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Lessons Never Learned

Would the Harriman State Office Building campus be the perfect spot for Albany’s new middle school? Taxpayers may never find out.

Someone in New York state government has big plans for development at the W. Averill Harriman State Office Building Campus in Albany. Why else would the state have commissioned a $271,000 study of land-use possibilities for the site? Whatever the state has in mind, the plans apparently don’t include Albany’s third middle school, as some residents had hoped. Beyond that, no one besides a few state officials knows what’s in store for the campus—because the state adamantly refuses to release the results of the study.

“This report was paid for with public money, regarding public land,” said Albany Alderman Michael O’Brien [Ward 12]. “But the public is being told that it cannot look at it.”

New York state contracted with consulting firm Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler Inc. in February 2000 to conduct a land-use and disposition plan for the land and buildings at Harriman campus. The final price paid to the consulting company for the study was more than $271,000.

O’Brien, who is involved with Friends of Westland Hills Park, a city group opposed to the Albany City School District’s plan to construct a much-needed third middle school in Westland Hills Park off of Colvin Avenue, said the Harriman campus would be an ideal spot to build a school. Unlike the park location the city is currently working with, the Harriman campus has plenty of available space for a new school with room for future expansion. In addition, the school could be built without cutting into city park space.

“[In Westland Hills Park], the land surrounding the middle school would be fenced off, like the park’s wading pool, community garden and Little League fields, which middle school children don’t use,” said O’Brien. “They will have a middle school without the really useful land for middle school purposes.”

Lisa Stratton, spokeswoman for the school district, said that originally, talk was circulating of utilizing the Harriman campus as part of Albany’s $175 million school-facilities plan, which Albany residents passed in December. In fact, just last year, Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings had proposed the campus as a location in which to build a new high school. But Stratton said the school board couldn’t get any information from the state about its plans for the campus.

“They were still in the midst of studying it when we were investigating a spot for our schools,” said Stratton. “We were under a tight deadline to get these schools built and refurbished, and we wanted to get the plan to the voters, so we went with an alternate plan, which was a third middle school at Westland Hills Park.”

Tight deadline or not, O’Brien is convinced that Harriman campus would be a better location for the school, and he thinks that the state’s land-use study would support his notion—however, no one will let him or anyone else look at it.

“The thing is, if they were to release it [the study], I think they know it would give a lot more momentum to our argument that Harriman campus is a good site for our school,” said O’Brien. “The Harriman campus could afford the new school a site that would rival the suburbs.”

O’Brien is not the only one who would like to get his hands on that report. Denyce Duncan Lacy, director of public relations for the Public Employees Federation, a union that represents state workers, said that her organization is interested as well. She said that the study is likely to hold information about the future use of property where thousands of PEF employees currently work.

“The decision that they make about that land will greatly affect our workers,” said Lacy. “We paid for it, but we can’t see what’s in it. . . . [The study] should be available to the people who will potentially be affected by it.”

In June 2001, PEF filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the report, which was turned down by the state Office of General Services. PEF was told that the information in the study was exempt from disclosure because it was considered “interagency material,” and the report was only a draft plan and not a final report. Just last month, PEF filed a lawsuit against the state seeking access to the information.

Randall Sawyer, spokesman for the Office of General Services, said he could not comment on the report because of the pending litigation.

Lacy pointed out that under the public officers law, section 87(2)(G), which discusses interagency materials, if an interagency document contains statistical or factual information, at least that part is subject to disclosure under the law.

She explained that the state proved it is already using information from the study when it told state employees that they had to stop parking in one of the lots on the campus.

“They said that a recent study indicated that that lot was soon to be closed,” said Lacy. “Well, that was the only report that has been done. This indicates to us that they are using the study to make final decisions about that land.”

While many are left to speculate about the contents of the report, others, like O’Brien, have a hunch as to why the study is not being released.

“I think [Gov.] George [Pataki] wants to make a grand, glorious announcement in the middle of his campaign from a podium in the middle of the Harriman campus,” said O’Brien, “announcing how he has got this great incentive going to privatize the Harriman campus, and everyone will applaud him, even myself. The problem is that the state office campus has about 100 acres, and I can’t believe that they can’t spare 20 of them for a public purpose.”

—Nancy Guerin

Nickeled and Dimed

Local kids participate in bake sale to make a point about the state of campaign financing in New York

Will Waldron

‘Some schools don’t have enough money for anything,” said Samantha Iacabucci, a seventh grader at South Colonie Middle School. “Some people have to work really hard for funding from the government, but others, like banks, just have to ask for it.”

This was Iacabucci’s response when asked why she was on the steps of the Capitol building in Albany last Thursday, selling cookies. Iacabucci was one of a group of students and activists from the Capital Region who took part in a bake sale to promote Citizen Action of New York’s clean-money report. The money raised from the event will be donated to Gov. George Pataki and other elected officials to make a point about campaign financing in New York. While important programs in education and health care languish, participants noted, the state doles out huge amounts of money in the form of tax breaks and exemptions to major campaign contributors.

“As an advocate for education, it’s regrettable that we have to go out here and symbolically raise money for campaign contributions, when the state should fund education programs because it’s the right thing to do,” said Bob Cohen, the upstate/suburban coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education.

Citizen Action’s Capitol Investment Capitol Returns report, released last week, found that New York state legislators received more than $13 million in corporate campaign contributions from 1999-2000. It also showed that those same corporations were awarded $3 billion in tax breaks.

John Bartholomew, clean money/clean elections coordinator for Citizen Action, said that private organizations receive huge breaks because the business lobby, as a whole, has a greater voice in getting tax breaks through legislation.

“It is not that there is a law that says if you give a certain amount in campaign contributions then you don’t have to pay taxes,” said Bartholomew. “But legislators know that if they vote in favor of corporate interests, which would include tax breaks, tax exemptions and lower tax rates, this will result in larger campaign contributions the following year.”

In the past four years, Bartholomew pointed out, the New York state Legislature has voted for a number of measures that would reduce income taxes paid by corporations, banks and insurance companies.

Frank Mauro, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, said that a lot of these tax breaks don’t make sense.

“The worst one is cutting the alternative minimum tax, which is the floor under the tax to make sure you don’t use loopholes to pay too little,” said Mauro. “There have been an awful lot of tax breaks that don’t make much sense from a tax-policy perspective or a public-interest perspective.”

Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (R-C-Brunswick), said that in the past Citizen Action has released reports that inflated numbers to further its cause. Therefore, he declined to comment on the report’s findings.

“On several occasions,” said Hansen, “Citizen Action issued reports that were erroneous and included numerous mistakes. They have admitted to putting out reports that were inaccurate, and they have no credibility on the subject.”

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action, admitted that last April, a report titled Wealth Primary: Spending in the 2000 Elections, contained an error in the data. But she says that it was clearly a mistake.

“Once we realized our mistake, we reissued the report with the correct data,” said Scharff. “We issue two to three reports a year, and only once has there been a mistake.”

Dan Weiller, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-L-Manhattan), said that campaign-finance legislation passed last week by the Assembly addresses many of the concerns raised by Citizen Action.

“It’s the second time we passed it this session,” he said. “We feel very strongly about this issue, and the speaker himself debated this issue on the floor a year ago.”

Gov. Pataki’s office did not return calls for comment.

Bartholomew said he is critical of the legislation passed in the Assembly because it allows for too many loopholes, making it possible for corporations to continue to donate to political campaigns. His organization is calling for a stop to corporate tax cuts to provide more funding for essential services like schools and after-school programs.

“While our schools are in trouble and health-care systems are in trouble, this is just not the time to be giving a $3 billon tax break to corporations,” Bartholomew said. “We have been hearing there is no money for education, we have been hearing that there is no money for after-school programs, but there is $3 billion to give to corporations? That begs the question: Why?”

—N.G.


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