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Archive for March, 2010

Days slip by in a flurry of activity that commands all of my attention. The City of Amsterdam is faced with incredibly complex problems that have been decades in the making. Population has declined along with businesses and industry, state and federal revenues have dried up, equipment and projects increase in cost, and few have planned far enough ahead to manage during these tough times.

We make due, or don’t, with less. Everything is a priority.

Meanwhile, our staff fights to keep this tiny municipality afloat. They do the work of heroes. They fight to maintain the failing water and sewer lines, roads and bridges, they keep our tax dollars accounted for, they keep tabs on the value and condition of 8,000 properties and attempt to maintain those that have fallen into decay. They are on call 24-7 to fight fire, crime and eliminate safety hazards. They haul away our refuse and waste and they supply us with fresh water in the morning when we wake up. They do all of this with so few people it’s astounding.

That employees weather the political winds along with the elements is equally impressive. The faces of elected and appointed individuals shift like the blustery change of seasons. Through the fluctuation of “leadership”, long-term employees remain committed to this City and their purpose, above the influence of red or blue, no matter the department.

The work they do is difficult, stressful, and eminently worthwhile. They have much to be proud of and are thanked for their efforts far too infrequently.

That some elected officials don’t recognize or are unwilling to acknowledge the accomplishments of the people that make this monumental effort every day speaks to how very uninformed they are. More startling, media pundits that regularly report on the goings-on of government are also frequently ignorant and biased, which brings me to my reason for writing after weeks of hiatus. The Recorder’s editorial of Tuesday, March 30th was ridden with misinformation and is uniquely deserving of rebuttal.

The editor incorrectly attributed my decision to veto Golf Commission-recommended fees to a petulant unwillingness to work with the sitting Council. It is his opinion that if faced with a Council that has unanimously voted one way, I should quietly acquiesce rather than waste time with a veto. I strongly disagree. It is my responsibility as CEO of this City to veto any resolution that I believe is not in the best interests of the taxpayers. In this case, the Controller informed me that the proposed fees and resulting golf budget would be $70K short. I could not, in good conscience, allow this decision to go unchallenged for the obvious reason that the golf budget was financially unsound. Also forcing my decision were the hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonding needed for capital projects at the course (drainage, cart path improvements and upgrades to the club house) and the fact that the budget committee is charged with looking for additional sources of revenue for what had been a purported shortfall of $1.7M in the 2010/11 city budget.

In June of 2009, Union College MBA students submitted a well-researched report and strategic plan for the course with a bevy of changes (beyond personnel swapping mentioned next) that suggest the Muni could produce over $400K a year annually. It has effectively been shelved. The Council should demand that this plan be implemented.

The editor goes on to state that shifting employees at the course to DPW could “save the city between $200,000 to $250,000”. This is patently incorrect; it merely shifts the cost from the golf fund to the general fund. There are no savings to our already overburdened taxpayers. That said, this administration has been in discussions with the labor unit to negotiate such a move because of the need for additional men at DPW, given all of our perennial problems. The suggestion to hire seasonals at the golf course has not been “continually ignored” by my office.

Nor have the hydrants been ignored. We’ve replace 30 of them in 90 days as well as valves but I must reiterate, we do not have a “hydrant” problem. We have an acute failure of the entire water distribution system due to the lack of systematic, proactive maintenance, resources and planning. This is the first administration to tackle this larger problem in ages, which has been widely reported.

I agree with the oft-mistaken editor on one point: the city is in danger of loosing its grant funding for Bridge Street reconstruction if this Council does not bond for its necessary match to progress this project. We must move swiftly to ensure this neighborhood realizes the revitalization envisioned in our Comprehensive Plan. While I agree on this one point, I most emphatically refute this paper’s continued assertion that the possible Chalmers rehabilitation held up this project. That was never the case and repeating this lie does not make it truth.

Rather than continuing down the facile path of the critic, I invite this editor to join us in coming up with concrete solutions to our problems.

This administration has been “consistently” moving forward. We have negotiated a handsome sales tax distribution agreement with the County and new water agreements with the surrounding towns that will generate much-needed revenues as the economy improves. We’ve restructured the codes department to enhance accountability and are doing targeted area sweeps. We’ve begun the zoning rewrite that will better serve our businesses and neighborhoods. We’ve launched a marketing strategy that includes an effective web presence and collateral print materials. We’ve raised our profile in the Capital District and have managed to attract the attention of the State for the possible relocation of a central data center to Amsterdam, a $100M construction project that would bring over 100 good paying jobs. We’ve reactivated the neighborhood watch and beautification efforts in partnership with the APD and community action groups. We’re negotiating a mutually beneficial revenue sharing agreement with GAVAC. We’ve revamped the property disposition process and hope to partner with URA to manage the many properties recently taken in foreclosure. The list goes on and on.

I grant that there is much more work to do, but we are making real progress all of the time. I also expect to be criticized as Mayor. It’s part and parcel of this very exciting and rewarding job. Generally, I ignore the chatter as I cannot afford to take my focus off of our goals. Unfortunately, this editorial pushed me to spend an evening in response. In the end, I suppose it’s all good. I’ve been given the opportunity to set the story straight and for this, I am grateful.

Faith and doubt both are needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve. ~Lillian Smith

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poem

Naming My Daughter

In the Uruba tribe of Africa, children are
named not only at birth but throughout their
lives by their characteristics and the events
that befall them.

The one who took hold in the cold night
The one who kicked loudly
The one who slid down quickly in the ice storm
She who came while the doctor was eating dessert
New one held up by heels in the glare
The river between two brothers
Second pot on the stove
Princess of a hundred dolls
Hair like water falling beneath moonlight
Strides into the day
She who runs away with motorcycle club president
Daughter kicked with a boot
Daughter blizzard in the sky
Daughter night-pocket
She who sells sports club memberships
One who loves over and over
She who wants child but lost one.
She who wants marriage but has none
She who never gives up
Diana (Goddess of the Chase)
Doris (for the carrot-top grandmother
she never knew)
Fargnoli (for the father
who drank and left and died)
Peter Pan, Iron Pumper
Tumbleweed who goes mouths without calling
Daughter who is a pillar of light
Daughter mirror, Daughter stands alone
Daughter boomerang who always comes back
Daughter who flies forward into the day
where I will be nameless.

– Patricia Fargnoli, from Necessary Light. © Utah State University Press, 1999.

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“VETO STATEMENT Resolution 09/10-255

The City is facing extremely difficult economic challenges. It is unavoidable that drastic cuts in services, significant increases in taxes, and appropriation of fund balance will be necessary in the general fund.

It is irresponsible to ignore a potential source of revenue in the face of extraordinary financial stress. One such revenue source is the Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course. The Union College MBA Student Business Plan shows that the golf course is under-producing. The report projected that with proper management and operational restructuring the course should generate $1.3M in revenue. The proposed pricing structure the Council has adopted is projected to produce $537, 821 in annual revenue. This business plan was issued in June of 2009. To date, the golf commission has not adequately implemented recommendations to increase revenue. The Common Council should review this issue and adopt a rate structure that will boost revenue at the golf course. The enhanced revenue coupled with more efficient staffing would allow for a transfer of funds from the golf fund to the general fund therefore reducing taxes.

I hereby veto this resolution.”

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Updated Water Distribution/Fire Hydrant
Summary & Action Plan

Overview of Previous Activities

2008
– Replacement of 11 hydrants along Church Street
– Stimulus request of $21.5 Million: Identified water distribution problems, fire prevention upgrades, general health & safety issues

2009
March/April
– Spring fires
– April 23: Flushing of hydrants commenced over period of 20 working days
– List of out-of-service hydrant list compiled

May
– Comprehensive Strategy developed

June
– Agreement with AFSCME to replace some hydrants to avoid improper practice grievances
– Engineering Department directed to make purchase of hydrants; implement replacement strategy

October
– Phase I & II Water Distribution Improvement demonstration made to Council by McDonald Engineering
– Hydrant purchase approved
– Bombard contract approved

November
– Winterization of hydrants

Dec. 2009 – Feb 2010
– 28 hydrants/10 valves replaced
(Little snow cover this year resulted in a deep frost line and increased deterioration of lines)

March
– CDBG grant request made for funding of Phase II improvements of Water Distribution System for fire prevention/public health

Systemic problems:
– Past practices severely compromised hydrants; caused severe corrosion, stems easily breakable
– Lubrication unlikely to alleviate breaks
– Restricted line flow: size of lines throughout city insufficient for fire truck pump using modern equipment

Action Plan
Implementation of new department policy and procedure will include the following steps:

– Fire Hydrant on Frederick Street to be installed this week; vendor has been contacted to apply lease of equipment to a purchase
– McDonald Engineering to devise procedure to pressure test hydrants (procedure, forms, etc.)
Fire Department to conduct flow testing throughout city (flushing and flow testing cannot be completed simultaneously; two different processes)
Requires closing off system incrementally to test (night work)
– Identifying hydrants in need of repair/replacement
Hydrants to be painted w/ color signifying issue
Hydrants to be clearly numbered
Notifications
Plan to consider advanced age of system; possible problems in testing (breakages/leaks)
– Check operability systematically: valves, lines. PRV’s
– Reporting/Resolution
Inter-Departmental forms/sharing of information
Simultaneous reporting to AFD/DPW/Engineering
– Red-Alert System to be utilized in identifying hydrant/water distribution issues (connections made to City Hall today)
Chief of Fire Dept. to develop data base
Coordinates (latitude & longitude) of hydrants to be identified using Google Earth maps
Data Collection
Tracking & reporting
Notations/Status changes
Shared in cooperation with DPW/Engineering/Code Enforcement
Engineering to review hydrant map; compare with reported hydrant list
Track repairs/replacement;
Testing of multiple hydrants open in specified area to determine effect on flow
– Policy & Procedure Generation
More efficient prioritization made in determining repairs/replacement
Ensure practical maintenance schedule/replacement of lines/valves (regular cyclical testing)
– Staffing & Training
Coordination procedures to be devised between departments
Adequate training of employees

In addition to the steps identified in the action plan, the administration is also recommending establishing a dedicated fund to be used solely for the repair/replacement of water mains and water distribution systems.

Executive Summary

Administration, affiliated department executives and the city’s engineering consultants noted that there were no pre-existing plans for proactive maintenance and water distribution improvements. Elements of chief concern were inadequate tracking, data collection policy, planning and funding.

Most importantly, the issues that have arisen are not solely hydrant problems. They are indicative of the failure of an entire system with respect to water lines, valves, hydrants, manpower, maintenance, planning, tracking and monetary resources.

Though failure of our infrastructure is a painful reality, this administration recognizes this as an opportunity to institute proactive change, which has been incrementally devised and implemented over the past year. Health and safety are still our number one priorities.

The City of Amsterdam must make decisions that will serve the best interests of our community for years to come. The city has very experienced, talented employees that address impossibly difficult circumstances each day. These employees deserve our praise and the residents of Amsterdam deserve a firm commitment by the elected Council to provide adequate funding/bonding in addressing these public health and safety matters.

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“I am always with you,
even when you are not able to feel me in your heart.
I love you always,
I surround you with my protecting love,
even when you occasionally forget me.
I listen to your problems,
if you are sincere and receptive, I give you solutions.
I hear your prayers and answer those which are in the best interest
of everyone in your life including, but not limited to, you.

I am the light and the thoughts in your mind,
I am the sight in your eyes,
I am the life in your body,
I am the feelings you feel in your heart.
I am always at work in your life for your greater good,
although you may not always believe this;
hopefully, your faith in me will grow constant.
You must realize:
“my will is whatever is happening in the present moment”.
Within this moment you must think and act
with integrity, humility and courage,
you must trust in me,
and surrender your will to mine through acceptance.
If you continue to demonstrate acceptance,
integrity, humility, courage and trust,
you will discover the secret of opening your heart to my love.
The greater your faith in me
the more I am able fill your heart with my love.

It is I, who grants you the serenity to accept
the things you cannot change,
the courage to change the things you can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Eventually you will realize the samplings of love
I bestow on you through others
are purposefully designed to draw you closer to me.
It is only I, who loves you unconditionally,
I am an ever-flowing fountain of love, peace and joy,
I will never disappoint you; I will always be with you.
I mete out to you the exact amount of pain you cause others,
because I want you to be compassionate.
I want you to be able to give love and equally as important,
I want you to be able to receive love.
How else will you learn to love me?
How will you learn to accept my love?
The moment you realize the error of your ways,
the moment you sincerely regret the pain you cause others,
I forgive you; I nourish you with my tender mercies.
remember, I never stop loving you for you are my precious child.”

god’s love – paul mastromarino

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Hero number umpteen.

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hootspa

“Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”

– Susan B. Anthony

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BUDGET 2010-2011

March 9, 2010

City of Amsterdam Common Council
Budget Review Committee
City Hall, 61 Church Street
Amsterdam, NY 12010

Upon initial inspection of the preliminary 2010-2011 Fiscal Year Budget, the following concerns should be examined and considered for reassessment of the projected budget calculations:

1. Constitutional tax limit calculations indicate an incorrect summation of the previous 5 year tax roll; error carried through remaining calculations:
• 2010-2011 calculated tax margin – $2,703,685.00
• Reassessed: $6,731,108.00

2. Charter-imposed 1% tax margin calculation contains error in tax-levy (general city purpose); error carried through to tax margin:

3. Resulting tax margin miscalculations carried through City Budgeting calculations.

4. General Revenue projections contain several line items in need of examination:
• A1090: Int. & Penalties on Real Property – 09/10 does not reflect expected revenue on foreclosure and readjustment for bad debt service. Resulting 10/11 projection then requires reassessment.
• A1130: Utilities Gross Receipts Tax – requires additional analysis/justification for projected decrease; possible amendment
• A1589 Code Enforcement Fees – 09/10 does not appear to contain nail and mail services; 10/11 projection does not reflect court fees; What is the itemization of $10,000.00 revenue projection
• A2401: Int. and Earnings on Investment – 09/10 currently listed as $2.00; Updated booking required; 10/11 projections should be reviewed once current year realized is reassessed
• A2706: GASD Contract – no change is reflected from 09/10; pay raises might not have been accurately accounted.
• A2801: Interfund Revenue – 10/11 projection should require modification to balance (Water Expenses); water interfund transfer should be examined.
• Interfund transfer from Golf not indicated in General Revenue

5. Town of Florida F2141 water revenues may be underestimated; McDonald Engineering projects additional $200,000.00

6. Water Revenue Interest & Penalties F2148 should result in increase with sale of tax liens.

7. City flat rate percentage increase not accurately calculated; error carried through remainder of calculations.

8. Personnel Services in Water Expenses should not calculate chief plant operator (Dept. Head).

9. Sewer Revenue: Flat sewer dollar difference figure incorrect in comparison of 09/10 and 10/11; Does not consider anticipated revenue from Beechnut or Industrial Surcharge; requires reassessment.

10. Sewer metered unit conversion is overestimated; requires modification.

11. Transportation Personnel Services requires modification as it does not accurately configure mechanic salary.

By copy of this letter, the Controller of the City of Amsterdam is requested to examine the aforementioned items and prepare for the Budget Review Committee a corrected projection for the 2010/2011 fiscal year budget.

Ann M. Thane

Mayor, City of Amsterdam
Chair, Budget Review Committee

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Today, I’m going to review the budget with my staff and Kim Brumley as they have breadth of experience and knowledge of finance that I do not have. It’s not a secret. I want to understand the complexities of this budget before going into the chamber. It is my intention to work with the Council to craft a budget that is best for the taxpayers of the City of Amsterdam. This is not to slight my colleagues but to enhance my understanding of the document. I would encourage each of the aldermen to review the budget with trusted advisors before we come together in the chamber as well. We need all of the help we can get. To that end (and this is where you may participate), as soon as I may get the file converted to a pdf, I will be posting the budget here, on the City website and on facebook so that everyone may see the intricacies of this document and make constructive suggestions.

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letter to ex-wife

“I have lots of things to teach you now,
in case we ever meet,
concerning the message that was transmitted to me
under a pine tree in North Carolina
on a cold winter moonlit night.

It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry.
It’s all like a dream.
Everything is ecstasy, inside.
We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds.
But in our true blissful essence of mind is known
that everything is alright forever and forever and forever.
Close your eyes,
let your hands and nerve-ends drop,
stop breathing for 3 seconds,
listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world,
and you will remember the lesson you forgot,
which was taught in immense milky ways
of cloudy innumerable worlds
long ago and not even at all.
It is all one vast awakened thing.
I call it the golden eternity.
It is perfect.
We were never really born,
we will never really die.
It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea
of a personal self,
other selves,
many selves everywhere,
or one universal self.
Self is only an idea, a mortal idea.
That which passes through everything, is one thing.
It’s a dream already ended.
There’s nothing from staring at mountains months on end.
They never show any expression,
they are like empty space.
Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away.
Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space,
which is the one universal essence of mind,
the one vast awakenerhood,
empty and awake,
will never crumble away because it was never born.

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.”

– jack kerouac

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now

“There is no way to happiness,
happiness is the way.

You should be happy right in the here and now.
There is no way to enlightenment.
Enlightenment should be right here and right now.
The moment when you come back to yourself, mind and body together,
fully present, fully alive, that is already enlightenment.
You are no longer a sleepwalker.
You are no longer in a dream.
You are fully alive.
You are awake.
Enlightenment is there.

And if you continue each moment like that,
enlightenment becomes deeper.
More powerful.

There is no way to enlightenment,
enlightenment is the way.”

– vietnamese zen buddhist monk – thich nhat hanh – 2007

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In the absence of a Community and Economic Development Department, the Property Disposition Committee has been discussing a strategy to deal with fifty or so City-owned properties, as well as the approximate 120 new properties that we have just taken in foreclosure. The following are notes from the meeting. The obstacles to the plan include proper staffing and the funding necessary to realize the goals of the plan. That said, though the challenge is daunting, our opportunities are realistic.

Property Disposition Meeting Notes: February 21, 2010
Strategy for City-owned properties

Short Term

Compile a complete list of properties:
– Create a history of each property (code violations, neighborhood pricing, sales data)
– Create searchable data base on server

Property assessment:
– Assess as vacant/occupied, open, condition, etc.
– post buildings as City-owned

Map locations for visual reference
– Color code lots, abandoned residential, and occupied properties
– Eventually GIS map/track this data

Develop Property Task Force:
Identify Partners – URA, AHA, Realtors, Banks, Chamber, Habitat for Humanity, County Planning

Develop customized strategies for neighborhoods/streets:
– Targeted code enforcement
– Develop marketing strategy working with public/private entities, realtors, chambers, etc.
– Promote remodeled block strategy as opposed to individual rehab
– Expand definition of “abandoned” to include rental units that have been functionally abandoned by owners
– Take blighted properties by eminent domain
– Continue demolition of properties that are too far gone

Identify resources/incentives for rehab/first time homeowners:
– HOME program (URA)
– CDBG: investigate Troy CDBG funded stabilization revolving fund
– Establish a revolving loan fund to secure/stabilize properties the City will sell
– Create Local Historic preservation incentives
– Utilize NYS Historic Homeownership Rehabilitation tax credit
– promote historically sensitive rehab of unique architecture (expand to commercials)
– Energy efficiency (NYSERDA grants)
– Rehab Loans: low interest/deferred financing
– Local legislation
– Provide owner education
– HUD housing counseling
– Ownership responsibilities
– Credit counseling
– Lease to purchase arrangements

Exterior paint program: low/modern income owner-occupants

Small grant rehab program to target:
– Exteriors
– Home code violation repairs

Moderate rehab grant:
– Repair replacement of major systems

Foreclosure strategies:
– Secure properties (close them up)
– Establish value of property
– Market selected clusters of properties
– Rentals: contract to property management group
– Create a lease that stipulates tenants responsible for simple maintenance
(shovel sidewalks, grass); owner – major repairs
– Bundle properties (2-6 unit buildings) for property management
– Renting is sometimes a bridge to ownership: provide quality rental housing that
is well-managed.
– Rents go into maintenance fund
– Contract with Property Management Corporation? (i.e., Rivercrest)

Ensure quality rehabs:
– Make code compliant for resale/occupation
– Major systems upgrades completed before sale
– Address safety hazards, sanitation
– Minimize physical deterioration
– Cosmetically pleasing to purchaser (paint and clean carpets)
– Emphasize green retrofits
– Durable construction
– Purchaser must add major rehab and amenities after sale

Post-demolition: neighborhood stabilization plan
– Input: residents
– Creative uses: vacant land
– Parking
– Gardening/recreation
– Green energy generation

Reinstitute Community Development Department:
– Oversight planning, properties oversight, grants, partnerships, etc.
– Encourage responsible investors
– Increase requirements/oversight of purchasers
– Reduce restrictions on federal NSP (neighborhood stabilization programs) grantees
– Support capacity building, shifting funding strategies

Long Term

Successful Programs/Possibilities:

Deconstruction: cull architecturally saleable elements from properties

Establish “clean-slate property services” for hard-to-employ individuals (i.e., Chicago)
– Clean up, secure, maintain vacant properties
– Banks help fund program
– Job skills training oversight – Rivercrest, Rich Boise, Rob Spagnola,
Workforce Solutions)

Establish Land Bank or Trust
(REO: Real Estate Owned corporation)

– Needs enacting NYS legislation for communities like ours
– Concept: trust buys land house sits on; homeowner buys house but leases land
– unit appreciation stays as subsidy for next owner
– Establishes perpetual affordability
– Shared Equity
– Coordination between stakeholders
– Lender commitment to long-term vision
– Standardize value calculation

or, another model other communities have used

MDB: Mission Driven Brokerage service (not-for-profit)

– Address needs of marginal buyers (low, middle-income) communities
with specific incentives
– Sustainable home ownership through co-partnering of the MDB and mortgage brokers
– Encourages a responsible match between buyer and seller
– Develop firewall between real estate counseling and brokerage agent
– Encourages owner-occupant sales rather than “investor” sales

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