SARATOGA SPRINGS — City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan on Tuesday defended the roughly $1 million spent on renovating her offices as part of the $12.7 million reconstruction of City Hall.
The work in the finance office — a full historic-themed reconstruction plus all-new carpet and furnishings — was originally planned for in 2016, but then got folded into the larger $12.7 million reconstruction project after the 150-year-old City Hall was hit by lightning, causing a fire and flooding that closed the building for two years. It reopened this past summer.
“It’s been a long project, it’s been front and center, and I haven’t done something nefarious,” Madigan said on Wednesday.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, and in an interview on Wednesday, the finance commissioner defended the spending on her office, and said the criticisms of that spending are coming from people pushing for a change in the city’s form of government in a Nov. 3 referendum. There have been a number of postings on social media recently from pro-charter change residents criticizing the expenditure.
“Charter change has pros and cons, but people need to know the facts, not just the attacks,” Madigan said at the council meeting.
The proposal on the ballot would change the city’s form of government from one in which elected part-time commissioners administer professional departments while also serving as legislators on the City Council. It would be replaced by one in which City Council members only legislate, with day-to-day oversight of city services done by a full-time city manager. City Council members would represent six different wards, and the mayor would be elected city-wide.
Under the current system, Madigan is responsible for developing the city’s tentative budget, which next year would both cut spending by $7 million and raise taxes — another reason the spending on her office renovations has been criticized. However, the work was nearly complete when COVID-19 struck the region in March, which has caused the city’s deficit.
In social media posts in recent days, critics who filed Freedom of Information Law requests for spending records pointed to $17,000 spent on carpeting for the Finance Department offices and $20,000 spent on chairs as examples of wasteful spending at a time when the city is facing a budget crisis due to the business shutdowns and slowdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Madigan contends the renovations, as part of a capital spending project, are entirely separate from the city’s operating budget, in which revenue projections have been devastated by the pandemic. “Capital money is different from operating money,” Madigan said. “Once you bond you can’t go spend the money on something you didn’t borrow the money for.”
Bob Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor and charter reform advocate who has posted some of the spending records on social media, acknowledged he was upset that Madigan’s 2021 budget proposal would deeply cut the city’s youth recreation programs. He is a former volunteer soccer coach, and acknowledged strong feels about the importance of youth recreation for both youths and Saratoga’s sense of community.
“We are cutting rec sports and at the same time we are spending more than $600,000 redoing the office of a council member at a time when we are in a pandemic,” he said. “Different decisions could have been made, but the first thing that is going to be cut is youth sports.”
The City Hall renovation has taken more than two years, he noted, and he believes that is in part because of the form of government. He also noted that the city is owed $2.7 million in uncollected taxes, with no clear plan for pursuing collection of that money.
“With better professional management and efficiency you would save money,” Turner argued. “Every commissioner looks through the lens of their own department, their silo.”
The $17,000 payment listed on an architect’s invoice as for carpeting includes carpet for 2,200 square feet of space, and the figure also includes the cost of repairing a subfloor that had been damaged by a sewage leak, Madigan said. She said the repair arrangements and selection of carpet vendor were made by Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, the Albany architecture firm hired to design and manage the historic renovation.
“We chose a historic renovation project and use a historic renovation architect, and that started two years before the lightning strike,” Madigan said. The construction phase was about to begin in August 2018, when the lightning strike shut down the building. That led to a City Council decision to do a full renovation of City Hall, making flood-damage repairs and replacing electric, plumbing and air-handling systems and renovating offices. The final cost of that work is expected to be around $12.7 million.
The renovation plans were all made before the pandemic struck, Madigan said, and the $10.5 million that the city borrowed for the work can’t be used for anything else, even if the city has other needs.
Madigan said $57,353 was spent on office furnishings, which paid for 14 work stations, 32 chairs, six filing cabinets and one large and one small conference table.
In response to another social media criticism, Madigan acknowledged that the public is being kept out of her office because of the pandemic, even though most City Hall offices have re-opened.
“We do payroll for the city, and if the entire office is quarantined, then no one is getting paid,” Madigan said. “It’s very important that people not just get paid, but someone is here to take payments … We’ve got to make sure there’s always someone available to do what needs to be done.”