Opinion - Saratoga Springs Politics

The below blog posts are written by John Kaufmann.
These opinions do not reflect the views of Saratoga TODAY newspaper.

Friday, 13 May 2022 09:49

Commissioner Moran’s Spending Violates City Financial Controls

By John Kaufmann | Saratoga Springs Politics

5209015.webp

“What Me Worry?” Alfred E Neuman

A number of concrete barriers have been installed on the streets of Saratoga Springs as part of Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran’s expansion of outdoor dining into public spaces. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any record of the City Council approving the acquisition and deployment of these barriers as is required by city procurement policies.

In the eight years I have been writing about the City Council on this blog, this is the first time I have become aware of an expenditure of city dollars that has improperly circumvented the City Council and been hidden from public view.

Commissioner Moran doesn’t seem to grasp that the revenues collected by the city are not a piggy bank that he can personally dip his hand into at will without proper authorization and public notice.

Some questions that need to be answered:

  1. How much did it cost the city to acquire and deploy the barriers being used in the expanded outdoor dining program?
  2. Who was contracted with to acquire and deploy these barriers?
  3. Were there requirements for contracting to acquire and deploy these barriers such as an RFP or soliciting a minimum of three bids?
  4. If bids or an RFP were required, when was this done?

A Breakdown of Fiscal Controls

Normally, the protection for avoiding fiscal abuse in public spending rests with the other members of the Council in general and, in our form of local government, with the Commissioner of Finance in particular. Council members would normally in the past challenge and ask questions about these kinds of expenditures at the Council table. Unfortunately, the current Council members never ask questions and always vote unanimously. They seem utterly indifferent to following proper procedures for everything from the conduct of meetings to state and municipal law and the charter. They appear more interested in protecting each other than in requiring their colleagues to adhere to the law and the charter.

Reaching Out to Finance Commissioner Sanghvi with Disappointing Results

As Commissioner of Finance, Minta Sanghvi is, according to the charter, “the chief fiscal officer of the City” [Title 4, city charter]. Since Commissioner Moran did not respond to my emails asking about the purchasing of the barriers, I wrote to Commissioner Sanghvi regarding two issues.

  1. How did Commissioner Moran arrive at the fees for permits to expand outdoor dining? Here is the fee structure Moran proposed and that the Council adopted without any discussion:

Private Property – $100.00
Public Property (Sidewalks) – $500.00
Public Property (Sidewalks and Street Barriers) – $1,000.00

Why does a restaurant pay $500.00 to put tables on the city’s sidewalk? Why not $400.00 or $600.00? Are they subsidizing the cost for barriers deployed for other restaurants?

In observing the barriers the city recently installed for these restaurants, I noticed that there is quite a wide range in the number of barriers different restaurants are using. It appears, though, that there is only one fee charged no matter how many barriers a restaurant uses. What was the rationale behind this decision? It would seem reasonable to have had some kind of discussion as to whether there would be different fees based on how many barriers a restaurant used, but no one raised that issue with Moran.

Most importantly, though, there has been no public reporting on how much the city has collected in fees so there is no way of knowing if there is enough to cover the cost of the barriers. But then we don’t know what the barriers cost either.

2. I also noted in my communication with Commissioner Sanghvi that I was unable to find any record of the Council authorizing the expenditures for the acquisition and deployment of barriers and asked for her assistance in locating the appropriate Council action.

I don’t think my email to Commissioner Sanghvi could have been any clearer (see emails below). Her response, though, was to repeat the resolution authorizing the fee schedule which clearly did not address my questions as to how the fees were determined. Of particular note, she also ignored the question about the apparent lack of authorization for the acquisition and deployment of barriers.

In the end, I wrote her again to make sure she understood what I was asking for and since then I have not heard from her.

FOIL Request

I have FOILed the city for all documents associated with the acquisition and deployment of barriers. I will be writing on this further when I get them.

A Reason for Hope?

I contacted newly appointed Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub regarding the issue of the lack of a resolution authorizing the expenditures for barriers. In an email to me, he offered to look into it. Perhaps a sign of hope and an independent voice at the table?

Jason Golub’s Email

John,

thanks for reaching out. Obviously, you know that the deployment of the barriers and the process of approval/deployment all pre-dated my time on the council. That being said, I will look into the process that was followed and evaluate if there were any violations involving the acquisition and/or deployment of these barriers and let you know what, if any, corrective action is warranted.

Jason

My Email Exchange With Commissioner Sanghvi

From: “john kaufmann21” >
To: “Minita Sanghvi” <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Cc: “Dillon Moran” <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Sent: Monday, May 2, 2022 8:02:10 PM
Subject: What is the basis for the city’s fees for temporary outdoor dining?


Commissioner Sanaghvi:

I have written to Commissioner Moran trying to find out how he determined what restaurants should pay for the use of public areas to expand their business for outdoor dining.  The fees range from $500.00 to $1,000.00.  The $1,000.00 fee is for those who select to use concrete barriers which apparently the city is paying for.  So, for example, how did Commissioner Moran determine that the use of public property plus the cost for providing barriers should cost $1,000.00?

Regrettably, he has not responded to my emails requesting this information.  As Finance Commissioner you are responsible for overseeing all things financial.

I am sure you would agree that this is a reasonable request and deserves an answer.

I am writing you to ask for your assistance.  I would think you would want to know whether the fees he is requesting of restaurants have a solid, thought-out basis. 

Could you please advise me on how these fees were determined?

Also, the barriers have been installed at a number of restaurants but I can find no record of the council approving the expenditures for these.  Can you advise me if the council has approved these expenditures and if so could you direct me to the minutes of the meeting when they were approved?


From: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Sent: Wednesday, May 4, 2022 11:26 AM
To: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Subject: Re: What is the basis for the city’s fees for temporary outdoor dining?

Here is the information from the  April 5 city council meeting. The resolution is uploaded with the agenda.

From the minutes:

Discussion and Vote: Extended Outdoor Dining Fee Schedule Commissioner Moran stated the extended temporary outdoor dining fee schedule had three (3) levels. Moran stated Level 1 would be for extended dining onto private property where the licensee had previously were not permitted to utilize for dining use by either the City or the State Liquor Authority. Moran stated the fee for Level 1 to be one-hundred dollars ($100.00). Moran stated Level 2 would be for the use of public property – city curb to sidewalk. Moran stated the fee for Level 2 to be five-hundred dollars ($500.00). Moran stated Level 3 would be for the use of both public sidewalk property and city street property with city-owned barriers. Moran stated the fee for Level 3 would be one-thousand dollars ($1,000.00). Moran stated the fee would include the use of property, installation and use of the barriers, and application fee. Moran stated the application fee for Levels 1 and 2 were included in the pricing of each level. The intent of the fees is to invest the money back in to support the program. In years two and three of the program, the City will look to convert the blocks to something more decorative.

Minita Sanghvi
Commissioner of Finance
Saratoga Springs, NY
518-587-3550
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


From: Kaufmann May 4, 2022, 11:44 AM (8 days ago)  
to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I am deeply troubled by your response.  As indicated in my email to you, I was fully aware of what was in the minutes.  My question was how did the city come up with these figures.  I don’t think I could make my question to you any clearer.  For example, I wrote:

So, for example, how did Commissioner Moran determine that the use of public property plus the cost of providing barriers should cost $1,000.00?

As you are the watchdog over the city to make sure money is spent appropriately, do you simply accept that $1,000.00 for the use of public land and for the use of barriers is the correct amount because the commissioner of accounts says it is? 

I hope this is not the case.  I hope that I simply caught you at an odd moment and you did not read my email carefully.

So I ask again, for example, was $1,000.00 the correct amount for the city to receive for the barriers and space.  Similarly, I ask the same for the other fees.

I also asked in my email:

Also, the barriers have been installed at a number of restaurants but I can find no record of the council approving the expenditures for these.  Can you advise me if the council has approved these expenditures and if so could you direct me to the minutes of the meeting when they were approved?

For some reason, you did not address this.  I respectfully ask that you advise me when the council approved these expenditures and where I can find the record for this?

In the event that the council did not take action, could you please advise why this was exempted and, most importantly, what were the costs incurred by DPW for the barriers and what was the cost for deploying them in front of the restaurants?

Thank you,

JK

Read 1048 times