Thomas Dimopoulos

Thomas Dimopoulos

City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
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SARATOGA — A letter from the NYS Police Pistol Permit Bureau mailed to gun owners and reminding them of requirements to recertify their licenses every five years has triggered a defiant response from Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo, who said he will not have his deputies enforce the SAFE Act provision by “harassing already law-abiding citizens.”

The Pistol Permit Bureau’s letter informs gun owners that if a permit was issued prior to Jan. 15, 2013, the deadline to submit recertification is Jan. 31, 2018. “I will not commit resources by taking deputies off the street to enforce this SAFE Act provision when our deputies have important work to do keeping our communities a safe place to live, work and raise families,” Zurlo said, in a statement. “The purpose of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office is to serve and protect the residents of this county, not to harass already law-abiding citizens with the SAFE Act’s Pistol Permit recertification provisions.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by fellow Republican County Clerk Hayner. “Recertification is creating another undue burden to law-abiding pistol permit holders who have invested time and resources obtaining their pistol permit license here in Saratoga County,” Hayner said.

“I’m really surprised (Zurlo) would say something like that, because his job is to enforce the law, said Patricia Tuz, Capital Region Coordinator for New Yorkers’ Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit organization with a mission to reduce gun violence through legislative advocacy and education. “But, he is an elected official and sometimes elected officials say things they believe their constituents want to hear, and then later they reconsider,” Tuz said. “So, I hope he reconsiders.”

The NY SAFE Act, signed into law by Gov. Cuomo in January 2013 in the weeks following the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, amended state law to include an expanded ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as requirements for background checks. Safeguards included requiring those with existing pistol permits to renew or recertify permits every five years. One year later, the Saratoga County Sheriff and County Clerk worked with the county Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution prohibiting New York State from using the Saratoga County Seal for SAFE Act purposes.

A series of statewide polls conducted by Siena College over a two-year period indicates an average of about 60 percent of respondents support the Safe Act, approximately 33 percent are opposed, and the balance have no opinion on the matter. Regionally, the measure garners more support in the New York City area, than in upstate. “Views on the SAFE Act have remained largely unchanged over time. It has the support of more than three quarters of Democrats and New York City voters and a strong majority of independents and downstate suburbanites. Upstaters are closely divided, with a bare majority opposed and Republicans are strongly opposed,” Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said in 2015.

Gun owners may recertify pistol permits and check their recertification status on the State Police website at: https://firearms.troopers.ny.gov/pprecert/welcome.faces.

The state police have made it very easy to re-certify with an online form,” Tuz said. “It’s like having a driver’s license, where you have to renew it every few years. It’s a privilege to own a gun, just like it’s a privilege to drive a car.”

A spokesman for the State Police said no comment would be made in response to Zurlo’s statement.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The 18-year-old was between classes and walking through the halls of her high school last week when the actions of a fellow student jarred her into consciousness. “A kid from one of my classes, who I don’t even really know did the Nazi salute. I stopped and looked at him and didn’t even know what to say,” said senior class student Channah Goldman.

She continued walking, to the school library, where she sat at a desk, took out her books and looked down at the series of symbols carved into the desk top. “There were swastikas all over the desk,” said the student, who has visited concentration camps overseas and has seen the fingernail scratches on the chamber walls of victims who were killed. “I felt physically ill and moved to another desk. And there was another one.”

Goldman said a librarian was apologetic and immediately set to the task of cleaning the desks. The student’s captured images show carvings embedded so deeply the desks required a sanding-over and new artwork drawn atop them to obfuscate the hate symbols. Both the incidents were brought to the attention of the school, and it appears they are being resolved internally, according to Goldman, but when her 14-year-old brother, who is also a student in the school district, noticed an Instagram account which appears to represent “Saratoga High School Fourth Reich,” and referenced neo-Nazis, the police got involved.

“My brother came across it and showed it to me,” Goldman said. “He showed it to my family and everyone was really concerned. The school started looking into it and taking it seriously.”

“When we first learned of the Instagram Account, we were involved from the get-go,” said city Police Lt. Robert Jillson. “At this point, we haven’t deciphered the creator of the account, but we did go in and interview in excess of 30 students who followed the account.” The city police department has a school resource officer, or SRO, who works at the school full-time. Investigators determined that students who had opted to follow the account did so based on the name recognition of their high school, but had not delved deeper into the account to learn of its neo-Nazi references. “The intention of the people who created the account, that could be concerning, and we’d like to know and the school would like to know the intention behind it,” Lt. Jillson said.

Swastika graffiti has recently been discovered in at least two locations in the city – near the Caroline Street elementary school and on the Spring Run Trail, as well as other places in the region. The anti-Semitic acts are not new, internationally, or regionally. One hundred and forty years ago, Joseph Seligman, an American banker and financial advisor to the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, was famously said to have been barred from staying at the fabled Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs because the hotel’s owner, Judge Henry Hilton, insisted that Jews be excluded from the hotel. According to historian Lee Livney, the “Hilton-Seligman Affair” was featured and editorialized in newspapers coast-to-coast at the time, and has come to be known as a focal point of the origins of American anti-Semitism.

A letter penned by Michael Piccirillo, Superintendent of Saratoga Springs Schools, on Wednesday informed members of the school community about the Instagram account.

“I wish to make clear that the views expressed on this site (SHS4R) are not representative of the school district’s beliefs nor are they authorized in any way or representative of any club or activity associated with the school district. The Saratoga Springs City School District denounces any speech which promotes acts of hatred or violence against any individual or group,” Piccirillo said. “The SHS4R page directly refers to a site that espouses white supremacy and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In addition, the moniker SHS4R inappropriately and without any permission directly relates the name of our high school to concepts expressed by Nazi Germany.” The letter concludes: “It is incumbent upon us to take an active role in exposing intolerance and teaching our children to celebrate diversity as a strength. We ask all parents to speak with their own children about such ideals and encourage the same diversity and inclusiveness we promote at school. Together we can strengthen our culture and build a strong foundation supported by acceptance and the celebration of our diversity.” Piccirillo was away from the office mid-week and unavailable for direct comment, according to a school spokesperson.

“This is not new and it’s not specific just to the Saratoga School District, but the urgency in which they reacted is commendable,” said Goldman’s mother, Kelly Hillis. “I cannot be more satisfied with what the school did. They could’ve kept it quiet but chose to bring it out into the light and make it a learning opportunity. As far as the kid giving the Nazi salute, the kid was spoken to the next day. With the swastikas, I immediately spoke to someone at the school and within 24 hours someone at the school called me to apologize,” said Hillis, who added she believes the hateful symbols were carved into desks by kids who don’t know any better and that the school can only do so much. A large part of the responsibility of teaching acceptance for, and the beauty of diversity takes place in the home between parents and children, she said. “They haven’t been taught that the symbols are hateful symbols.

“My hope is by bringing this into the light, other kids will say: hey, here’s a kid in my school. She’s my friend. She’s one of us, and look how others are making her feel bad. Just to bring that home,” she said. “Just to bring that home.”

Friday, 06 January 2017 11:12

Notes from City Hall

Moody’s Investors Service Upgrades City’s Outstanding Bonds Rating Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan announced this week that Moody’s Investors Service has upgraded the City’s bond rating on its outstanding bonds from Aa3 to Aa2. The city has $52.5 million in general obligation bonds outstanding. This is comparable to the AA+ awarded by Standard and Poor’s (S&P) for each of the past five years, all during Madigan’s tenure, the commissioner said. The revised rating reflects “the city’s strong fiscal management as evidenced by recent consecutive years of surplus operations, strong reserve levels, conservative budgeting, and consistent operating surpluses,” according to Moody’s. “The city’s healthy financial position will likely remain stable.” In outlining credit challenges Moody’s noted that the city should look to “additional revenue sources needed to augment eventual elimination of VLT aid”, and noted the city has a “reliance on economically sensitive revenues.” UDO Advisory Committee Announces Series of Public Meetings at Music Hall The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Technical Review Advisory Committee (TRAC) will host a series of meetings, open to the public, at the Saratoga Music Hall through the spring. Similar to City Council meetings – although earlier in the day - the UDO gatherings will take place the first and third Tuesday of the month, beginning on Jan. 17. According to the city, the UDO is a tool which combines traditional zoning and subdivision regulations into one, easy-to-read reference document. It is intended to eliminate redundant or conflicting code provisions, and help to streamline the review and approval process and clarify the steps and requirements with clear illustrations and language. The city began work on a UDO 12 months ago. The goals of the project are to update existing zoning and subdivision regulations to be in conformance with the newly-adopted Comprehensive Plan; to research and implement new initiatives which would improve the overall sustainability of the city with regards to energy consumption, stormwater management, solar power, walkability and similar measures, and to combine and reformat various development standards into one, single unified document which is easy to read and understand, with improved efficiency and a more streamlined review and approval process. The project is funded by a Cleaner, Greener Communities grant provided by NYSERDA. The TRAC provides the technical input to carry out the continuing, cooperative and comprehensive planning process for the UDO. Meetings will take place 4 to 6 p.m. on Jan. 17, Feb. 7, Feb. 21, March 7, March 21, April 4 and April 18. Upcoming Meetings The Zoning Board of Appeals will host a public meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 9 at City Hall. New business to be discussed includes: Subdivision - 58 Fifth Ave. area variance for a two-lot subdivision; Garage - 111 Catherine St. area variance to finish the interior of an existing garage; Residence - 101 North Street, area variance for additions to an existing single-family residence; Two-Family - 63 Ash St. area variance to construct a detached garage/dwelling unit; Two-Family - 217 Caroline St. area variance for an addition to an existing multi-family residence. Old Business: The Springs Signs - 60 and 74 Weibel Avenue, area variance for additions to two existing freestanding signs. The Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12 at City Hall. The Planning Board will host a meeting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12 at City Hall.
Friday, 06 January 2017 10:49

Changes for City Government in 2017

SARATOGA SPRINGS — From the development of new hotels and the construction of parking garages, to addressing affordable housing issues and the daily recreational activities of year-round residents, most everything that happens in Saratoga Springs passes through City Hall. Historical significance aside, the 146-year-old brick building on Broadway houses a variety of review commissions and advisory boards, each with their own specialty which feed their recommendations to the ultimate governing body that is the City Council. The five-member council – comprised of the mayor and four commissioners are each tasked with overseeing different city departments, as well as sharing equal voting power at the table when deciding how to shape the city’s future. The councilmembers each serve two-year terms, and all five seats will be up in the November 2017 election. Prior to that vote, however, the city’s commission form of governing may face a challenge in a public referendum that could take place as soon as the spring. “We had a vote 12-3 to draft a charter with an alternative form of government,” Bob Turner, chairman of the Charter Review Commission told the City Council this week. “However, we’ll also be making suggestions on changes to the current form.” At least one sitting councilmember is publicly opposed to a springtime referendum. “Having a special election in April is ludicrous. It’s almost like you’re trying to shoehorn this thing in,” DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco said this week. “If you have special elections mid-term, you just don’t get the turn-out. Special interest and special groups come out. It would make a lot more sense, to me, to wait and have that election in November.” The annual State of the City address, during which Mayor Joanne Yepsen will discuss the city’s achievements during the past 12 months and its plans the future, will take place 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Saratoga Springs City Center. The State of The City address provides a roadmap of the city’s agenda for the new year, as well as offering a glimpse of what may be in the works behind the scenes. It was during the 2015 address that the formation of the arts commission, and the subsequent policies regulating street performers emerged for the first time. “As we move forward in our second century as a city, we must sustain our growth without compromising our city in the country,” Yepsen said in last year’s address. Land Use and environmental protection were among the priorities in the 2016 vision. Building economic opportunities and housing initiatives were the others, and these are sure to continue well into the future. City Land Use Boards The Saratoga Springs Planning Board is a seven-member citizen board appointed by the mayor to 7-year staggered terms. The Planning Board reviews development activities within city boundaries and provides advisory services to the City Council, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Design Review Commission on various development activity, and meets 2nd and 4th Thursday of every month. This week, Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Amy Durland to a one-year term, to fulfill the final year of obligation by board member Howard Pinsley, who resigned due to health reasons. The Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals is a quasi-judicial seven-member citizen board appointed by the Mayor to 7-year staggered terms. The ZBA reviews requests for waivers from regulations in the zoning ordinance, including Use Variances, Area Variances, and requests for interpretation of the regulations made by the city’s Zoning Enforcement Officer. The Board also makes referrals for advisory opinions on any matter before the Board to the City Council, the Planning Board, and the Design Review Commission. This week, Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Cheryl Grey to a 7-year term. The Saratoga Springs Design Review Commission is a 7-member citizen board appointed by the Mayor to 5-year staggered terms. The DRC has jurisdiction over signage and exterior building changes on most properties within the city’s National Register Districts, as well as over signage and exterior building changes on properties that face the major entrance roads to the city. The Commission also provides advisory services to the City Council, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Planning Board on various development activity. Mayor Appoints Second City Court Judge – Vero In, Doern Out Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Francine R. Vero to fill the second position of full-time City Court Judge. Vero, a Democrat, will serve for a period of one year, commencing Jan. 1, 2017. Under a bill signed in 2013 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that seeks to ease caseloads in overburdened municipal courts, Saratoga Springs maintained its one full-time judge - Democrat Jeffery Wait - who was originally elected to the judgeship in 2008, and transformed its one part-time city judgeship - held by Republican Jim Doern, into a full-time position. Yepsen recently appointed Wait to fill the first position within City Court, and with the appointment of Vero - a 2006 graduate of Albany Law School and a Senior Counsel with the Harris Beach law firm – Doern’s service to the city as judge has concluded, although he could mount a political challenge for the seat in the fall. The position will be open for local elective office in the November 2017 vote. John Safford, a Republican mayoral candidate who challenged the Democrat Yepsen in the 2015 election, this week questioned Yepsen’s appointment of Vero over Doern. “I’m very confident and very happy with my choice,” Yepsen responded. “We all need to move on and keep the politics out of it.” In addition to increasing staffing requirements, the state Office of Court Administration also informed the city it would need to modify its existing court space, which sits directly beneath Saratoga Music Hall, to accommodate the second judge -- and that it must do so at its own expense. Last May, the City Council held a special meeting and unanimously backed an option which calls for the conversion of Saratoga Music Hall into courtroom space. The proposed conversion of the hall has been an unpopular one within some residents of the city, who cite its historic construction and its value as a 300-seat performance hall. At a public hearing last May, nearly two dozen people spoke for nearly an hour to protest the council’s decision to turn the hall into courtroom space, and an online petition titled “Save the Music Hall!” garnered more than 370 signatures in three weeks. Re-construction of the hall has yet to commence.
Friday, 06 January 2017 10:41

In The Neighborhood

Ray O’Conor, author of the book, “She Called Him Raymond: A True Story of Love, Loss, Faith and Healing,” dons his “smart glasses” at a worktable inside the Saratoga Springs Public Library, where he is flanked by a laptop computer, a pair of three-inch binders and a trusty thermos. “Today I’m working on a section of the screenplay that involves the occasion on which Helen – who is my mother, and one of the two main characters in the story - and Raymond, the aspiring young aviator she meets by chance in New York, are going to her mother’s tenement apartment in Hell’s Kitchen so he can ask for her hand in marriage. “The reason I got the notion to do this is I’ve been doing a lot of reading presentations of the book and almost without exception someone in every audience says, ‘I love the story. I think it would make a great movie.’” O’Conor goes through some notes provided him by his friend Scott McCloud, a retired former head of the English Department at Ballston Spa High School, and who is one of a dozen or so people who have offered to read through the screenplay and offer suggestions. “I spoke to some people in the film business in Hollywood. No one has optioned the story yet but there was enough interest to encourage me to undertake writing the screenplay. It probably will take a couple of years. I’ve been working on it since about this time last year.” O’Conor is also a multi-tasker of words and story ideas. “I’m working on another book: the story of the guide who took my friends and I to climb to Mt. Killimanjaro in Tanzania a little more than four years ago. The man has an extraordinary story. His name is Protus Mayunga and he lives in the Catskills now with his wife and his five kids. I’d like to take another trip to Africa with him to visit the town he grew up in. I want to take my time with the story, to make sure it’s done right.”
Friday, 23 December 2016 10:04

A Christmas Miracle

BALLSTON LAKE — They were told they were the lucky winners of a contest that granted them a three-day stay in a North Country hotel. For the Lefebvres – wife Kristin and husband Andrew and the kids Angelo, and Te’a, and Milana, and Anamaria - it was a respite for a family that could use a break. Yet, still, there was more.

The family of six shares a home on Ballston Lake with Kristin’s father and her older brother, Tommy, who suffers from severe autism and for whom Kristin is co-guardian. Seven-year-old Milana suffers from daily seizures and unexplained fevers and requires 24/7 care. Shortly after the Lefebvres’ 4-year-old daughter, Anamaria, was born, Kristin’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. “She passed very fast,” remembered Kristin, whose life as a parent to four children not-yet-in-their-teens can be stressful enough, to say nothing of the additional role as caregiver.

Since Milana was born, there have been frequent visits to Boston Children’s Hospital to see a variety of specialists in the hospital’s Complex Care Service, which provides comprehensive, coordinated and centralized care for children with complex medical needs. Milana’s illness is one for which there is no known medical reason. “There isn’t an overlying diagnosis to explain everything. She has had all kinds of genetic testing, and there is no explanation,” Kristin said. “I think it’s a good thing they can’t tell me she’s going to live for X number of years. I actually like that better. We ask, ‘Is she going to walk?’ because she has something like a walker and there’s a chance she can walk a little better in her equipment, but they don’t really say either way. They tell us, ‘I don’t know.’”

Securing outside help for assistance with the management of the home has been difficult, because people get frightened with her daughter’s daily seizures, she said. The three-day respite at the hotel was most welcome. “It was just so nice to not have to cook or run to appointments,” Kristin said. “We just stayed in the hotel the whole weekend.” Yet, still, there was more. At the family home 40 miles away, creatures were stirring all through the house.

“I was somewhat in on it,” Kristin admitted. “I knew they were coming, but until we got home I had no idea of the full picture of their work.” When the family returned to their home on a Sunday afternoon, they were amazed at what to their wondering eyes did appear. “When we arrived, what we saw was overwhelming. There was Santa. There were carolers and elves. There were 100 people outside the house - people who didn’t even know me,” she said. “The kids were looking out the window and were just completely surprised.”

The welcome committee was the creation of a partnering between the nonprofit organizations The Giving Circle and Jake’s Help from Heaven. The Giving Circle - an all-volunteer organization based in Saratoga Springs, was founded a decade ago by Mark Bertrand with a mission to seek out communities in need, connect them with the resources that could help, and to work locally with underserved families in Saratoga County.

“My two girls had met Mark from The Giving Circle. I explained they were special people who knew elves and when they saw all that was going on, I said: ‘You know, this is the magic of the elves,’ Kristin said. “They were just floored.” And yet, still, there was more.

When the Lefebvres departed for their three-day Lake George vacation - under the pretense of winning a contest - a team of volunteers descended on the family home and got to work. They created new rooms for the kids, renovated some rooms and reconfigured others; they decorated a Christmas tree and placed gifts beneath it; they painted walls, constructed shelves, installed interior paneling, and hooked up new efficient appliances to replace the cranky old appliances of a generation ago. Years of accumulated clutter was removed.

“It was an amazing sight. When we got back and looked, we were: Oh my gosh,” Kristin said. A special surprise also awaited her brother, who is a Yankees baseball fan. “My brother is autistic and hadn’t gotten a lot of attention since my mom passed. He got a big new room done up in a Yankees’ theme and during all the celebrating with the Christmas tree and the presents, one of the elves handed him a phone - it was a call from Mariano Rivera,” she said.

“Being a caregiver all the time, your world could get really small, really fast. You can feel you’re on an island sometimes and that’s why this project is so touching,” Kristin said. “For these people to come in and show that kindness, you know that we’re not alone, like we’re part of a community and that people do care. Having those people come in reminded me that people are out there.”

Friday, 23 December 2016 10:00

First Night ‘17

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The City Center was three years old, and First Night Saratoga not yet born when Pete Donnelly, Mike Gent, and Guy Lyons comingled their daytime studies at Saratoga Springs High School with their music at night to create The Figgs. On New Year’s Eve, members of the band present and past are headed on a collision course with the future to ring in the new year and celebrate the start of the group’s 30th anniversary.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary milestone. We’re coming in on 30 years and we’re very aware of it,” Donnelly explained. “There’s been plenty of ups and downs, but our relationship is pretty solid, and we’re still able to function as a band, and as friends.”

While the three current band members – Gent, Donnelly, and drummer Pete Hayes make their respective residences in different states, Saratoga Springs remains a special place to the band. “All of us have a warm spot in our hearts for Saratoga. My parents are there and it still pretty much feels like home. Every time we come to Saratoga it feels like a mini-reunion and we don’t do it that often anymore,” Donnelly said. “New Year’s Eve is special and this time Guy Lyons is joining us - he’s an original member- so there is a culmination of 30 years and New Year’s Eve in Saratoga. It’s representative of a lot of history.”

On a night to usher in the New Year that features more than 70 regional groups performing in 30 different venues, The Figgs stand at the top of the list, with performances at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on the big stage at the Saratoga Springs City Center, which sits less than two miles from the school where they played one of their earliest shows on a December night in 1987. In between, there have been more than a dozen albums - their 13th studio record, “On the Slide,” was released earlier this year – and some 1,500 shows staged at hallowed venues like the QE2, CBGB’s, and the Whisky A Go Go, various solo releases, side projects, and a 2013 TV commercial for a luxury car that featured the catchy post-new wave riffs of their song “Je T’adore.”

“As a kid I loved jazz music, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and I think a lot of people are surprised by that. Those were my idols, but with The Figgs, we love all music of all eras,” Donnelly said. “Our main influences coming up were the ‘80s underground bands coming out of Minneapolis like Hüsker Dü, and Black Flag out of California. When we began, we felt we were counter to the cheesy, schmaltzy ‘80s pop world we grew up in during the Reagan Era. Our music was an affront to that. It was an expression of searching for an identity in a banal world. It almost feels like it’s a return to that now.”

Donnelly’s first instrument was the bass, an Ibanez Roadstar II, purchased at Drome Sound in Albany on his 13th birthday. The family piano and his two brothers’ guitars and drums also received a lot of attention. When the band scored a major record deal with BMG’s Imago in 1994, the first thing Donnelly did was secure a classic 1965 Fender Jazz Bass from Lark Street Music – a classic instrument which he still plays today. It is a far different world than when The Figgs first started, and the band has rolled with the changes.

“With the Internet, I feel that the music industry has been castrated. People treat music like it’s something on the side, an accessory. Some people claim that it’s leveled the field, that everyone can play, but I think you have a much lesser pool of quality. The bar has been lowered. It’s like there’s an ocean of mediocre work and it’s hard to find your way through it,” Donnelly said. “But, I’m not one of those people who are angry, or resentful. It is what it is.

“Where the Internet is great is that it allows a band like us to maintain contact with our fans, and what’s the same is what’s been true forever: that there is a percentage of quality work, too. Musicians have to play. It’s their desire. And we play for the exact same reasons,” Donnelly said. “I know for me and for many of my dear friends and family, music is so precious that they couldn’t live without it - and I couldn’t live without making it.”

SARATOGA SPRINGS — City residents could be voting as soon as next spring on a referendum to change the way the city has governed for the duration of its 101-year history.

This week, the 15-member Saratoga Springs City Charter Review Commission unanimously approved the drafting of a new charter, and in a 12-3 straw poll voted to draft a motion for a new form of government. The work will begin immediately to prepare a proposal for an alternative form of government to be considered by the commission, with the goal of being placed before the voters in spring 2017. A new form of government, if approved by voters, could go into effect as soon as 2018. “Changing a city’s charter is not something to be undertaken lightly,” said charter commission chairman Bob Turner. “I think the members of the commission felt very confident in their understanding of the city charter to make their decision. It was a long process, but well worth it.”

Turner said the commission’s goal was to conduct the most comprehensive and in-depth review of Saratoga Springs’ city government that has ever been executed. Interviews were conducted with 20 current and former city council members, 10 city hall department heads, and six other mayors and city managers, in addition to separate surveys of City Hall employees and potential City Council candidates. A town hall meeting and 30 committee and subcommittee meetings were held over the past 6 months.

City Workers: Commission Form of Government Doesn’t Work

A 16-question survey distributed to City Hall and Public Safety employees from Nov. 25 to Dec. 8 received 75 responses. More than eighty per cent of those workers have worked at City Hall for at least six years. The majority responded that political conflicts or tensions between department commissioners affected workers’ ability to do their jobs and nearly half said they didn’t trust deputy commissioners to make decisions in the best interest of the city. As to the commission form of government specifically, 71.8 percent of the city employees said they don’t believe it provides for effective management of the city, and most opted instead for either a strong mayor, or city manager form of governing.

Five members – the mayor plus four commissioners heading the departments of Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, and Accounts, respectively – comprise the Saratoga Springs City Council, which operates in a commission form of government. That is, each council member is responsible for administering their own department as well as serving as legislators. The concept was founded in Galveston, Texas in 1901 after a storm ravaged the city, killing more than 5,000 people and creating the need for a useful way of post-disaster governing. Five department heads were given equal say in how the city should be reconstructed. It proved to be an efficient measure. The city of Houston adopted a similar form four years later. By 1912, 206 cities in 34 states followed suit, from Margate City, New Jersey - with a population of 129, to Oakland, California, with 150,000 residents at the time. Saratoga Springs followed suit shortly after it was incorporated as a city in 1915.

Survey: Commission Form of Government Excludes Diverse Voices and Talent, Chairman Says

In a second recently issued survey by the charter review commission, a pool of 182 potential City Council candidates who were queried revealed that changing from the commission form of government would dramatically increase the number of people willing to run for City Council. Only 8.2 percent responded they would be “somewhat,” or “extremely likely” to run for one of the four commissioner positions in the current system of governing. More than three times as many said they were “somewhat or “very likely to run” were they to serve as a part-time legislator and did not have any administrative responsibilities.

Commission positions are paid an annual salary of $14,500 and hire a full-time deputy to run their office. Interviews with current and former commissioners revealed that many found it challenging to balance a full-time job with the dual demands of running a major department and legislating, a combination unique to the commission form of government. Seventy percent of the survey respondents reported working full-time.

“We clearly have a large pool of civically engaged citizens who want to serve the city, but are unable to make the time commitment required under the commission form of government,” Turner said. “The data shows we are excluding a diverse set of voices and talent.”

The Commission has met two to three times each month since June to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the charter. The next meeting will take place 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27 at City Hall.

Upcoming Meetings: The City Council will host a pre-agenda meeting 9:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 19 and a full council meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 20 at City Hall. The Zoning Board of Appeals will host a meeting 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19 at City Hall.

Friday, 16 December 2016 12:38

Demolition on Caroline Street

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The demolition began this week of a 19th century building at 26 Caroline St. ravaged by a Thanksgiving Day fire. The two-story building was constructed in the 1870s and its façade modified in circa 1908 to install large first-floor windows. Efforts to salvage the structure’s facade were unsuccessful. A faulty electrical extension cord located in a small storage area in the rear of the nearby Mio Posto restaurant on Putnam Street was targeted as the cause of the blaze and resulted in the closure of four businesses. At least two of those businesses - Sperry’s restaurant, and Hamlet & Ghost – hope to reopen by New Year’s Eve. The owner of the 26 Caroline St. structure, Louis Lazzinnaro, last week said he was working with an architect to create conceptual drawings of what might replace the demolished structure and that the new design could possibly feature a mixed-use development.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — City Mayor Joanne Yepsen looked up at the 50 or so people who crowded into City Hall Wednesday afternoon and spoke to the reason for the gathering. “We don’t want to become a community that only the elite can afford,” the mayor said.

The City Council’s special mid-day meeting on Dec. 14 effectively kicked-off an 18-month project to address affordable housing in Saratoga Springs.

“Residents are saying, ‘We are pricing ourselves out of our own city,’ meaning that the market rates are higher than what they can afford. I think it’s time for us as a council to address some of the short-term needs as best we can with some long-term solutions,” Yepsen said. “And affordable housing may not just be an option any more – it may be required by the federal government.”

The 1968 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), was amended in 2015 with a final rule that states communities must address affordable housing needs and come up with a consolidation plan to carry out actions. That plan is specifically due from Saratoga Springs in May 2020, with submissions due at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by October 2019. “We are planning this will take us about a year and a half to put together, so we’re starting at the right time,” Yepsen said.

Survey Says: Additional Housing Needed

A 228-page market study regarding housing needs in Saratoga Springs conducted during the summer by GAR Associates indicates a strong demand for additional housing in the city, and recommends multiple rent tiers targeting different income bands in the development of workforce, family, and senior housing. The study points to Saratoga Springs’ disparity in income levels as a supporting case to be made for affordable housing projects that specifically feature workforce-oriented and mixed-income housing, where attorneys would live in the same building as busboys, explained Saratoga Springs Housing Authority Executive Director Paul Feldman.

“Affordable housing to me is not only by the HUD standards (residents should not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing), but for Saratoga Springs it’s taking care of our hospitality industry and making sure that the workers can get to work and live close to jobs,” Yepsen said. “So, it’s workforce housing for our hospitality industry and it’s allowing young professionals to move and work here.”

The study reported the average listing price of a new single-family home in Saratoga Springs is $504,000, the average annual earning salary is about $70,000, and that of the more than 600 housing units built in the city during the past decade -in addition to another 200 or so on the table in the future - none include an affordable housing component. “What the market study shows is that 80 percent of the people who need more affordable housing are Saratogians,” Yepsen said. “They currently live here and are having trouble paying their bills. Eighty percent of the people are our own people - and that’s why I’m taking this to heart. We need to do this. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a plan.”

There are several options to be explored, from working with private developers, to nonprofits. A decade-old Inclusionary Zoning ordinance revived by Sustainable Saratoga earlier this year calls for the dedication of a small percentage of all future units built be designated for moderate, or low-income households. In exchange, builders would receive a bonus that allows an increased density of the project. The IZ would also spread the dispersal of mixed-use affordable housing across the community.

“If the IZ ever passed the council, it would mean every developer, from here on in, would include a percentage of affordable housing,” Yepsen said. The proposal currently sits at the city and county planning boards for their respective advisory opinions, after which it will be required to pass through the city’s Land Use boards before being returned to the council for a potential vote. In a community with high-income characteristics such as Saratoga Springs, incentives often have to be provided in order to create the support for municipal approvals associated with affordable housing.

The Middle Class Gap

Yepsen said looking at the housing gap from a continuum of care spectrum, the path begins at the Code Blue emergency shelter, continues on to Shelters of Saratoga, and transitions to public housing and eventually private housing. But, that’s where the path ends. “That middle gap, to me, is what really is the crux of the problem, because you’re not eligible for help, yet you can’t afford the high-end condos either, so you end up stuck in the middle,” Yepsen said. “And Saratoga Springs is going to be feeling that more, unless we can at least introduce some other price points for housing in the city. It is for me, a priority and that is the reality of the situation. The question now is: What does the council want to do about it?”

The survey reports that land adjacent to The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority’s Stonequist Apartments would be ideal for a large mixed development. Currently, the city is looking at grant funding opportunities to develop 20 to 26 new affordable housing units at Jefferson and Vanderbilt Terrace. “We’re thrilled that we’re a thriving economic community and we don’t want that to change at all,” the mayor said. “Our package of assets and cultural opportunities are going to thrive and grow, but we’ve got to take care of our own too. We need to be both - an economically thriving tourist community and a residential year-round affordable community, with a high quality of life.”

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