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The Saratogian Newsroom blog, complete with thoughts and commentary from our newsroom staff and regular posts on happenings around town.

Wednesday, December 24

This just in: I'm out

We'll, its been another busy week here at the City Desk. Despite the Christmas holiday, the city government is moving along at full speed. I even received a call from Mayor Scott Johnson, who was at work this morning. Johnson was later spotted having difficulty navigating a snowbank at the intersection of Maple and Lake avenues. Whose job is to clear away snow anyway?

Anyhow, I'll be spending the first part of Christmas day at the New England Presbyterian church, where members of the Temple Sinai congregation will be serving Christmas dinner for the EOC soup kitchen, in order to give the EOC regulars the holiday off. And although I've volunteered for such duties in the past, I will be there as a reporter tomorrow.

Following my one assignment, I'll be working on the night desk, which I volunteered to do so that one of my colleagues could get home to see her family for the holiday. Since I'm wearing two hats tomorrow, I've made the executive decision to call this my last post for the week.

Actually, this will be my last post for 2008. Beginning Friday, Dec. 26, I will be on vacation for nine glorious days. I will return to work on Sunday, Jan. 4, rested and ready to tackle the new year.

If you have an urgent new item during my vacation, please contact Asst. Managing Editor Betsy Demars at 583-8729, x335, or Web Editor Stephen Shoemaker, 583-8729, x221.

Happy Christmaquanzikkah.

Tuesday, December 23

Kim taking stand on wasteful spending

Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim sent a letter to Mayor Johnson today, recommending that he be allowed to negotiate labor contracts with the police and fire unions, rather than the city's counsel in the matter, the law firm of Harris Beach, which the city retained at a cost of $250/hour.

Here is the letter, look for a story in the paper later this week, hopefully to include comments from the Mayor.

Mayor Scott Johnson

City Hall

474 Broadway

Saratoga Springs, New York 12866

Dear Mayor Johnson:

I recently received two letters from the law firm of Harris Beach dated December 8th and 22nd regarding the PBA negotiations and requesting my input into the process (see attachments.) Rather than provide that input to the law firm, which would cost the taxpayers $250.00 an hour, I am sending directly to you my sole recommendation regarding the upcoming negotiations for all Public Safety Departmental contracts.

As you know, this past spring I voted against the retention of a firm costing $250.00 per hour to handle the labor contract negotiations. At the time, this struck me as a waste of taxpayer money, since I was able to negotiate during my first term all Department of Public Safety contracts utilizing the existing Human Resources Director, the City Attorney and only minimal outside legal assistance.

Now that we are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the retention of expensive outside legal help is not only wasteful but also plainly irresponsible to the taxpayers that we represent. As I demonstrated during my first term as Commissioner of Public Safety, City Hall currently has adequate internal resources to effectively and efficiently negotiate these contracts without using a high-priced law firm.

Accordingly, my sole recommendation regarding the upcoming negotiations with the PBA, Police Lieutenants, Police Administrators and Fire Administrators is to appoint a team of negotiators including my deputy, the Human Resources Director, the City Attorney, and me and terminate the contract with Harris Beach. This and this alone is the best action your office can take for the taxpayers of this City.

Finally, if you must continue on this path, I will not be able to participate in any discussions with Harris Beach. As an attorney, I am sure you know that big expensive law firms like Harris Beach charge by the hour. Thus, anytime my office interacts with Harris Beach, they will charge the city $250.00 per hour. I cannot, in good conscience, allow such extravagance. Consistent with this, please also be advised that I will not directly respond to Harris Beach’s two letters—if I did they would simply charge the City for this review.


Ronald Kim Commissioner of Public Safety

Enc. Harris Beach letters dated 12/8/08 and 12/22/08

Cc Commissioners Franck, Ivins and Scirroco

Marcy Brydges, Director of Human Resources

Joseph Scala, City Attorney

Monday, December 22

Recession projects?

I know that we're all terrified of building anything in a recession, especially an indoor recreation center, but I had an interesting conversation today with Asst. Chief John Betor of the Saratoga Springs Fire Department, who noted that both of the city's two fire stations were built in the days leading up to recession.

The main station, on Lake Avenue, was constructed in 1929, on the eve of The Great Depression. The West Ave. station, was built in 1972, also on the verge of an economic downturn. As Betor pointed out, the city is still here, despite these construction projects. Chances are, if we build a rec center, or a public safety building (or even both!), the city will still be here.

Just a thought.

Sunday, December 21

Snow delay

Although I am obliged to trudge my way to work, no matter how atrocious the weather might be outside, many others are not so compelled to leave their houses on a snowy Sunday. As such, when I went for a walk in search of The Saratogian's next 5W interviewee, I noticed that many establishments on Broadway and the surrounding streets were desolate today.

So much for a last-minute reprieve for ailing retailers in the waning moments of this holiday season. I haven't heard any reports from the malls, but if the halls of those hallowed palaces of retail were anywhere near as empty as Saratoga's streets, I fear the worst of retailers in this part of the country.

For my part, I have yet to spend a cent this holiday season: every retailer's worst nightmare. Like any good Jew, I am, of course, waiting to take advantage of post-Christmas sales. Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 18

Thursday round up

Leave it to the Planning Board to keep me at work late on the last day of my week. Oh well, so goes the life of the City Reporter.

Anyhow, I'm pretty well blogged out, so, in lieu of writing anything new, I'm going to refer you to the most interesting stories from today:

Robbery suspect crashes spectacularly on Rt. 50. Unfortunately, I was out of the office when this came in, so I missed the call, and my colleague Stephen Shoemaker took it instead. Some people get to have all the fun.

Secondly, Ann Marie French's report on a lawsuit filed against two downtown gin joints, following a double-fatal car accident back in June has generated quite a lot of comments from readers. Join the conversation.

See you on Sunday.

Wednesday, December 17

Paid Parking and the election

Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, who won his current term in office after an uncontested election in 2007, put it stark terms at tonight's workshop meeting on the proposals for the High Rock parking lot:

"I think people are more concerned about getting re-elected than making a decision," he said.

It's true, putting tax payers on the hook for some kind of parking fee, AND pissing off every business owner in downtown and the chamber, and the Special Assessment District in an election year is a dubious move to be sure.

But, at the same time, several commissioners expressed the necessity of exploring paid parking, and others also recognized that it is not the role of the council to simply cow to the whims of the public, but to make difficult decisions.

Personally, as someone who has a guaranteed downtown parking spot thanks to my job, I'm not too concerned about paid parking, but I know that there are lots of people who are much more concerned about it than I am. This is your time to weigh in. How bad would paid parking be for downtown? Conversely, if you see the benefit to paid parking, why is it such a good thing?

Also, while the 0% tax increase was a great re-election slogan for this council, will paid parking overshadow that gain, come November?

Tuesday, December 16

More statements on the state budget:

Local state representatives react to Paterson's proposed budget:



“Gov. Paterson today unveiled his 2009-10 Executive Budget for the Legislature’s consideration, nearly a full month before he was constitutionally required to do so. I commend the Governor for bringing a quick start to this budget process. With a state deficit approaching $15 billion, this budget process will be decidedly difficult and painful. The reality is that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.

I am approaching this budget process and the governor’s budget with a focus on three core principles: no new taxes or tax hikes, the need to invest in our upstate and suburban economies and reining in the size, cost and reach of government.

Regrettably, on the first principle, the governor’s budget falls short. Gov. Paterson’s budget raises taxes — and even imposes new taxes — on middle class families and small businesses by almost $4 billion. Raising and imposing new taxes penalizes New York’s middle class families, drives employers away and will ultimately worsen, prolong and deepen this economic recession.

Instead of raising taxes, we need to be reducing them. Cutting taxes, providing overtaxed homeowners a real property tax cap, and investing in jobs to grow our hurting economy — especially in upstate and the suburbs — those areas should command our attention.

All across New York, people are losing their jobs. Businesses are closing. Middle class families are hurting and being forced to cut back in almost every area. It is even worse across upstate, where our economy is in shambles, where so many communities have been devastated by a continued loss of manufacturing jobs. Things are not much better on Long Island, where the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing hurts families and first-time homebuyers.

Throughout this upcoming session — where we can, when we can — I will work with the Governor. Where I disagree — as I do with this budget’s tax hikes and imposition of a new ‘soda tax,’ — I will say so and offer substantive alternatives, just as I did in sending the governor a detailed list of 11 areas where he could reduce state spending. New York cannot afford legislators from either party acting as agents of delay or obstruction. We need real leadership, real solutions.

Our state has faced tough times before and we will face them again. I believe in the spirit, hard work and character of my fellow New Yorkers. We are the Empire State — we will get through this crisis and emerge stronger than before.”

Roy McDonald, speaking with The Saratogian Tuesday afternoon:

It’s going to be a very difficult two to three years. It was a 45-minute presentation, and Gov. Paterson asked us to read the budget in detail before we are critical, and I respect that.

It’s going to be very difficult. Revenue for both the state and country is down, and we’re dealing with a major loss of jobs.

I’m very concerned about cost shifting: By shifting the cost of, say educational programs, without reducing or eliminating mandates, you’re only shifting cost to taxpayers. The same is true with health care.

Shifting the cost is not cutting the budget, it’s just telling Saratoga County to charge for services. It’s a shell game, and this has been happening for several decades.

I can’t support an increase in the gas tax. That’s anti-upstate. It will only serve to increase the cost for school transit, and the cost of getting to work. To me, that’s very unfair.

If you divide New York into three categories, New York City, Long Island and upstate, we’re the most spread out and the smallest. I want to make sure that downstate has a similar pain sharing, and I have not seen that in a number of years.

We might have to talk about shared services, and we might have to look at new ways to provide services. When we cut we have to make sure we’re not hurting people. You can’t hurt people who need health care, it just can’t be done. From that standpoint, we have to be concerned about people who are less fortunate than us.

I’m very proud that Saratoga County and Saratoga Springs are strong communities and can weather the storm. Nevertheless, this is what we’re up against.

What I would like the Legislature to do is immediately schedule public hearings. The governor said he wants a budget by March 1, and I think we should do it by March 1. It might interrupt our vacations and holidays, but this is a priority, and we need to get it done. I think right now the public is tired of partisan politics, now is the time to schedule these meetings and get to work on a budget. There are a lot of factors that are within our control. It’s not unreasonable to look at services and do a better job.

I have to speak up on behalf of people in the greater Capital Region, some of the rural communities have no tax base. I have to speak out against the shell game, it’s not acceptable, we’re going to fight for revenues for those communities, but the budget is a substantial amount of money. There’s going to be a lot of review of this budget, and that’s why I want to start now.

Negativity is contagious. We will overcome these problems. This is a great country and a great state. We’re going to deal with this, we’ve been through worse. We should be counting our blessings this time of year that our communities are so strong. We in Saratoga County will weather this better than other communities. We need to recognize that other communities need our help.

We were the people who won World War II, we overcame the Great Depression, we will defeat this. We’ve got a new president coming in — I’m a Republican, and I’m looking forward to a new Democratic president!

We will overcome this, we have to do this, it’s important.

Monday, December 15

New concept for the money train

Today's post comes courtesy of the New York Times.

It seems that even in times where even the wealthy are spending with slightly more restraint, there is still room for a luxury train from New York to Atlantic City.

Here's a thought: perhaps Saratoga could set up something similar from the 2009 meet? It certainly wouldn't hurt to cut down on car traffic in the city.

Sunday, December 14

Rec Center SEQR

For anyone who doesn't know, SEQR stands for "State Environmental Quality Review." It is a state-mandated process for any new development, and it is usually handled by the city's land use boards when new development is proposed. Because the City Council designated itself as lead agency on the rec center project, the environmental review falls to that body, rather than a land-use board.

The legislation classifies projects based on their potential environmental impacts, and has planners assess the real impact.

On Tuesday, at their regular meeting, Mayor Scott Johnson will ask his colleagues on the council to vote on a motion to offer a "negative declaration" on the environmental review for the rec center. In the parlance of the legislation, a negative declaration means the project will not have any significant environmental impact, or impacts have been properly mitigated.

This is one approval that must be granted before the proposed recreation center can go forward. If the negative declaration is issued by a majority vote, the Planning Board will be able to take a vote on the project's site plan.

The Planning Board first heard the application at their meeting last week, and could vote at their next meeting (Thursday) if SEQR goes through. If it clears both boards, there will be seemingly little standing the project's way, aside from likely law suits, and the tight economy.

One intersting subtext to all of this is that the building, as proposed, would violate existing zoning. Johnson seems to feel (and he may very well be right), that city projects are exempt from the zoning regulations. If he is wrong, the project would likely have to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals before moving forward. Stay tuned, this will be an interesting week in the development of the proposed rec center.

Thursday, December 11

Sayonara Aretakis, take II

The last time I said good bye to Attorney John Aretakis, it was because I was sick of his vitriol, and no longer appreciated him attempting to use me as a tool for propaganda. Of course, he felt the other side was doing the same thing. I maintain that I am above "use" in that manner.

In any event, courtesy of my colleagues at the Troy Record, today we have the second good bye, as it were.

It seems that the state's appellate division court is sick of Aretakis, and has handed him a one-year suspension, to begin on 12/31 of this year.

The one question not answered, is who will represent the many clients that Aretakis swooped in to pick up in the wake of abuse cases and illness? That's all. Drive safe tonight.

Wednesday, December 10

The rec center that won't go away

First of all, I have to say that I am shocked that I have not received a single comment on yesterday's post about likely-upcoming layoffs in DPW, and the fact that there is not labor investigation in that department. Shocked.

But that's OK. Maybe some of the anonymous flamers have finally been cowed into silence by the truth of the situation. Anyway, one can hope.

I've just returned from a Planning Board meeting, at which the board considered one application -- the proposed indoor recreation center -- for nearly two hours. While it's great that the board is going to weigh in on the project, I was somewhat frustrated, that despite board chairman Clifford Van Wagner's best efforts, the conversation still devolved into the same well-trodden arguments for and against the rec center.

Now, this reporter gets to hear the same discussion at four meetings a month, rather than just two. Enough is enough. Lets make a decision on the thing already, nothing new is going to come out of further conversation.

The Planning Board also decided to hold their second meeting of the month next Thursday, as the regularly scheduled meeting would have occurred on Christmas Eve. I would have been there, but something tells me I would have been the only one.

Tuesday, December 9

DPW matters

I'm in the process of working on a story about the effects the city's adopted 2009 budget will have on various city department for this weekend. I don't want to give away too much ahead of time, but I don't think it will surprise anyone to learn that DPW will almost definitely see layoffs, primarily among part-time employees.

Yesterday, while taking me on a tour of the DPW garage and related facilities, Commissioner Skip Scirocco said he would probably have to lay off about 12 part-time employees. Of course, it all depends on how harsh the winter is, and how much the department has to spend on overtime for plow drivers.

In other news, I've recently recieved a number of comments on the blog about an ongoing Department of Labor Investigation into DPW. I asked Scirocco if there was a labor investigation in his department, and he said that there was not. I don't believe that Scirocco would lie to me, and since I've only heard about the investigation anonymous posters here, I'm happy to take his word for it.

I have also been in touch with the Department of Labor for some time. Unfortunately, they have a policy of neither confirming nor denying investigations by the wages and hours division, the one that would most likely undertake such an investigation. So, no hard evidence to be had on that front either. If anyone out there reading has credible evidence of an investigation in DPW or any other city department, and would like to talk to me about, feel free to send me an email or call.

Monday, December 8

Greens unhappy with Obama

Now that Ralph Nader has slipped into the shadows from his former position as outspoken consumer advocate, we don't write as much about the Green Party. I was a little surprised when a press release from the New York State Green Party came across my desk late last week.

The release decried Obama's choice of a pro-war Secretary of State in Hillary Clinton. Here's an excerpt from the release:

"When Senator Obama launched his campaign, much of his appeal to voters in the primaries was his initial opposition to the invasion of Iraq during his time as an Illinois state senator," said Howie Hawkins, Green Party nominee for US Senator from New York in 2006. "During those primaries, Obama positioned himself as a peace candidate, despite his consistent votes in the Senate to fund the war, in contrast to antiwar legislators during Vietnam, many of whom voted to cut off funding for that earlier war. And now he has appointed to head the State Department a politician who has refused ever to admit that her support for the Iraq War was wrong."

They have some points, however I probably wouldn't have gone so far as too call Rahm Emanuel an "Iraq hawk," as the greens do a bit later in the release.

It was interesting to note that the release did not suggest an alternate candidate for Secretary of State, so I wrote to the listed contact and posed that question. The response was one that warmed my occasionally-cynical view of national politics by its purity, but one that offers no real solution to the Green's concerns over Clinton.

The response, from spokesperson Peter LaVenia was this:

"Probably no one that Obama would appoint: people like Noam Chomsky or Cynthia McKinney. Preferably we would like to see someone who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is in general supportive of peace efforts and real multilateral ties between countries and international institutions."

Sunday, December 7

Sustainable Saratoga meeting

County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen's sustainability task force will meet for the second time on Wednesday, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Music Hall (third story) city hall. Please see below for addition information:

Our agenda for the evening will include a brief review of our first meeting, some of the steps we've taken to begin to effectively communicate as a group, and then we'll break out into six working groups to begin to identify ten year goals/vision of what a truly Sustainable Saratoga could become.
We had to do some combining of our topic areas of interest in order to make the planning effort mangageable.
The six breakout groups include:

Energy Efficiency & Resources
Trails & Transportation
Recycling, Waste & Composting
Farming, Open Space & Natural Resources
Community Outreach, PR & Education
Task Force Organizational Strucutre
We'll assign folks to groups based upon the areas of interest you signed up for at the last meeting and encourage new folks to attend and join an area of interest.

Please pass along this meeting notice to others you know may be interested.

Thursday, December 4

Holiday Spirit

There's nothing like a little holiday spirit to end the work week.

My last assignment this week was probably the most fun: go enjoy Victorian Streetwalk, listen to some music, talk to a few little kids, come back to the office and write about it. Nothing wrong with that.

As happened last year at this time, everything seems to be relatively quiet in City Hall, now that the budget is passed. Of course, I expect things will get interesting again in the 17th, when the council meets to workshop proposals for a new public safety building.

In the meantime, I seem to be on the holiday beat. Previous to writing about the Victorian Streetwalk, I visited Saratoga Chabad's store on Broadway, which gave me information to put into a story on Hanukkah that will appear over the weekend. I'm just bursting with spirit! This is quite a change for my usual droll self.

I'm off to my dance lesson, have a great weekend, and I'll see you on Sunday!

Wednesday, December 3

Congress on your corner

I think everyone was stunned by the number of people who turned out to U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's "Congress on your corner" this afternoon at Borders. The book store's cafe was packed, and I wound up standing along the cafe counter, near the front of the room.

Although I had a good view, this turned out to be poor positioning, as a man standing next to me sloshed a cup of hot coffee onto my leg during Gillibrand's opening remarks. The burning liquid elicited a *very* inappropriate verbal response from me (targeted at no one in particular), which, in turn, elicited a glance from the Congresswoman. If you're reading, please excuse the interruption.

So, aside from the indignity of having to endure the remainder of the meeting with wet pants and a minor burn on my ankle, I was now the guy who interrupted the proceedings. And, to add insult to injury, the culprit couldn't even be bothered to apologize. I guess I know where I'm sending the dry cleaning bill...

Anyway, spilled coffee notwithstanding, it was an interesting event, if a little short. Given the number of people in attendance, I think Gillibrand would have been wise to find a little more time to field questions from the audience. As it was, she had time to discuss three of four questions, which addressed topics like governmental regulation on commerce, healthcare and the legal system.

It was an interesting conversation, and one that could have been born out over a much greater number of hours. Hopefully the next time Gillibrand visits the district, she will consider extending her forum-type event.

On a side note, I did find myself wondering if attendence at the event was greater, at least in part, because of speculation that Gillibrand might be tapped to take Hillary Clinton's seat in the Senate, should Clinton be confirmed as Secretary of State.

Tuesday, December 2

Color rising

OK, this has absolutely nothing to do with city government. It's about supporting the Saratoga Springs History Museum.

The venerable museum, located in the Canfield Casino, will hold its annual holiday gala on Friday, Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m., at -- where else? -- the casino.

The theme for this year's event is "Dancing with the Capital Region Stars," drawing on the popular show on ABC. For stars, the museum tapped several local media personalities, including... yours truly.

Here's the color rising... as in, my cheeks are burning. Somehow, in the next 10 days, I'm going to have to learn to dance, in anticipation of competing against the likes of FOX 23's Jeff Sapperstone, WMHT's Susan Arbetter, and the Time's Union's Kristi Gustafson and Irene Liu. At least I can be confident I look better in a suit than Arbetter, Gustafson or Liu. But that Sapperstone... he's quite dapper.

The five "stars," will be judged, at the party's mid point on a prepared dance peice (performed with a partner, who, at least in my case, will be doing the bulk of the work...) by Michele Riggi, Michael Korb and Saratoga Savoy's Dave Wolf. So that should be fun. Or funny or something.

Tickets are limited, but still available. Anyone interested in getting out the optional black tie, enjoying a buffet by The Lily and the Rose, and watching this reporter cutting a rug, call the museum at 584-6920. Tickets cost $65, or $55 for those under 35.

In the mean time, feel free to ask how my pirouette is coming along if you see me around town...

If you're wondering how I got roped into this event, the answer is thus: a combination of an ego-stroking E-mail from History Museum board member Matthew Veitch and a desire on my part to get in touch with my inner-performer are to blame. I'll see you on the 12th...

Monday, December 1

If a council member sits alone... does anyone hear him speak?

It was funny to sit in the city council room for this morning’s agenda meeting with the full cast of five deputies and the City Attorney, but nary a council member to be seen. Although Commissioner of Finance Kenneth Ivins was present, the other four chairs were vacant.

Ordinarily, this would pose a real problem, as the council needs at least four members present to make any decisions. Fortunately, this was just an agenda meeting, and Ivins — sitting along at the council table — did a superlative job of running the meeting, with deputies mostly filling each other in on agenda items.

It’s at times like these, I always like to remind myself that being a member of the City Council is supposed to be a part time job, for which the council members are paid a pittance. And yet, they put in late nights, are frequently available to field phone calls from the likes of me, and three of the five hold down regular employment as well.

So, it was odd to see a lone council member conducting business, but, if you ask me, on a holiday Monday, if some of the council needs to start the day a little later, we can forgive them – this one time.

The council meets for its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Hopefully the full group will have assembled.