the republicans will appoint but if they win those choices will be critical.  For me the choice comes down to which candidates will show the most independence when faced with a choice between their party’s interests and those of the taxpayers.  We need strong-minded, independent representatives and we need them now.  We also need a town board that acknowledges our problems and resolves to take firm action to address them even if it proves unpopular with their base.  But however you come down on these issues, make sure your voice is heard on Tuesday.

                                                                                 -------  Jack Conway 

This time around:
I’m recalling the famous rhetorical question from Jeremiah 13 – “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?”  I’m also recalling the first act of the current majority after Mr. Langley was elected, but had not yet taken office.  You might recall that they “whacked” his salary in a deliberate attempt at intimidation.  Politics is not bean-bags in East Greenbush.  But then Mr. Langley did not understand and therefore could not heed good solid advice about how to use a minority position to his advantage and build a record for his people to run on. 

The current majority has not been a good steward of its charge.  The rush to produce a “record” at the last Board meeting was disingenuous.  East Greenbush government has been dragged kicking and screaming toward responsibility.  And those who have done the dragging are private citizens. 

So what about the alternative, Mr. DeFruscio’s “Republicans?”  (Is any candidate a Republican or Democrat this time around?)  I am concerned that there is a real possibility for the “same old same old” if the majority changes.  I remember the “it’s my turn” speech at a Board meeting some months ago.  That was not comforting.  So there is a bit of a quandary for us.  But we’ve seen the Dem leopard actually at “work,” and that’s the reason I think I’ll support a regime change this time around.

Hope for East Greenbush is going to be in independence from the Party Machines and their respective “hangers-on” and loyalty to the interests of the taxpayer.  Mr. Langley deserves a chance to show what his majority can do in the next two years.  If he doesn’t, and we have more of the same – only with a Republican brand – it will be a pretty good sign that we need a Third Party effort here in EG.  A government of, by and for the people – not the Party. 

                                                                                    ------ Don Johnson        

Thoughts on this year's election......

All my thoughts on this year's election for Town Board are covered in used coffee grounds, in my garbage can. That's where all the campaign literature goes. My recollection tells me it's all Republican this year, and full of typical empty blather about lower taxes and greater fiscal restraint. And not just at the Town level either, but also at the County legislature and a County judgeship opening. I can honestly say I have not received a single flyer or mailer from Town or County Democrats. Maybe because I'm a registered Democrat and they think they already have my vote? Why? Look at what they've done to us. Disregarding the misplaced attempts at bipartisanship voting shown by the Town Board Minority over the last two years, the fact is that the Democratic Majority could have passed every Resolution on their own 3-2 strength anyway. 5-0 just gets you there faster. And where is "there?" Junk Bond status, deep Town debt and documented (by outside agencies, including the State) Town mismanagement, improper handling of infrastructure assets like the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the Town Park, unwillingness to update the Town Ethics Law, unwise hiring decisions (to include a contempt for even basic compliance with mandatory Civil Service law) and borderline illegal payments to people who shouldn't have been paid. We still don't have finished audits from three years ago because the Democratic-controlled books were so messed up that outside auditors, including the State, cannot yet make sense of the numbers. We had to hire a second set of auditors, paid for by you, just to make some sense of what the Democratic-controlled Town Hall was doing with the money. 

All in the past, yes, but what have we seen to indicate that this Chicago-style approach to governing would not simply continue under another Democratic regime? Nothing. Recent Democratic Advertiser pieces have been thuggish in tone, completely in keeping with tradition. And, they run an anonymous blog that no one will take credit for, a blog that stoops to new levels of low in attacking not just other politicians (which is expected, and part of the game), but also taxpayers who voice an opposing opinion, and even worse, their families and friends, people not even involved! This is reprehensible, and I have yet to hear anyone in the Democratic leadership call for it to stop. You may not like what you read here on this Gadfly blog because it too accepts anonymous comments, but you almost always know who wrote the original thread posts and you know who the moderator is! 

But most telling for me is a quick analysis of the last two years of Board Meetings. If you go to the Town's website you'll find the minutes of the meetings, 10 per page. When you get 6 meetings down on the 4th page you will be at the 1/2/12 Organizational Meeting, the 1st meeting with Langley, Matters, O'Brien, Mangold and Malone on the Board. There have been 36 meetings for these folks. That's 180 potential "I showed-up-to-vote" opportunities. They do, after all, get $10,000 a year to do this stuff. Running down the list you see the following: Langley missed 1 meeting out of 180. That's 2%. Matters missed 4 meetings, or 11%. O'Brien missed 2 meetings, or 5%. Malone missed 9 meetings, or 25%. That's a lot, no matter how you slice it. And Mangold, like Matters, missed 4 meetings. If you run the numbers by party affiliation, the Democrats missed 15 of their 108 possible meeting slots. 14% of the time they didn't show up. Republican-affiliated members ( non-Democrats, if that's easier) missed 5 of their 72 available meeting slots, or 7%. Do the math. The Democratic leadership in this town takes it's meeting responsibilities only half as seriously as the non-Democrats. I think I prefer the party that shows up more.
                                                                               --------- Dwight Jenkins

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Code of Ethics Passed by Town Board - Jack Conway

Last night the Town Board passed a new Code of Ethics by a vote of 5-0. It includes a financial disclosure requirement that is reasonable and, if correctly monitored, will protect residents from most financial conflicts of interest.  The new Code includes much of what was in the version drafted by the original Board of Ethics but the sections on nepotism and post-employment restrictions have been watered down to the point that there is little or no protection in those areas.  All in all, though, it is a Code well worth having and the board should be congratulated for making it the law of the town.  Improvements will have to be made over time but it's a very good start

It took three years to get this Code passed but as the German sociologist Max Weber said "Politics is slow boring in hard wood."  It probably shouldn't have taken this long but it was worth the wait to get a Code that could be backed by the full board.  The original members of the Board of Ethics - Joe Slater, David Youmans, Jim Breig and Justine Spada - did a great job and deserve our gratitude.  The members of the public who attended meetings and made invaluable suggestions - Ray Mooney, Pete Stenson, Eileen Grant, Ed Gilbert, Tom Grant and others - also deserve a vote of thanks.  Thanks also to all the bloggers who remained concerned about this issue and helped keep it in the public eye.  Thanks to the Gadfly for printing all of my ravings about the Code.

Rick Matters and Keith Langley supported the draft prepared by the Board of Ethics from the start and managed to put that version into the public record, a move that kept the issue alive and before the public.  Their decision to make it a central issue in this Fall's campaign created pressure that helped the final Code become law.  Ginny O'Brien, Sue Mangold and Phil Malone worked with Joe Liccardi to produce the version that is now law.  Their revisions were carefully considered and respectful of the original draft in most respects.  On a personal note I owe Ginny O'Brien a debt of gratitude for appointing me to the Board of Ethics and then giving me the space to work independently and to the best of my ability.  Last night was her last town board meeting after twenty-five years of public service.  Since she brought me into the process I was glad she was there to cast a 'yes.'  I wish her all the best.  Slan go foill Ginny.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The 2014 Tentative Budget by Dwight Jenkins

In case you haven't reviewed the Supervisor's Tentative Budget yet, here is the link to it:

Now that you've had a chance to look at it, I'm just wondering if any of the following items jumped out at you or made you wonder. This is not an exhaustive list, feel free to chime in with your own observations. (Water and Sewer funds have not been reviewed.) Maybe one of the readers will be able to fill in some of the gaps, because the budget is important. It looks like the Supervisor has tentatively found a way to keep things moving in Town without making us pay more. Of course, there are a number of steps that still remain in the process before the budget goes from Tentative to Actual, and that's why this is the time to begin talking about it. When it comes time for the Public Hearing and the election you want to be as informed as possible. Hopefully this post is a small part of that preparation. In no particular order:

There's a separate expense line this year called "Library-2012 Arrears" for $40,160.  Arrears for what? 

The Bruen (East Greenbush Ambulance) tax levy remains the same as last year at $671,913. Estimated revenue is $400K, also the same as last year, but this is $330K DOWN from the previous 2 years, and the tax levy is about $330K more than in those previous two years. Why? Bruen revenues are basically down 50% while tax levies are up 50%. What changed in 2 years?  

And why doesn't Bruen provide the same level of detailed information that the rest of the budget provides? At least with the library you can go to their outdated web site of proposed budgets  (the last budget info on the site is the "proposed" 2013 budget, produced in September 2012) and see some potentially important things. You get nothing from Bruen except a page at the end of the tentative budget showing no expenditures except Contractual Expenses (which are up $160K from 2012), Workers Comp and LOSAP retirement expenses. There must be more. And look at Bruen's Revenue: their property tax revenue went up $196,000 from 2012, and ambulance charges more than doubled in that time, from $191K to $400K. Notice also that 2012 final and 2013 projected lines show no LOSAP expenses. Why? Why? And why?
General Fund Expenditures:  Independent auditing is still budgeted even though they haven't produced a damn thing yet; the Tax Collector Personal Salary line shows the greatest increase of all the Town Hall positions: up about 7 or 8 % to $56,300 even though the salary of the tax collector is supposed to be $56,800. Where's the other $500 going?  And what has the position acquired in terms of duties to justify such a large increase?

The Attorney salary line is down $20K while the Contractual Expense line is up $11.7K. Why?

The Data Processing salary line is down $3K but Contractual Expenses are up $20K. Why?
Judgment and Claims CE (hired attorneys?) went from $92K in 2012 to a projected $23.00 (yes, $23.00) this year, but projected to be $20,000K next year. Why?

We have a Contingency fund of $110,00 this year- none last year or 2012. That's good.
You never know what life is going to throw at you.

Association of Towns meeting expenses will be cut by 2/3 if the Supervisor has his way, from $5.5K to $2K.

Assessor salary and Contractual Expenses lines both show decreases, with CE down by $65K. Why?

Parks/Playground Salaries and CE consume more than $200K a year. Seriously?

Youth Programs eat up $90K a year.  Are we getting a good return on this? Are we changing lives? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it's a lot of money and the question needs to be asked.

Beautification of the Town and Band concerts get only $1,000. Veterans get $3K and the elderly get $4,500. Given the above Parks/Recreation/Youth expenditures, these 3 pittances stand out as way different. A lot.

Planning Dept. Contractual Expenses are massively down this year (to $0) from last year's $95K and projected to be only $34K next year. Why?

State Retirement is up from $149K last year to almost $484 next year. Fire and Police Retirement similarly go from $181K last year to $582K next year. Social Security contributions, a measure of wage increases or an increase in the numbers of employees, have remained fairly steady, hovering around $300K. So why the big increases in the other things?

Health Insurance Longevity Buy-Out is cut in half next year, down $47K.

Bond Anticipation Payments (debt) are dramatically down this year and next, from $108K to $20K. Why?

The Total salary line is fairly steady at about $4 million, while benefits are up by about $700,000.

Total Revenues are down $130,000 from last year, and more than $600,000 from 2012. It seems we are stagnating, maybe even contracting.  Safety inspection fees are down by half, Planning Board fees (for filings ) are down by 25%. In a growing economy these numbers would be going up, not down.

Scrap metal sales are down about 50% both this year and next. People might be doing their own scrapping to make a few bucks.  Doubtful that scrap price per ton is down that much...but maybe. Worth mentioning, given the Town's sketchy scrap past.

County sales tax revenue is projected to be up $100K next year. This is a good thing. 

Finally, on the bottom line of the Revenue page: we showed a net surplus of $937,775 in 2012, and we are projecting an even bigger surplus of $1.1 million this year, with next year slated to be $0. So where's the extra money been going for the last two years? Debt payments are down, a lot. Go back and look at previous years' General Fund surpluses: $431K in 2009; $113K in 2010; $153K in 2011; $937K in 2012, with this year slated to be even bigger. How is this possible? And don't forget, 2012 was the last year of the "State Aid" handout: $847,675 that year! This year it was only $6,048 and next year nothing. Somehow this tentative budget absorbs that blow and comes out smelling like a rose. And we've been collecting more than we're spending by what, 15% of our General Fund levies both this year and last, yet we're considered near bankruptcy (by one guy) and still a junk bond credit risk (by lots of guys) ? Something isn't adding up.

Here's where you help add to the questions, or add to the clarity of the 2014 Tentative Budget:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Courage to Govern II

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

US Prosecutor Says NY Corruption 'Rampant'
By Jake Pearson and Michael Gormley
The Associated Press

NEW YORK- U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a new state commission Tuesday that corruption in New York politics has created a "show-me-the-money culture" that's permeating state and local officials, both Democrats and Republicans, and has reached intolerable proportions.

"Public corruption, based on all evidence, appears rampant," Bharara told The Commission To Investigate Public Corruption  at its first public hearing. "And the ranks of those convicted in office have swelled to absolutely unacceptable levels." .... U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch testified about "self-interest and double-dealing" in New York politics. She called for "truly transparent financial disclosure" by politicians to ward off conflicts of interest. She also called on honest politicians to report misconduct by colleagues. "I do think there is room for public officials who see this wrongdoing and who hear these conversations to step up," she said.

The article continues, but we can chew on just the first two paragraphs for a while because they apply so directly to East Greenbush. As you've read in these pages many times: If you don't nail it you license it. The U.S. Attorney notes that BOTH state parties are actively and willfully corrupt, with that corruption running down like dirty water into the surrounding cities, towns, and villages. Any surprises? Shouldn't be. We've seen years of corruption at every level of Town life exposed in these pages and others. Anything changed? Maybe some. Not enough. Notice the way Ms. Lynch called for  transparent financial disclosure among politicians. We've had an Ethics Law stalled for over a year on  this very issue, and here we have a U.S. Attorney telling us exactly what we already knew but didn't have the courage to do.

Notice also the call for "honest politicians" (if they exist) to step up and report suspected violations. Over the last several years the citizens of East Greenbush have pointed out countless examples of possible corruption and conflict of interest by the Majority party. (Both sides have held a majority in that time, though the Democrats have had the honor for most of it.) What has the Minority done with this power? Almost nothing. There was one notable exception when the Democrat Minority actually brought a case to court over what they perceived to be wrong: the infamous "Double-Dipper" case. Regardless of the merits, the Minority at that time showed enough courage to spend the money and the political capital to go out on a limb for what they thought to be right. They won, and eventually won their Majority back as a result. But usually the Minority has left it to ordinary taxpayers to pursue honest government and political accountability on their own. In many cases the Minority has even gone so far as to turn on the very citizens doing the job that THEY should be doing! Obviously it doesn't work that way, and the U.S. Attorneys quoted in this article know that. They are specifically calling on the Minority Party to have the courage to govern. Town Hall, Candidates: You don't need a Majority... you just need a little courage. So far this year Mrs. Matters leads the pack in that category.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Courage to Govern

In September of 2010, the truncated Town Board (McCabe, O’Brien and Matters), after several attempts to get it right, passed a retirement incentive to allow 5 insiders to retire early with full pensions.  The initiative cost taxpayers $500,000 – paid to the retirement system.  The initiative was, by law, supposed to save taxpayers 25% of the salaries eliminated in each of the next two years.  The Board pledged that it would save more.  I believe that there was also supposed to be a report.  We never heard any more about it, even though the question was raised from time to time, and one “Einstein” suggested on the blog that the report wasn’t for the people and that I should FOIL for it.  Well, I did FOIL.  Here’s the correspondence:

“Sent: Friday, August 02, 2013 4:12 PM
To: Keith Langley ; Linda Kennedy ; Kim Carlock
Subject: FOIL

Some time ago the Town spent $500,000 to fund an early retirement
incentive program for certain employees.  One of the provisions involved
in that action required a report on the savings achieved as a result of
that early retirement action.  Under the provisions of the Freedom of
Information Law, I am requesting any and all reports to any and all
governmental entities which document such savings. If such report(s) do
not exist, please advise.

Don Johnson

Re: Foil

Mr. Johnson,

This is to inform you that we have received your request on 08/02/2013 for
Town records.

We have forwarded your request on to the Finance Department and the
Comptroller’s Office because these records are not in our office.

You will be able to obtain the requested records no later than 09/01/2013.
You will be notified by phone if the information you requested is available
sooner or by mail if they need more time.

If for any reason, any portion of your request is denied, the “denial of
Access” section of the Public record request will be completed in full and
returned to you.

You have the right to appeal any denial by writing to the Supervisor of the
Town of East Greenbush, 225 Columbia Turnpike, Rensselaer New York 12144.

Hi Don.
I wanted to let you know that we were unable to locate the records that you
were inquiring about. I know I said September 1st in my letter but I did not
take into consideration the Holiday. Have a good day.

Kimberly Carlock Deputy Town Clerk”

The Town Board(s) which were supposed to deliver on the legal requirements of the incentive, have basically given the people of the Town the Finger.  As Mr. Malone would say, “we’re the majority, and what we pass, passes.”

The Fiscal Advisers, the Bond raters, the OSC and the Independent Auditors all have basically the same litany of recommendations to get the Town out of the financial mess that it’s in.  These include a financial recovery plan, a hiring freeze, a workload analysis, a more intelligent budgeting process, accounting software, etc. But just like no report on the retirement incentive, we’ve seen NO action on the other generally accepted solutions to the financial difficulties. There will be no relief from the financial stresses which the Town faces until the people elected to govern muster the courage to stop the juvenile play-acting at government run a grown-up business-like operation.  This will take tough decisions in the interest of all the people and will require abandoning the parochial Party interests. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Supervisor Langley's Advertiser Letter

East Greenbush’s Finances Remain Highly Stressed

Since taking office in 2012, I have attempted to lead the town board majority toward embracing an attitude of fiscal austerity where the town’s budget is concerned, especially in the area of spending.  I’ve encouraged a reduction in staffing, where appropriate, and have refused to backfill several positions in the department of public works which, alone, would have saved the town almost a quarter of a million dollars a year; however, as the expression goes, “you can lead a mule to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

These repeated savings could have been applied toward reducing the town’s inter-fund debt of over $2 million, which was incurred prior to my administration.  If applied toward the debt, which resulted from faulty fiscal gimmicks years ago, it could have been paid off in approximately half the time that it will now take.

Although I have done my level best to cooperate with the town board majority, my advice on fiscal prudence has apparently fallen on deaf ears as evidenced by the recent reports from numerous fiscal analysts who continue to warn the public of the precarious state of the town’s finances.  This includes the town’s current junk-bond status and the danger of bankruptcy.

Indeed, the failed fiscal practices of the past persist by the town board majority which has controlled our budgets for nearly three years.  This was underscored by the town’s recent financial audit by the State Comptroller, which found East Greenbush to be significantly stressed.

Currently, I am pushing hard to complete the independent, outside audit that I initiated last year.  Unfortunately, because of the poor condition of the town’s fiscal records going back to 2009, the town has had to hire another accounting firm to re-establish correct financial information so that the auditing firm can complete its work for the town.

The residents of East Greenbush deserve the truth about their town’s finances.  The willingness of the board majority to distort the true picture is a prime example of how East Greenbush got itself into such dire financial straights in the first place.

~Keith A. Langley, East Greenbush Town Supervisor

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Some History on "Detroit East"

An Anonymous Blogger has been doing some homework on the Town's financial condition and has submitted the following for the edification of the Town's pocketbooks.  Everybody REALLY needs to put their thinking caps on and read this: 

"Maybe the recent media reports about East Greenbush following Detroit into bankruptcy have you wondering, "How could this be happening? Why haven't I heard anything before now?" Truth be told, this situation did not emerge from a vacuum, nor should you be surprised. What we're seeing is merely the bitter end to many years of foolish money games the town has played with our tax dollars. 

Would you believe that the accounting firm we contracted with in April of 2011 still can't come up with a successful audit of our 2010 books? Would you believe that we recently had to contract with the Town's old accounting firm to help the new accounting firm get a handle on what happened three years ago? Would you believe that the cost for this audit is now up to more than $70,000 between the two firms? Why? Because, as documented by the State Comptroller's audit, a private UHY LLP accounting audit, a Moody's Investor Services bond rating report, a Standard and Poor's bond rating report, and FAMI's (Fiscal Advisers and Marketing, Inc.) report...the people we pay to run our town have been squandering the money on themselves, their friends, and on bankrupt or non-existent policies. See, the game is rigged. The left wing of Town politics is in bed with Albany and the State; the right wing is in bed with Troy and the County. Unfortunately, the County is also in bed with the State. That leaves East Greenbush taxpayers sleeping on the floor because the politicians know that you probably aren't going to make a big deal about it. Or are you? See, we deserve better. We're a nice town and a nice place to live. What follows are merely a few telling snippets of truth about who we are, as seen by professional outsiders and unprofessional insiders. In all honesty, there seem to be precious few "good guys" in any of this. But you decide...

Town Board Resolution 31-2010, dated 1/13/10, really got the ball rolling after a series of politically damaging and embarrassing financial revelations and rumors. The resolution authorized Scott, Stackrow P.C. to perform a 2009 audit of the Town's books and put all this rumor-mongering behind us.  All council members voted yes. Scott, Stackrow subsequently must have voted NO on the project, however, because it wasn't until June that we suckered another firm into trying to clean up our financial mess. 

We got off to another false start with Resolution 40-2010, February 2010. Too bad it was tabled because it would have contracted BST Valuation and Litigation Advisers, LLC to prepare our 2009 AUD, or Annual Update Document, and begin phase 1 of a forensic audit to determine exactly where our money was going. It never happened. The Town Board was afraid of what would happen if you knew. It should not have been tabled, especially since February 2010 would be the last meeting of a full 5-member Town Board for the remainder of the year. By the following month a Democrat "double-dipper" lawsuit had prevailed, and council members Cristo and Danaher were no longer able to serve on the Town Board.  Resolution 51-2010 that same night authorized BST to prepare just the AUD, with no forensic audit involved. In other words, "Tell the State what we have to under the law, but keep the truth under wraps." We just reported a bunch of numbers and hoped for the best. We're still paying for that failed hope. See OSC's audit results below.

Also in early 2010, after having our bond rating fall into "junk bond" status, the Town engaged Fiscal Advisers and Marketing, Inc., a private financial advisement company, to give us a snapshot of where we'd been, where we are, and where we need to be. As part of their background information they included the Moody's downgrade report, pointing in particular to a ridiculous statement we made to the Moody's analysts: "The most concerning factor for the Moody's analysts was the Town's absence of a plan to stabilize operations... The Town stated that its only plan was to 'wait for the economy to turn around.'" That's the best we could come up with? 
 Our budgets- pitiful: "When comparing the 2008 budget to the actual results, we found that the Town was over $808,000 off in the budget projections. Revenues came in $178,000 below budget and expenditures came in $630,000 above budget. The result is that the General Fund deficit doubled to $1.68 million." Close enough for government work, yes? "The Town must reverse the damage that has been done to General Fund operations, and the Town's creditworthiness." Their first recommendation? Get an independent accounting firm to prepare our annual financial statements. Well, we tried that, but our records are so fouled that two and a half years later we're still waiting to see what happened, and we've had to bring in a second accounting firm to help us make sense of it all. And no, they're not doing it for free. We're paying about $30,000 more than expected for this independent audit. As for the nine other recommendations? I doubt we've managed to do two of them.

Resolution 99-2010 of May 2010's "rump board," brought by council member Matters and seconded by council member O'Brien, authorized the Town to contact the State Comptroller's office to get a legal opinion on the practice of questionable payments to town officials above and beyond their authorized salary (stipends, sick leave incentives, longevity pay). OSC did their review and condemned all three practices, but almost $200,000 of your money was effectively stolen by then. Sorry.

In June of 2010 we authorized an accounting firm, UHY LLP, to conduct an audit of the Town's 2009's financial statement. See the sickening results below.

Resolution 138-2010 of August, 2010 should perk your ears up. That's when the rump board voted to contract with a bankruptcy attorney! That's right, we consulted with special bankruptcy counsel Cristian Dribusch at $250/hour for a fee not to exceed a reasonable percentage of our "exposure." Seems our weenie was already showing back then, so the recent WNYT story is actually old news. Former Supervisor McCabe brought this bankruptcy-talk motion to the floor, and all three members of the rump board voted YES: let's talk about going bankrupt!

The September 2010 meeting saw the "Proud to be in East Greenbush" award go to Becker's Farm. If only Becker's could have planted the seed of fiscal responsibility in our Town Board members. Becker's is a successful, profitable business. We could learn how to run a town from them.

Resolution 161-2010, October 2010, saw the creation of an Ethics Board to update the Town's antiquated 1974 Ethics Law. The new Town Board carefully chose and empowered the members of the Ethics Board to craft an updated law, and almost three years later the Town Board continues to ignore the draft law presented to them, causing the chair of that Ethics Board to resign in protest last year. Are you beginning to see the pattern here?

Resolution 172-2010 in November, 2010 saw the newly constituted 5 member board accept the results of that UHY LLP audit and agree to make the report available to the public. Conveniently for some, this came just AFTER the elections so the voters didn't have a chance to know how bad things were: "Significant accounting and reconciliation entries are required to adjust the December 31, 2009 Annual Update Document... There is no systematic method of ensuring that timely and complete monthly reconciliation and closing procedures take place. Accounts receivable, accounts payable, compensated absences,  payroll and others were not reconciled on a systematic basis. This could result in significant errors in the financial records and financial statements  as well as allow irregularities, including fraud, to exist and continue without being identified promptly... No supervisory review of accounting transactions and month end reconciliations is performed.  This allows errors to exist within the books of account, and without subsequent correction they could continue to grow in magnitude." Are you beginning to see the pattern here?

Resolution 185-2010, December 2010, saw the new Board abolish the year old Finance Committee and replace it with a Citizens Fiscal Advisory Committee. The Finance Committee was peopled with people asking too many hard questions.  The CFAC was far more amenable to keeping things calm and quiet. Looming bankruptcy and bad financial reports didn't phase the CFAC nearly as much as they did the Finance Committee. Are you beginning to see the pattern here?

With Resolution 81-2011, April 2011, we contracted with Toski, Schaefer, and Co., P.C. to audit our books for 2010, 2011 and 2012. They are still not done- the books are either too mucked up to make sense of or too obviously corrupt for Toski to want to issue a report yet. Hence Resolution 67-2013, dated 5/15/13, authorized the Town to hire a Wojeski & Company (a firm that had handled our "audits" and annual State reports in the past) Certified Public Accountant at a 20% discounted rate of $104/hour to help Toski complete their 2010 audit. Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, both Councilperson Mangold and  Supervisor Langley went on record to state that none of these problems were a reflection on former comptroller Kate Bennett. Said Mr. Langley: "It is an accounting process that has to be worked through." See? It's nobody's fault! It's just a numbers thing! Are you beginning to see the pattern here?

In November 2012, conveniently just after the elections again, the State Comptroller's office released the results of its 1/1/10 - 10/31/11 town audit. The report was bleak:  "Due to the poor condition of the Town's records, we were unable to determine the exact amount of the fund deficit as of December 31, 2009. To get an estimate of the Town's financial position, we started with the unaudited fund deficit amounts for the general and highway funds that were reported to OSC on the 2009 AUD.... (In other words, things were so bad they didn't know where to start, so they started with what we sent to them for 2009, but we know from the private audit of 2009 that what we reported was garbage! It didn't even include our fuel usage, which added up to about $400,000 the previous year! ) ...Over the last several years, the Town has experienced significant signs of fiscal stress and deteriorating financial condition. The Town's accounting records were not accurate and, therefore, did not provide Town officials with the information necessary to evaluate the financial position of the Town's general and highway funds. Due to the poor condition of the Town's accounting records, Town officials could not determine with any degree of certainty what the Town's fund balances were at the end of the 2010 fiscal year or for most of 2011." The Comptroller and Supervisor were both singled out, by title, as responsible. Page 16 actually states that the town should consult legal counsel and recoup the $39,000 in illegal sick leave incentives and longevity payments made to the Receiver of Taxes and the former Supervisor. Councilman Malone recently went on television to state that it would not be cost effective to go after this money. 

So there you have it. This is why a respected economist and contributor to The Wall Street Journal pointed to East Greenbush as one of the top 20 municipalities in the nation he expects to see join Detroit in declaring bankruptcy. At least now you'll know why your house won't sell and your taxes are going up next year. Maybe you'll want to contact your Supervisor or other Town Board member to discuss these things? You're footing the bill, after all, again and again and again."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Ethics Code Issue

It's time for us to review the issues of the Ethics Code, in view of the fact that on Wednesday's Board Agenda is the replacement of the Ethics Board's Draft with a draft from Malone, Mangold and O'Brien.  Here's Jack Conway's letter of resignation from the Ethics Board from last October in response to the refusal of the Board majority to deal with the issue.  It's a great summary of the issues involved.

                                                                                                "October 26, 2012

Members of the Town Board of the Town of East Greenbush:

This letter is my resignation from the Town of East Greenbush’s Board of Ethics.  I appreciate the opportunity to have served on this board but I can no longer continue in this capacity.  It has been more than two years since I was appointed and more than sixteen months since the Board of Ethics recommended a new Code of Ethics but there is still no new Code in place and the Town Board now seems uninterested in pushing the matter to a reasonable conclusion.  I realize there is pressing town business but there has been ample time to address the question of ethics which is clearly not a priority for this board.

The Board of Ethics was empowered and I was appointed in October 2010.  By January 2011 we had a full board that immediately set to the task of producing a new Code of Ethics. The local law that established the original Code was passed in 1974 but a Board of Ethics was not constituted until 2010.  Meeting twice monthly in order to expedite what we considered to be an urgent matter, the Board of Ethics submitted a draft of a new Code to the Town Board in June 2011.  This draft was the result of careful study of other Codes and a series of rigorous deliberations by the five members of the Board of Ethics in public meetings that included valuable and substantive input from members of the public.  We felt, and I still feel, that the draft produced by the Board of Ethics offered a guide for ethical conduct of which residents of the town could be proud.  Critical aspects of this draft were rejected by the Town Board.

The primary purpose of a Code of Ethics is to ensure the public that every decision made by its municipal officials is made in the public interest and not for the benefit of an individual, family, private business, political party or other faction.  Above all else, it is supposed to eliminate both the appearance and reality of conflicts of interest.  The requirement for annual financial disclosure, strongly recommended by the Board of Ethics, was eliminated by the majority on the Town Board, an act that seriously undermined the Code’s ability to protect the public interest and monitor potential conflicts of interest.  More distressingly, the elimination of financial disclosure was done for the convenience of sitting members of the Town Board who chose to place their own interest above that of town residents.  The Town Board also objected to provisions that would govern the ability of employees to appear before the town after they leave municipal service, and certain provisions in the Nepotism section that affected the hiring of relatives of members of the Town Board.  Taken together, these changes transformed a draft Code that would protect the public interest into a guide for the kind of insider politics that a Code of Ethics is expected to prohibit.  In good conscience I cannot endorse or condone this approach.

There is a fundamental conflict of interest in having the Town Board write the Code of Ethics that is supposed to regulate the conduct of its own members.  The Association of Towns has published a series of suggestions for increasing the independence of municipal boards of ethics and I would encourage the town to adopt these.  They include passing a local law removing the requirement that one member of the Board of Ethics must be a municipal official, the establishment of a three-person independent panel that would select the members of the Board of Ethics, and the acceptance by the Town Board of the Code proposed by the Board of Ethics pending the opinion of the Town Attorney that all of its provision are legal and do not contradict provisions of State or local law.  Such an approach would assure the public that its interests are protected and will not be subverted for partisan political advantage.

I would like to thank Ginny O’Brien for appointing me to this board.  It was an honor and a privilege to serve with Jim Breig, Justine Spada, Joseph Slater and Dave Youmans.  Each of them has done a rigorous, professional job and continues to serve with distinction.  When you decide on my replacement, I will work with that person in any way that might help get them up to speed.  Every town needs a strong commitment to ensure the ethical conduct of elected and appointed municipal officials and I will continue to advocate for such a commitment here in East Greenbush.

                                                                                                John J. Conway, Ph.D