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In a rut: Washington Park Conservancy’s Fran Ingraham Heins.

Photo: Darryl McGrath

Paradise Trampled?

The Washington Park Conservancy and the city of Albany debate how best to balance the park’s dual identities

Albany’s Washington Park may have been designed as an urban oasis, but it has been doing double duty as the city’s backyard for much of the last 20 years.

The nearly 140-year-old park offers peaceful woodland retreats in the heart of Albany, but it is also an outdoor concert and festival venue that draws tens of thousands of people for a single event to gather on what originally was a croquet lawn. It is the showcase public garden in the city, but it also contains some of the state’s oldest and rarest trees, deliberately planted to look as wild as they would in nature. Paths for horse-drawn carriages still wend their way to scenic overlooks in the park, but thousands of people a year use the more accessible paved roads as nothing more than a shortcut for driving from one side of the city to another, without even a glance out their car windows at one of the country’s landmark public spaces.

Amid these competing claims on the park, the park’s conservation group is making a renewed effort to keep the park true to the original plan conceived by John Bogart and John Yapp Culyer. Both men studied and worked under the urban landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who co-designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Manhattan’s Central Park.

“The park is being at times loved to death,” said Herb Starr, a member of the Washington Park Conservancy, who has served on the quasi-public preservation group since its inception in 1985. “Everyone seems to want to use the park. It can only take so much stress, as with any natural thing.”

And, given that Washington Park is about 90 acres—fairly small as showcase city parks go—“just the very size of the park dictates that we must be ever so careful in its usage and preservation,” said Fran Ingraham Heins, president of the Washington Park Conservancy for the past year.

Mayor Jerry Jennings met with the conservancy last week and announced that the conservancy and the city will form a committee to commission a plan for Washington Park. The master plan will be the first comprehensive study of the park since a 1989 report that the city and the conservancy commissioned, titled “Historic Landscape Report: Preservation Plan and Management Proposal.”

“We had a great meeting,” Jennings said. “It’s not that I haven’t committed staff to [the park], but in these times, there’s more of a demand. Times have changed, uses have changed. It’s time for us to look back at what else we can do to make it more user-friendly.”

Jennings was very receptive to the conservancy’s concerns, Heins says, and has also promised to help remedy some of the problems they brought to the meeting for discussion.

The struggle to balance the dual identities of Washington Park—as a serene retreat from city life, and a gathering place for public entertainment—came to a head recently over the city’s creation of two successive “staging areas,” where the park’s grounds crews have been storing vehicles, equipment and materials for use in maintenance and projects in the park.

The staging areas are a reflection of increased use of the park and a reduced city workforce, say Jennings and conservancy members. In more flush times, grounds crews would make trips back to the DGS headquarters on Erie Boulevard for loads of gravel, dirt and other supplies; now, with smaller crews and tighter schedules, they need to store supplies in the park.

The Washington Park Conservancy took exception to the first staging area, which started as a small outdoor storage area several years ago on a level stretch of ground in back of the playground. The area gradually expanded to roughly the size of a vacant downtown building lot, where grounds crews stored materials and occasionally vehicles. Eventually, the tires of the city’s dump trucks turned the land’s surface into heavy ruts, with soil pushed back against the base of a towering red oak tree. That damaged ground will be restored, Heins said.

“When I drive through the park, I look at it from the visitor’s view,” Heins said. “And I see this from the playground, and I thought, ‘Gee, that’s not that attractive.’ ”

In response to concerns by the conservancy, the city’s Department of General Services moved the staging area to one of the carriage path turnaround areas overlooking the lake, known as the Lake Grove Overlook. The overlook is set in a grove of century-old beech, elm and gingko trees. That’s also not a satisfactory storage area, because of the proximity of the very valuable old trees and their underground root systems, said Heins. The conservancy would like to see the staging area removed from the park, and Jennings is receptive to the group’s concerns.

“We don’t have a solution yet, but we’re going to try to resolve it, or get rid of it altogether,” said Heins.

—Darryl McGrath

What a Week

Out-of-State Protest

Californian voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which wrote into that state’s constitution the one-man-one-woman definition of marriage, was the target of protests in Albany last weekend. It was reported that between 300 to 500 protesters gathered in front of City Hall in conjunction with a nationwide show of solidarity that drew similar rallies in Providence, Houston, Phoenix, and a dozen other cities. And while we understand the importance of this concerted show of disapproval and disgust for that backward referendum, we here at Metroland wonder when people are going to launch the rallies in front of the Bronx office of this state’s most adamant, and currently effective, opponent of marriage equality, the Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.

Pricey Neglect

This week an ordinance sponsored by Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) that increased building-code fines for landlords of abandoned buildings was passed unanimously by the council. Landlords who violate codes would face up to $1,600 in fines a day. Ellis noted that there are issues with code enforcement in the city and that the council has had problems getting information from the city about how many abandoned buildings there are and who owns them. “If enforced, this would generate income for city,” said Ellis, “if not also take a direct inventory of the landlords who have given up on those homes.”

Bike Friendly?

A proposed ordinance put forward by Albany Common Councilman James Scalzo (Ward 10) that would require bikes to be registered in Albany was met by protest at the meeting on Monday. Local bicyclists decried having to pay to register their bikes—saying they would feel better about registering their bikes if the city worked on making it easier for bicyclists to share the roads with bike lanes. Bicyclists also worried that the ordinance would give the Albany Police Department more reason to stop them during their commute. The ordinance originally was proposed to help prevent bike theft, and would have nonregistered bikes impounded until the bikes were properly registered to their owners. The ordinance was referred to committee.

Kicking the Habit

Public Employees Federation calls for the state to reduce costly spending on contractors

Imagine going to work every morning to sit across from a person who has exactly the same job description that you do, but who makes 54 percent more salary than you. That situation has been reality for countless state employees for state employees who have worked side-by-side with outside consultants for years. It is a situation that the Public Employees Federation wants to see reduced, if not ended all together.

Yesterday (Wednesday), PEF released a report called“Beating New York State’s Consultant Addiction.” The plan would have the state freeze contracts not funded with Capital Project Funds and require a cost-benefit analysis before projects are started to see whether consultants or state employees would finish the projects more efficiently.

Arlea Igoe, a representative of PEF, said that multiple studies by independent groups have shown that state workers in many instances could have completed jobs done by contractors much more efficiently and cheaply. PEF President Ken Brynien said, “New York is clearly addicted to consultants, and this addiction is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when they can least afford it. The state has a hiring freeze on state workers, yet it continues to hire costly consultants to do work state employees can do for less.”

According to numerous independent studies, the state spends between $417 million and $705.8 million a year on consultants. Those studies also show that the average consultant salary was $126,503, while an average state employee makes $81,760—meaning that consultants on average make 55 percent more than state workers.

While the governor has called for a hiring freeze in agencies and asked for state workers to do without a raise this year, contractors who are generally paid considerably more than their state-employed counterparts have continued to find employment.

Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany), who has been supportive of reducing contractor usage in state government, said, “In the Pataki administration, it was used to favor some companies supportive of the Republican Party. But we shouldn’t be considering hiring freezes while at the same time we are hiring independent contractors.”

To reduce this expenditure on consultants, PEF has proposed reducing spending in three stages. The first step for the 2009-10 budgets would be to do away with enough consultant-generated salaries—and hiring state employees to do the same job more cheaply—to generate a net savings of $104.24 million. A comparable reduction would take place in the 2010-11 budget, and, in the 2011-12 budget, there would be a net reduction of $208.5 million in consultants’ salaries, making the total savings $417 million.

PEF has been pressing for years to make public the amount the state spends on consultants and to institute mandatory studies to see whether specific jobs could have been done better, quicker and cheaper by state employees. PEF was instrumental in lobbying for the Contract Disclosure Law of 2006 that requires state agencies to itemize how much they spend on consultants. However, PEF said their research has shown that agencies have itemized only 17 percent of what they spend on consultants. PEF studies show that $2.3 billion spent on consultants last year went unreported by agencies. “Agencies are misleading the public,” said Brynien.

“Our members are very upset about it,” said Igoe. “They sit next to a person doing the same thing they are, or sometimes less than they are, and they know they are getting paid more. The Department of Health employs financial specialists from Mercer and Mercer who make 113 percent more than state employees in the same titles. It’s not something state workers are happy about.”

Breslin said, “The argument shouldn’t be minimized. The state worker is a public servant, and in most cases is paid less than in the private sector. One of the reasons they accept it is an implied security in his job. And unless there is an extremely compelling reason for using a consultant instead of state employee, it shouldn’t happen.”

—David King

Not Gone Away

World AIDS Day offers a reminder that the pandemic is still here

In observance of World AIDS Day, the Capital District African American Coalition on AIDS held a panel discussion that highlighted the need for constant vigilance against the virus.

The coalition, commonly referred to as CDACCA (said “Se-DAK-ah”), focuses specifically on helping women of color, whom studies have show are the largest group diagnosed with HIV/AIDS—66.9 percent, according to the NYS Department of Health.

It is a problem that remains in large part, experts say, because of denial.

Dan O’Connell, deputy director of the HIV Prevention and Program Evaluation for the state, said that many people reassure themselves by saying that AIDS happens to other people. He said his program aims to “remind people any way we can that they are at risk.” He also said that the epidemic was living on, despite targeted prevention efforts. “We’ve done great work [to eliminate] mother-to-child and injection-drug cases,” but community organizations and health-care providers are “still facing a hurdle” in eliminating sexually transmitted HIV.

Vivian Kornegay, a program coordinator at CDAACA for nearly three years, stood up in front of the roughly 40 people and, paraphrasing Malcolm X, called for the end of AIDS by any means necessary. “This job is a part of my soul,” she said. “I have four kids, a husband, and CDAACA.”

In a later interview, Kornegay said that CDAACA was not specifically formed to combat AIDS, but rather all kinds of ailments suffered by Arbor Hill and West Hill residents.

“HIV is not a black disease,” she said. “It doesn’t discriminate.” However, it does spread faster in economically struggling areas.

“People living in lower socioeconomic brackets are dealing with more than one major thing at once,” she said. People are more likely to concentrate on immediate problems, like having their electricity turned off or being evicted, instead of worrying about sexually transmitted disease.

Kornegay said that contraction rates have continued to rise over the years, and CDAACA’s approach is to remain an unrelenting center of support and outreach to the community.

According to Kornegay, CDAACA offers realistic solutions for people to at least decrease the risk of infection. “If you’re having sex with six different people, at least wear a condom with three,” Kornegay said. Even though this does not guard as well as using a condom all the time, she said it meets people half way. “We don’t order people around. . . . When you meet them where they’re at, they are more likely to come back.”

—Allie Garcia

Creative Budgeting?

The fate of a half-million dollars has Troy’s city government at war

When the members of the Troy City Council approved the 2009 budget at the end of last month, they did so with a slight alteration. They moved $500,000—less than 1 percent of the actual budget—from dozens of line items into a contingency fund. And they did so, according to Councilman Bill Dunne (D-District 4), to provide a hedge against an unsure economy.

It was an organic process they followed, he said, which developed as the council looked through the minor lines in the budget, searching for cuts. But when Gov. David Paterson pronounced that there would be no additional state aid for the 2009 year, Dunne said, “we realized that cutting taxes would not be a fiscally prudent thing to do this year.”

Which sounds odd, he admitted, but if the city of Troy runs a deficit greater than 1- percent of the budget, the state comptroller can convene what is known as a Financial Control Board, Dunne said. “That is a process by which every expenditure in excess of $2,500 has to be reviewed by the control board.”

So, Dunne said, the council decided not to attempt to undercut Mayor Harry Tutunjian’s budget. After all, it doesn’t include a tax increase.

What the council Democrats decided to do was create a rainy-day contingency fund, as a hedge against running that 1-percent deficit. They went back to the budget and went through line by line, again, looking for fat, Dunne said, such as money for office supplies, printing, and travel expenses—anything that was budgeted for more money than the department used the previous year. Then they moved that excess money into their rainy-day fund.

Further, the Democrats transferred larger sums of money from the Parks and Recreation Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Corporation Counsel’s office into the fund. In each of these moves, Dunne said, the council was acting on recommendations of department employees, or based on data that showed the funds were not essential to operation, or because the council wanted more control over the funds.

Attacks against the Democrats came fast and from multiple players. Commissioner of Public Works Bob Mirch said that the contingency line will inhibit the city from plowing the streets during snow storms. Councilman Mark McGrath (R-District 2) complained that the move of funds will jeopardize summer programs jobs for lower-class youth.

The Times Union reported that the mayor was concerned that “the transfer of $135,000 from the summer hiring budget could adversely impact the city’s summer recreation programs.”

“The pools will open up late, if at all,” Tutunjian predicted to the TU. “The golf course will open up late if at all.”

The majority was even pilloried in the editorial page of The Record by Jim Franco.

“It just adds another layer of red tape for the department heads to go through and will probably end up being a huge waste of everyone’s time,” he wrote. “The council can and should be a check and balance and have some legislative oversight, but the Democrat majority is just a vindictive bunch that doesn’t have any real plan outside of messing with the mayor.”

Dunne dismissed the Republicans’ criticisms as attempts, which he said were typical of the Tutunjian administration, to obfuscate the facts and scare the public.

“For the mayor to say that we don’t have any right to do what we did is absolutely ridiculous, ” Dunne said.

“Let me get this straight,” said Troy’s director of public information, Jeff Buell. “The comptroller in the city of Troy thinks that this is a sound budget. The mayor of the city of Troy thinks that it is a sound budget. The New York state comptroller has signed off on it as a sound budget, but Councilman Dunne doesn’t think that it is? Pardon me if I sound skeptical of Councilman Dunne’s expertise in this matter.”

“The biggest problem that we have with the changes is that the City Council has no idea where they are taking money out of and what it does,” said Buell, listing the budget lines where the council made its cuts and pointing out that some of the items are fixed costs or even state mandates.

“That is the most insulting part. They don’t know what they are doing. And now they are putting these costs in some contingency account?”

Dunne’s retort: Show me. “If Jeff wants to complain about a few thousand dollars, and he comes to us with the documentation that says that the money really needs to be there, we’ll put it back. We never said we wouldn’t.”

The pools will open. The golf course will be open. The streets will get plowed, said Dunne. “If they need the money, they can come and ask and we will move the money.”

“I don’t know where the economy is going to be six months from now,” Dunne said. “The only thing we can do is not spend money. That is the only hedge we have against the deficit. And by moving the half-million dollars into an account where we can keep a more thorough eye on it, that it is the hedge.”

—Chet Hardin

We Can’t Read Our Own Records

Albany council members scratch their heads over police chief’s insistence that “ghost” tickets can’t be traced

An unannounced visit to the Albany Common Council caucus Nov. 26 by Albany Police Chief James Tuffey, to answer questions regarding “ghost” parking tickets, left Common Councilmen Corey Ellis (Ward 3) and Dominic Calsolaro (Ward 1) unsatisfied—so much so that they are now calling for the council to use its power to get to the bottom of the issue.

According to Calsolaro, the chief once again insisted that there would be no easy way to trace who got no-fine tickets and exactly how many cars bear the bulls-eye decal issued by the Albany Police Union.

Calsolaro said he found it hard to believe. “This information goes into a hand-held computer, so I asked how many tickets they issue to cars misusing handicapped parking day by day,” he said. “He told me we can’t get the information about how many different ghost tickets were written. We may be dumb but we are not that stupid!”

Calsolaro said he sent out an e-mail to Council President Shawn Morris and Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti (Ward 6) conveying the sentiment that “no matter how many man-hours it takes, we should be able to know who got free passes.”

Ellis wrote a letter of his own expressing to Conti and Morris his disappointment that the public was not notified that the chief would be appearing before the council.

“The chief’s attendance last evening, with no prior notice, deprived our constituents of their right to hear his answers,” wrote Ellis.

Ellis went on to call for a full investigation “utilizing the subpoena authority vested in the Common Council to obtain sworn testimony from past and present APOU and Council 82 Presidents, as well as the Chief of Police and those responsible for overseeing any part of the ‘ghost ticket’ process.”

Ellis’ letter continued: “As a Council, we must be willing to exercise our power to obtain sworn testimony so that we can provide a full accounting to our constituents, and begin to restore confidence in our Police Department and City Government.”

—David King

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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