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Let them stay home: ACORN activist Williams waits to meet with Schenectady County’s undersheriff in charge of evictions.

Photo: Chet Hardin

Home Security

Activists call upon Schenectady to place a moratorium on evictions

Iris Williams and Lorrie Robinson led a freezing troupe of housing advocates on a protest into the halls of Schenectady’s county government, waving banners and signs, chanting their demands for the county to practice restraint in the face of a growing catastrophe. Williams pressed the clerk at the sheriff’s office to let her speak with the sheriff.

“People are listening,” Williams said, “and we want them to hear that no one can afford to lose their homes. We want the sheriff to step up and say ‘No.’ ” The clerk seemed sympathetic. “I know, honey, I know. We served 837 evictions out of this office last year.”

Gordon Bollard, the undersheriff in charge of evictions, came out to meet the handful of activists with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, filling the sheriff’s receiving area. He spoke privately with Williams and Chris Franklin, an ACORN organizer, and said that he would be willing to meet with them to discuss their proposals, as long as the county attorney signed off on the meeting. Franklin said that he wanted a meeting with Bollard and the county attorney, and later secured a tentative agreement from both offices that a meeting would take place this month.

At the meeting, ACORN intends to request that the county stop all evictions and sheriff’s sales in the county, said Harold Miller, upstate regional director, “until a one-year moratorium is in place statewide.” ACORN is lobbying statewide for this one-year moratorium, hoping to build on the success of last year’s 90-day moratorium.

“We want homeowners to have the opportunity to seek counseling before they are evicted,” Miller said. Housing counselors, which ACORN provides, will go through a homeowners’ mortgage documents and help them understand their options. In many of these foreclosure situations, he said, homeowners have “irregularities or unscrupulous parts of their loan that should be modified.”

Miller said that banks are willing to modify terms, if the borrower understands their rights and the process of approaching a bank to negotiate.

People might lose their homes anyway, said Miller, “but at least they get to go through the process of using all of the available resources, to come to a conclusion with dignity.”

Also, ACORN will ask the county to extend the moratorium evictions to all John and Jane Doe eviction actions, in which tenants of a foreclosed building can be served a generic eviction notice, and without any foreknowledge, can be thrown out on the streets.

“Very often tenants don’t have a clue what is going on, they just keep on paying rent and wondering why services aren’t being provided,” said Fred Elfenbein, a member of ACORN. “Then, all of a sudden, there is a knock on the door, and it is the sheriff telling them they have to leave.”

Sheriffs across the country, including in Nassau County, recently have refused to carry out such evictions.

In 2008, there were 2 million foreclosures nationwide, an 81-percent increase over the year before. Current projections predict that the number could reach 4 million in 2009. “If we don’t take any proaction,” worried Elfenbein, “we will wind up in Schenectady with hundreds and hundreds of abandoned homes.”

—Chet Hardin


What a Week

 




Laying the Blame

Bitterness follows the announced closure of Troy library branches

As the fate of the two satellite branches of the Troy Public Library appears nearly sealed, at least for 2009, the fight over who is to blame has taken a bitter, political tenor. The Sycaway and Lansingburgh branches will close on Feb. 2. As the city prepares to lose these civic resources, one member of the City Council has said that he wants to force the library management to “go back to the drawing board.”

“They are lazy,” said Troy Councilman Mark McGrath (R-District 2). “All they do is stand in front of the city and rattle that empty tin can, and then if you speak out, you are immediately labeled as though you are against the library and books. That you are against kids.”

McGrath said that he will introduce legislation at the council’s Finance Committee meeting on Thursday to bar the city from allowing the library to close the two branches. McGrath’s move is intended to keep the Lansingburgh branch open.

“I don’t want to close Lansingburgh either,” said Paul Hicok, Troy Public Library director. “Closing libraries is not what we are about.”

Hicok said that McGrath’s legislation, if enacted, would force the main branch to maintain fewer hours, “and that would put us below the state requirement.” The state requires that the main branch of a library system operate 55 hours a week, which is the current level of operating hours for the main branch.

“This legislation could force the library to go into violation of state regulation,” Hicok said.

“I don’t know how else to really put it,” Hicok continued. “Maybe it is me; maybe I don’t have the ability to explain it.” But unless the city is willing to give the library system more money, he said, there are no options left.

Hicok noted that the average per capita local support for libraries in Rensselaer and Albany counties is $35. In Troy, the per capita support is $10.61.

However, McGrath does see another option, one that he claims the library has refused to explore: fundraising.

“Personally,” said McGrath, “I think that Paul Hicok just thinks that fundraising is beneath him.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth, countered Hicok. The board does hold fundraisers, and is entertaining ideas for further efforts. One idea was suggested by Troy restaurateur Michael LoPorto, at a public meeting this past week, and Hicok said that he would be “happy to discuss that possibility.”

However, he said, he is leery about making the commitment to keep branches open based solely on the promise of fundraisers. “I have to run on the possibility of income, and how solid that is. Fundraisers are great, and we do them all the time, but the income varies and is usually unpredictable. It is difficult to open the branches ’cause the money needs to be there.”

Further, he said, the issue of fundraising, while legitimate, obscures the real goal: to secure by ballot a special library district this fall that would allow the library to go directly to the citizens of Troy for its funds, and, in turn, would make the library answerable to the same.

Though McGrath has been the most vocal in his criticisms, he is only echoing a popular theme in the ranks of Troy’s Republican party: the Troy library system is too insular, snobbish, and unwilling to do the hard work.

Councilman Bill Dunne (D-District 4) laughed at the idea of McGrath and the Republicans lecturing anyone about fundraising.

“The Republicans’ idea of fundraising has always been to go to Uncle Joe [Bruno] and say, ‘Can you help us out?’ ”Dunne said.

Dunne said that he has no problem with supporting the library, and voted for the slight tax increase this past fall that would have avoided this current crisis. A tax increase, he added, that the Republicans campaigned strongly against.

Dunne called the criticisms made by McGrath, who is widely suspected to have his eye on the mayor’s seat in 2012, a political move.

Hicok said he will be asking the council to put a resolution supporting the special district on the February agenda.

—Chet Hardin

 


The Easy Route?

Albany councilmen clash on investigation into ghost-ticket scandal

Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) said that he has no plans to back down from his call for an investigation into the Albany Police Department’s ghost-ticket scandal, regardless of a letter that has been signed by an overwhelming majority of his fellow council people. The letter, authored by Albany Common Council Pro Tem Richard Conti (Ward 6), is a request for the state comptroller to audit the records of the parking enforcement procedures of the Albany police. Conti said that a state audit would give the city a clearer vision of what actually led to the widespread, years-long abuse that saw more than 14,000 of these ghost tickets issued in one year alone.

“I am pretty disappointed in our president pro tem,” said Ellis. “He was one of the people initially to say that we need to investigate this.” He said that he feels the timing of Conti’s letter was intended to co-opt efforts to initiate a council investigation.

Conti argued that a state audit could “provide the framework” for any future investigation by the council, by establishing to what extent data is retrievable in respect to the ghost tickets, by exploring the training that officers received, as well as the policy regulating the tickets, and by giving shape to “the historical elements that led to the policy that is at issue.”

“The state audit is warranted,” Ellis agreed. “I won’t say it isn’t warranted. But it isn’t warranted now.”

Ellis said that he wants to lead with a council investigation. For one thing, the state audit, he said, won’t investigate if there was criminal fraud.

Conti pointed out that there is no proposal on the table for using the subpoena power of the council as of yet. He said he would consider a proposal once he saw it.

“What will be the outline for issuing the subpoenas?” asked Conti. “We need to know what we expect that they will achieve. What will be the course of action?”

“The other issue,” Conti continued, “is that our subpoena power is limited. We have the right of access to books and records that are in any department or city agency, and to city personnel, but we don’t know yet where some of this stuff is. If this was handled by the police union, we don’t have the right to any of that information. We haven’t discussed this yet. We have never gotten into an in-depth discussion.”

Ellis said that he worries that other council members might look at Conti’s call for an audit as a way to not vote to use the council’s subpoena powers, because “the state is going to handle it. And it gives the mayor an out.”

Ellis pointed to Friday’s Times Union article, which first reported on Conti’s letter. In the article, Albany Police Chief James Tuffey said that they would agree with the audit. “That concerns me,” said Ellis. “The police chief has never agreed to any kind of investigation, and now all of a sudden he is going to go along with that? It’s probably because he knows that it is just an audit that will tell us what we already know. It might show a couple of indiscretions, but it doesn’t cut down to the heart: Who gave the order to defraud the city government? How long has it been going on and who started it? And what was the process of implementing it? And we can find that out as a council by doing one thing: voting for a subpoena.”

Ellis said that he will be moving forward with his call for a council investigation tonight (Thursday) at the council meeting. “I think it should still come to a vote, and the citizens of Albany need to know where their council members stand.”

 

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


Loose Ends

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