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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, May 2

Last call for City Hall

It seems like the marathon City Council meetings as of late are the new normal. Last night went from 6:30 to at least 11 p.m. when I left (I got tired of the circular arguments about last call and was tired in general).

And maybe it was just the time, but disagreements started to devolve around 10 p.m. when a debate broke out over whether more trees should be added to the Woodlawn Parking Garage project.

Recently, Sustainable Saratoga which is conducting the tree survey in the city, sent a letter to the City Council requesting the city put more trees in that project.

Michele Madigan brought the issue to the table for a discussion. "It would make this project so much nicer," she said.

But that sparked debate.

Anthony "Skip" Scirocco (who was "Skippy" to John Franck throughout the meeting) said more trees would mean more shade which would mean more ice in the winter.

I couldn't make out most of the arguments over the din of city commissioners, but it seemed that Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen was saying it would harken back to the days of the tree-lined Saratoga streets, Franck seemed to be supporting Scirocco (he joked they would be campaigning together next election), I head Madigan say at one point "the perils of trees in winter time" possibly in jest, and Mayor Scott Johnson just wanted to move on. "We've discussed this enough," he said.

I don't know that there was ever any resolution to that.

Later in the meeting, the issue of last call was discussed. It was a re-hashing for the most part. Mathiesen defended his statement that the atmosphere downtown was "toxic" ("It is toxic") and said "Most of our citizens wold not recognize downtown Caroline Street late at night."

He's putting it up for a vote of the City Council May 15, but Madigan and Franck both want to wait until after the State Liquor Authority issues a formal opinion on whether changing last call has to be county-wide (the most recent SLA opinion is that it does).

"I think it makes a difference," Franck said.

Mathiesen said it doesn't matter for their purposes, since if the City Council approves changing the bar closing time it would mean going to the county either way.

As they debated whether the county's role mattered to the City Council, one of the county representatives stepped in and addressed the council.

"You don't worry about the county," Supervisor Joanne Yepsen said, pointing at Franck. Yepsen said she and Supervisor Matt Veitch would deal with the county.

"Wait," Franck shot back, holding his hand up to her, palm out like a traffic cop ordering a vehicle to stop. "Is it the whole county going to 3 a.m. or is it just us? It's not the same," he said. "Don't tell me not to worry about what I'm voting for."

"No, I'm saying vote for what the city wants and we'll worry about the county," she said, emphasizing her points with hand gestures.

Then, walking back to put the microphone back in its stand and holding her hands up in frustration as she walked back to her seat, she said: "The county will determine what happens at the county."

This is the stuff that's going to happen, though, if they keep everyone up so far past their bedtime. Next meeting doesn't appear to be much better, either. Starts at 6:30 with a public hearing and many of the same things on this week's agenda — Saratoga Citizen charter change, Housing Authority corrective action plan, last call — will come up again.

I'm bringing a pillow.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a little detail on the more “mundane” City Council discussions.

One area you did not mention dealt with the Finance Commissioner’s report on the fund balance and the need to set part of it aside. The mayor is reported in another newspaper to have taken exception and wants to take some of the surplus for his parking garage. That reminded us of the promises made at the time that the garage would be ‘free.”

Before the previous City Council acted to move the Woodlawn Parking Deck into the 2010 Capital Budget it should have scrutinized the then proposed funding scheme advanced by the mayor. We will recall that we were told that the new deck would generate enough additional annual sales tax revenue to serve the additional debt the mayor proposed to take on to build it.

Of course that seemed like a stretch and, of course, it was. Now, at the last Council meeting the mayor noted that he wants to apply some of the City’s fund balance to the project. No one, apparently, had the gumption to remind the mayor that he had previously told us that the garage would ‘pay for itself.’

Let’s look at the numbers.

Each of the deck’s 180 spaces cost approximately $26,000. The mayor had assured us that the project would be “free,” that its $180,000 yearly debt would be paid by the “additional” sales tax he claimed it will generate.

Please keep in mind that $180,000 in sales tax requires $12 million in additional taxable sales. Are we all confident that the deck will, in fact, result in a $12 million net increase in taxable sales each and every year until the deck’s debt is retired? No, and apparently the mayor isn’t either, or why would he now want to tap into the fund balance.

Of course he assumes we all have short memories.

Did the then Council really feel confident that each and every one of the 180 spaces would generate $67,000 in taxable sales a year? Or did it just go along with the mayor’s claim. Had a fiscal impact statement been prepared that gives any credence to the claim?

We were also told that $850,000 of the cost will come from the sale of City properties, including the $750,000 from the transfer of the “Lillian’s Lot.” What is the status of that proposed sale (keeping in mind that the sale of the lot has been in the City’s revenue budget for the last three years). At last look the lot was still not sold and the $750,000 in revenue nowhere in sight.

Another $1.1 million would come from the Downtown Special Assessment District and a City reserve fund. The balance, some $2.6 million will be bonded for 30 years and add $180,000 annually to the City’s debt burden. Now the mayor seems to want a portion of the fund balance to finance the project.

We must make sure that the City’s budget can absorb these costs without the need to diminish necessary services. And, of course, we must be certain that the proposed financing schemes are realistic.

We are reminded that in spite of repeated assurances that the Indoor Recreation Facility’s O & M would be met by user fees, it continues to operate in substantial deficit and must be subsidized by the property tax. In fact, last year, it ‘s revenues came in about $70,000 less than the mayor budgeted.

We can no longer build a budget on inflated and non-existent revenues, wishful thinking and promises of a “free lunch (parking).”

Perhaps you could follow up on all this and let us know what the status of he Lillian's lot is and why the mayor wants the surplus unless the "free" garage is no longer "free."

May 3, 2012 at 4:53 PM 

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