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Thursday, 17 April 2014 15:08

Saratoga Springs City Council

SARATOGA SPRINGS – The city council meeting on tax day – Tuesday, April 15 had an economic flavor as Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan delivered her year-end report for 2013. Pending a final audit, she reported generally good news for the city:

 

“For 2013, the City is required to have a fund balance between $4,044,002 and $6,066,003. Unaudited figures indicate that the surplus resulted in a fund balance that is in excess of the maximum amount by about $1.7 million.”

 

Ms. Madigan detailed many highlights among the individual line items, citing mortgage tax collection and the city’s ambulance program exceeding expectations on the revenue side. 

 

There is a downside to an excessive surplus, in that residents are unduly burdened with a higher than necessary tax bill. Commissioner Madigan noted that, unforeseen circumstances aside, individual departments will need to be careful in their forecasts and adjust budgets, perhaps quarterly so that city residents are only billed for what is needed:

 

“We must strive to establish a balanced budget that adequately funds the delivery of solid essential services in a safe community… (Excess) funds should be returned to the taxpayers, possibly through reduced property tax rates if closer scrutiny of departmental budgets and expected revenues reveal that this would be sustainable.”

 

One recommendation that Commissioner Madigan had for some of the surplus was to invest in the city’s website, which appeared to have support of the council. Commissioner of Accounts John Franck felt it should be part of an overall upgrade in the city’s social media and communications strategy – a broad look into the best way to facilitate two-way communications between the city and it’s citizens.

 

In what was at least an ironic coincidence on “surplus night,” the council entertained and unanimously passed salary raises for two key positions: for the Administrative Director of Recreation (to $59,454) and Director of Risk and Safety (to just over $82,000). The council also established an hourly rate for a part-time Administrate Aide (at $15.38/hour) in the mayor’s office to support the city attorneys. 

 

In fact, these raises came out of budgeted dollars, were revenue neutral (the recreation department gave up a part-time position that was unfilled for instance). In the case of Risk and Safety Director Marilyn Rivers, it was probably long overdue. Yet the timing was of these items is something some members in the audience next to me certainly took notice of.

 

Mayor Joanne Yepsen discussed Saratoga Casino and Raceway’s (SCR) $30 million expansion proposal, which she noted, was completely separate from any expanded gaming application “in the eyes of the state, and the city.” 

 

SCR’s proposal involves a hotel, meeting space and an entertainment venue among other items. SCR had previously stated that they would submit their proposal to the city’s land use boards for review. Mayor Yepsen noted that the state Gaming Commission had named the city as an ‘involved agency’ and that “once they start the clock, the city has 30 days to respond.” Mayor Yepsen indicated that there might be a special council meeting called on this subject if necessary. She then circulated a proposal summary to the council members; the full proposal is available in the planning office for public inspection.

 

Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen detailed some changes to traffic light patterns on several important Broadway intersections. This was based on an extensive study of traffic patterns that examined various options to improve traffic flow through downtown.

 

The forthcoming changes are:

- At Broadway and Church Street, heading northbound on Broadway, a left turn light will be installed to facilitate westbound traffic on Church, expediting traffic towards Saratoga Hospital

- Also at this intersection, left turn signals from Church Street and from Lake Avenue onto Broadway will be changed from ‘lagging’ after the green light to ‘leading,’ or before the green light, bringing it in line with other intersections.

- An increased interval for pedestrian walk lights will precede the green light for vehicles at Broadway and Division, Washington, Spring and Congress Streets

- Sequential timing of lights on Broadway will be adjusted will the goal of smoothing North/South traffic flow on Broadway depending on conditions (time of day; heavy traffic days).    

 

The commissioner said that these changes would be implemented in the next few weeks. 

_____________

 

Commissioner Mathiesen also took note of our activities as watchdog on the permanent Committee on Wasting Council Time, which is actually the People’s time. The Commissioner, previously spotlighted for reading an entire op-ed article into the record and similar activities, noted that the award had been passed to Commissioner of Public Works (DPW) Anthony Scirocco on April 1, for reading his narrative on the history of the city’s water works, which appeared as prologue to the DPW annual report. Commissioner Mathiesen felt that the information Commissioner Scirocco conveyed was enlightening. 

 

Well, not to stir this pot further, but to clarify, I am sure that the information was interesting, but it would much better for all concerned if Commissioner Scirocco had just submitted his report, called attention to this great chapter to read in it, etc.; but not actually read the whole thing at the end of a three-plus hour meeting. How many people do you think were actually listening at that point? 

 

In fact, if this information is so compelling, why is it still not posted online over two weeks later? I’d love to read all this great stuff, but the DPW page still has the 2012 report up, not 2013.  

 

While the April 15 meeting was very long, it was by necessity so, given an executive session and Commissioner Madigan’s annual report detail. It’s not the length; it’s the content – and the comportment. So the WCT committee will not issue a time-waster award for this meeting. 

 

Instead, it will award its random “Special Award of Merit” to Supervisor Peter Martin, who, after waiting over four hours to speak, delivered the words the dwindling gallery longed to hear:

 

“I promise to be mercifully brief.”

 

And then he was! Kudos, Supervisor. 

 

Never before had I felt so gleeful to walk out into an April blizzard. But I’ll be back on May 6, so you don’t have to be, citizens. 

 

Published in News

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan reports that 2013 City general fund (operating budget)

revenues have outpaced City expenses, and unaudited year-end figures reveal an annual operating

surplus. For 2013, the City is required to have a fund balance between $4,044,002 and $6,066,003.

Unaudited figures indicate that the surplus resulted in a fund balance that is in excess of the

maximum amount by about $1.7 million.

 

The 2013 surplus is driven by higher than expected revenues coupled with lower than budgeted

expenses. Actual revenue collected totaled $41,585,774. Actual expenditures totaled $38,846,104.

 

On the revenue side: Mortgage tax collection was unexpectedly high, building permits and planning

board fees followed suit. VLT Aid, distributed by the state to offset the costs of hosting VLTs, was

increased by $331,251 by the State in the late spring of 2013 (after the City’s budget had been adopted).

The City ambulance program also collected more revenue than anticipated, and sales tax revenue

topped out at $10.65 million – the highest collection that the City has ever experienced. In sum,

revenues collected were $848,872 more than amounts budgeted.

 

On the expense side: Due to adjustments to new health insurance programs and slower than

anticipated hiring for new positions (and those left open by employee turnover), expenditures for

employee benefits and personal service funds were lower than had been budgeted. Commissioner

Madigan cautions Departments to forecast expenses carefully. “I will be scrutinizing this in 2014 through

2015. We must strive to establish a balanced budget that adequately funds the delivery of solid essential

services in a safe community.

 

Commissioner Madigan states “these funds should be returned to the taxpayers, possibly through

reduced property tax rates if closer scrutiny of departmental budgets and expected revenues reveal

that this would be sustainable”. Madigan points out that she has kept property taxes low with her

recommendations to: create and strengthen reserves that have helped keep annual changes to the tax

rate at or near 0% for two years; contribute to critical capital needs, such as infrastructure and

equipment; plan for future retirement needs; and, she has set aside funds to settle long expired labor

contracts.

 

City policy requires that any funds in excess of the maximum allowable Fund Balance be utilized, and the

Commissioner of Finance is required to make recommendations to the City Council regarding the use of

such funds. There is one long awaited project that she will recommend for immediate attention:

updating the City website. Limited resources and funding has made upgrading the website a challenge

in recent years. “This is beneficial to our citizens, the business community, City departments and our

City. The City website is a portal to City government and a vital gateway to the City. This is an

 

opportunity to use one time funding for a one time project that is universally beneficial.”

Published in News

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The first of two League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsored candidate forums at the Saratoga Springs High School Auditorium took place on Tuesday, October 22. 

While the candidates articulated policy differences, the proceedings were notable for their civility and lack of rancor. This was due in large part to the firm oversight of the debate by LWV’s Barbara Thomas, who did make both the candidates and audience members adhere to strict time limits. This is notable in contrast to previous year’s candidate forums about city elections.

After a brief introduction of the ground rules by Thomas, unopposed finance commissioner candidate Michele Madigan (D, I, WF) took the podium for a statement about her accomplishments in office and vision for her next term.

This was followed by the candidates for commissioner of public works, in which incumbent Anthony “Skip” Scirocco (R,C) and challenger William J. McTygue (D, I, WF) sat side-by-side. 

McTygue took issue with Scirocco’s record, citing in particular a deal to sell water to Wilton without full council approval and called for a total citywide evaluation of water resources, saying that “there is no long range water quality plan”. 

Scirocco noted his accomplishments in office citing a “reversal of a generation of infrastructure neglect.” 

Interestingly, these were the only candidates of the evening who were asked about Proposition 1—the pending statewide casino proposition. Both were generally in agreement that they were personally opposed to casinos, but noting if it passed the city would have to be ready for changes regardless of whether Saratoga Springs was designated as a casino site or not. 

The candidates for commissioner of public safety easily had the most points of policy difference of the evening.

In his opening statement, challenger Richard C. Wirth (R, I, C) characterized the administration of incumbent Christian E. Mathiesen (D, WF) as “too Caroline Street focused while there is an uptick in crime citywide” and an atmosphere of “blame the victim” prevailed. Mathiesen responded vigorously, listing many accomplishments during his administration, both as leader of his department and on initiatives that were citywide in nature. 

The candidates differed sharply on their plans for improving the fire/emergency response times on the city’s eastern plateau, as well as the need for an independent review of the recent police incident regarding Darryl Mount, Jr. 

The differences between candidates for commissioner were less pronounced. Incumbent John P. Franck (D,I,WF), who is running for his fifth term, cited his “core four” platform as the guiding principles that characterized how he has and would run his office. Challenger John P. Arpei (R, C) did not directly challenge Franck on anything specific, but did say he was an advocate for more civility and cooperation in the conduct of city government. 

Indeed, the accounts commissioner candidates agreed totally on two major issues. Both felt that a citywide reassessment was unnecessary and too costly, and that the current assessment level for condominiums (about 30 percent of assessed value) was too low. Franck cited his initiative in going to Saratoga County to try and develop a political coalition to change this formula. Arpei stated that the formula was imposed by downstate interests, where condos are more prevalent and therefore would be very unlikely to change.

Published in News

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