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Building of Contention

Critics say that Rensselaer County is paying too much for poorly maintained office space

It’s not a difficult question, really, said Kathy Wright: Would you sign a five-year lease, agreeing to pay above-average rental rates, to remain in a building that has been in a decade-long struggle against disrepair, with a landlord who appears uninterested in fixing the leaking roof and faulty urinals?

So why, asked Wright, an organizer with the United Public Service Employees Union, would the majority in the Rensselaer County Legislature pass a resolution authorizing county executive Kathy Jimino to enter into a contract to renew the county’s lease of the Raddock Building in downtown Troy? Since at least 1994, the county’s Department of Social Services workers, whose offices are located in the building, have complained about the Raddock’s crumbling infrastructure and shoddy maintenance. One group of DSS workers said that the aging roof is prone to leaks, and Albany Management, the building’s owner, is notorious for taking an exaggerated length of time to respond.

One leak, workers informed Metroland, took more than two years to fix.

There are other issues, as well: a faulty HVAC system; aging elevators prone to failing; and overall poor maintenance, which is the responsibility of Albany Management. Simple tasks, the employees said, like cleaning shit off the floors or the spit off the walls or stocking the bathrooms with toilet paper, are routinely ignored. Wright’s favorite example of lazy maintenance is a phone book sealed to the floor because the cleaners didn’t sweep before waxing.

According to the union, roughly 80 workers in the building have signed a petition asking the legislature to address their concerns.

“We are not siding with the Democrats, and we are not siding with the Republicans. We are siding with our members,” the majority of the 140-plus employees of the county Social Services Department who work in the Raddock, Wright said. “We are asking that this legislature find an alternative location.”

It is a difficult task to find the necessary 30,000 square feet in downtown Troy, the majority argued.

If relocating the offices to a new location proves prohibitive, Wright countered, then UPSEU is asking that the county enter a “short-term lease with the Raddock Building, with mechanisms built into that lease to give the department the leverage they need to put pressure on the landlord to maintain that building the way they should.”

At the legislature’s monthly meeting Tuesday, the Republican Majority, headed by Bob Mirch, voted unanimously to allow the county to extend its five-year lease with Albany Management for $3 million.

The Democratic minority, predictably, broke from the Republicans.

Mirch wondered why the union waited until the last minute to raise concerns about these issues. “There are problems everywhere. Certainly after 14 years, why would the union come here tonight, the night we are supposed to vote on a resolution, and ask us to find another location?”

He dismissed the union’s complaints as political pandering to the Democrats.

The Democratic minority argued that the county has allowed this lease to continue due to a number of issues, including a lack of foresight by the county executive to begin the process of relocating the department, as well as a general “business as usual” mentality that allows millions of dollars to be “wasted” on an overpriced, underserviced contract.

The minority also argued that perhaps Albany Management is being given a pass on this because of the relationship of its parent company, Labarge Industries, with Republicans in the county, many of whom, they said, have received campaign contributions.

Randy Hall, acting commissioner of social services for Rensselaer County, however, said that the union and minority have painted a picture that is “not entirely accurate.”

“It is a large commercial building,” Hall said, with “a lot of use. It gets dirty. There are some issues. But we deal with Albany Management on a daily basis . . . and they have to respond.” He claimed that, if Albany Management fails in the future to maintain the building, it is within the county’s right to terminate the lease.

“The legislature has politicized this, and that’s not what it is about,” Wright said. “This is about the employees. This is about the environment they work in, and it appears to me that along the way that has been forgotten.”

—Chet Hardin


What a Week

Fun With Justice

The first U.S. war crimes trial in half a century came to an end this week with mixed results. The man on trial, Osama bin Laden’s former driver Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was found guilty of supporting Al Qaeda but found not guilty of conspiring with bin Laden to commit terrorist attacks. Hamdan’s trial was the first in what will likely be a series of military trials of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Although he was partially acquitted, Hamdan still faces up to life in prison. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the Bush administration for starting the military trials with “a marginal figure” such as Hamdan.

Hilton’s Revenge

Paris Hilton returned fire on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain this week by releasing a YouTube video mocking a McCain campaign TV spot. Last week the McCain campaign launched an ad that compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Not only did McCain’s ad anger Hilton’s parents, who are large donors to the McCain campaign, it garnered a video response from Paris herself. The video features—in mock campaign-spot style—Hilton lounging in a pool chair, offering her solution to the energy crisis. And frighteningly, taking herself seriously for two minutes before gleefully spouting the line, “I’ll see you at the debate, bitches!”

Hootenany!

In perhaps one of the most off-color campaign stops ever, John McCain paid a visit to the Sturgis Buffalo Chip biker gathering in North Dakota this week. The event, which featured Foghat, Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Hawaiian Tropic girls, and women’s oil wrestling, also plays host to the “Miss Buffalo Chip” pageant. While addressing the rowdy crowd, McCain suggested he might have a late entrant. “You know I was looking at the Sturgis schedule and saw that you have a beauty pageant and so I urged Cindy to compete,” announced McCain to catcalls and hoots. “I told her with a little luck she could be the only woman ever to serve as the first lady and Ms. Buffalo Chip!”



You Make what?

The Times Union’s latest online database is forging new ground, and drawing sharp criticism

Times Union editor Rex Smith was expecting blowback. This week, the TU launched a searchable online database that makes the salaries and job titles of all 375,000 employees of the state readily available to the public. It was a move that many other newspapers in the state have taken, and similar to trends seen throughout the country. In his weekly column, Smith compared the release of the database to strapping on a pair of boxing gloves.

He dismissed some of the flimsier attacks offhandedly.

If the TU wants to publicize the salaries of the state workforce, to invade their privacy, many of the TU’s critics have asked, would Smith be willing to publish the same information about his workforce?

First off, he said, that’s not his decision to make—he has bosses, too. But, further, the comparison just doesn’t add up. The TU is owned by a private company, obviously, and the state is public.

“People voluntarily pay for the newspaper, therefore they become customers of a private enterprise,” Smith said. “We are not voluntary customers of the state of New York. And that is why we have the rights to see those numbers.”

“This is what online journalism is about,” he continued. “Producing data that really puts the content into the hands of the people. Journalism is not as much one-way street anymore. It is interactive. And we are increasingly able, because of the Internet, to give people raw data that enables them to do their own analysis and make their own judgments.”

Of course, most of the criticism leveled at the TU points to the fact that most people are not analysts, and they do not have the proper framework with which to understand the data. As one commenter on Smith’s blog put it:

“The one reason this does Joe tax payer no good is that they have no idea what the people in these titles do. If you compared the pay these workers get to what private industry pays its non-day-shift employees, you would realize how under paid they are. You will never get a true understanding of where your tax dollars are going to by knowing my title or my salary.”

Another commenter built on this theme: raw data without context, though titillating, is otherwise pointless. “What does knowing what an individual rank and file state employee makes tell anyone about what government spends? Absolutely nothing. This information was basically legalized voyeurism of the worst kind.”

Does the average person, critics asked, have the tools to use this information?

“I don’t think we want to be saying, I don’t think Metroland wants to be saying, that people aren’t smart enough to handle this information, therefore they shouldn’t have it,” Smith continued. “It is an unsupportable position.”

Another stream of criticism leveled at the TU relates to its decision to make public the names of all the employees. Why didn’t the TU demonstrate discretion is choosing which employees to disclose? Perhaps the paper could have withheld the names of the employees in the low-tier pay scale? They are working schlubs, say critics, who are not in a position to actually abuse the system.

“I think that is true of the vast majority of the people on the payroll,” Smith said, “they are simply there doing their jobs and they are not high-income people. They are not policy makers. But by having names on the payroll, you will find those people who are deriving a small amount of income and therefore being kept in the state pension system. There are people who are on the payroll at very low dollar figures because of their particular political connections.”

A quick search by Metroland turned up Rensselaer County’s Bob Mirch. The well-employed Mirch, along with his job with the city of Troy and on the Rensselaer County Legislature, makes, according to the TU’s database, a biweekly salary of $1,260.84. If the TU had only released his title—constituent liaison—and salary, it would have been impossible to draw the valuable insights from that anonymous data that a reader can draw from knowing that the liaison is, in fact, Mirch.

“We have the opportunity to put information in people’s hands. And that matches the Jeffersonian approach to democracy,” Smith said. “It is an opportunity to say journalism is not only an authoritarian allocation of information by the powerful media. It is using the media to put information into the hands of citizens. Information that has been heretofore held in the file cabinets of government without the real opportunity for people to access it.”

—Chet Hardin


Responsibility Overdue

With financial aid vetoed by the governor, Albany confronts a budget deficit and possible layoffs

With a bill that would have provided millions of dollars in annual payments to Albany vetoed this past week by Gov. David Paterson, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings has been forced to air the city’s financial dirty laundry in public. Jennings recently told the Times Union that, with an estimated $14.7 million deficit looming over the 2009 budget, the city will have to take a serious look at layoffs.

Common Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti (Ward 6) called for unity between the Albany Common Council and the mayor’s office in coming up with solutions to the financial crisis, pointing out that heretofore there has been a lack of solidarity on financial matters.

“I and others raised concerns over the past years that we need to deal with the expenditure side of the budget, that we needed to deal with what was clearly a building financial challenge,” said Conti. “If we had dealt with some of these issues earlier, the decisions would have been easier, but still difficult. But now we are starting at a crisis point in trying to close this year’s operating deficit.”

The vetoed bill would have provided $5.5 million this year, and $11 million in successive years, in payments to the city in lieu of taxes for the state-owned Harriman Research and Technology Park in Albany. The park is managed by the Harriman Research and Technology and Development Corporation, subsidiary of Empire State Development, a state agency tasked with improving the state’s economy. And as such, the campus is not on the Albany tax rolls. The hope is that Harriman campus will become an economic engine and be inhabited by technology-focused companies.

But as Conti pointed out, the city of Albany still provides the campus with services that cost the city money, and he did not think it was unreasonable for the city to ask for payment in lieu of taxes for Harriman. He noted the PILOT money for Harriman was not guaranteed and the city was not basing its financial future around the payments.

However, without the payments, the gaps in the city’s budget have become more daunting.

Conti said that it would take a 30- percent property-tax increase to cover the 2009 deficit and an even higher increase to cover the projected deficit for 2010—a financial burden, Conti said, Albany’s citizens cannot bear.

“There is no easy way out of this,” said Conti. “This is going to require real cooperation and working together. If we can all buy in, it will be easier than if we begin saying, ‘whoops we can’t do that’ and pointing fingers.”

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) agreed that the council and mayor will have to come together to properly address the problem, but added that with the treatment he received last year when he offered two solutions to a financial problem he saw looming, he wonders if Jennings will be open to suggestions.

“We do all need to work together,” Calsolaro said. “But when a councilman makes suggestions that we need to eliminate unfilled positions or charge more for the use of a golf course, the council member shouldn’t have been called crazy. We now have to do what I proposed a year ago. I made suggestions to WRGB news and the mayor said he didn’t have to listen to my suggestions and that I am crazy.”

Calsolaro said he is “impressed” with the ability the Jennings administration has shown for squandering budget surpluses and not planning for the future.

He said Jennings is complaining now about the city’s salary and health-care costs, costs that are part of contracts Jennings negotiated without any outside input.

Last year Calsolaro suggested eliminating unfilled positions from the budget as well as reducing city borrowing by 5 percent. He further proposed raising fees for the city-owned golf course so that the city would break even on the venture.

And while Calsolaro clearly is annoyed that his ideas were blown off last year, he said that he still thinks he and his fellow councilmembers should be doing more to rein in spending by voting against bonding issues that increase the city’s debt burden.

Calsolaro said in the coming months he would like to see a citywide audit. “We need to have a government audit to see what we can do. Maybe we need to look at the whole way the city operates to see what consolidation needs to be made. We need to get together with the administration. This is going to be a long process, and it’s not going to be fixed over night or in the 2009 budget.”

—David King




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