Schenectady

Schenectady’s decision to allocate $14 million in ARPA funds criticized for lacking transparency

FILE - Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy
PHOTOGRAPHER:
FILE - Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy

SCHENECTADY — With no public discussion on dozens of applications submitted by community organizations seeking a portion of federal coronavirus-relief funding, a City Council committee on Monday provisionally allocated millions of the funding toward 11 projects — blindsiding community leaders, who questioned the decision-making process and raised concerns about transparency.  

Members of the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday night agreed to allocate $14.6 million of the $53 million windfall received under the American Rescue Plan Act last year for 11 projects during a lengthy meeting despite no prior indication that funds would be allocated. The full City Council is set to vote on the spending allocation at its full meeting next week.

The lack of transparency left community stakeholders confused, with several questioning how lawmakers reached their decision without first providing basic information regarding the projects to the public.

“I was surprised last night that they began talking about those projects without really having that on the agenda or providing any information about the review,” Tom Carey, president of Schenectady United Neighborhoods, said Tuesday.

Monday’s discussion, according to meeting documents released before the meeting, was supposed to be a follow-up to a spending request submitted by Mayor Gary McCarthy seeking to use $8.3 million in ARPA money to fund various park upgrades, including a new Central Park pool and an irrigation system at the municipal golf course, and $2.2 million to address housing issues throughout the city.

The mayor’s request was tabled two weeks earlier after several lawmakers, including Council President Marion Porterfield and Councilman Carl Williams, said they wanted to review the more than 70 applications the city collected last year from local organizations seeking a portion of the $10 million in ARPA funds the city has left over from a $26 million funding tranche received last year, as well as recommendations made by a citizen advisory committee appointed earlier this year to review the applications.

But there was no discussion about the applications or review process at Monday’s committee meeting.

Instead, lawmakers agreed to fund several of McCarthy’s requests, including $4.5 million for a new Central Park pool and a new golf course irrigation system for $3.5 million, before they began recommending additional projects for funding.

By the time the lengthy — and at times confusing — discussion ended, lawmakers arrived at a $14.6 million in spending, including $1.25 million to help reopen the shuttered Carver Community Center, $2.5 million to fund the creation of the Capital Region Aquatic Center at Mohawk Harbor, $1 million for the city and Duryee Foundation to operate a job-training program.

Other organizations that received funding include: the Schenectady Little League at $350,000; the Schenectady Greenmarket at $50,000; the Seat Center at $343,882; SAFE House at $172,073; and $950,000 to combat food insecurity that will be divided between the Schenectady Foundation, SUNY Schenectady and Schenectady Community Ministries.

But details on the various projects were not made public prior to the meeting — an apparent violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires all meeting documents being discussed to be publicized at least 24 hours in advance of a meeting.

A reporter had to request a copy of the material in order to follow along with the discussion. Some of the materials pertaining to the council members’ conversation were posted to the city’s website Monday night, after the meeting had concluded.

Lawmakers at times also appeared to have trouble following along with the discussion, with some asking how much money was left to allocate and others laughing as they debated funding amounts.

Asked why the the documents weren’t made available, Mayor McCarthy referred to the city clerk, but noted that his spending proposal was made available at prior meetings. He also rebuffed a question about whether lawmakers acted hastily in allocating the funds Monday.

“I’m just glad we’re moving ahead with it,” he said.

McCarthy’s original proposal discussed two weeks ago included only a partial funding request. His proposal discussed Monday included plans to spend all the ARPA money received by the city so far, including more than $14 million or park upgrades, $5.7 million or housing and $3.5 million for infrastructure upgrades.

Lawmakers for months have failed to publicly review the dozens of applications seeking more than $70 million in combined ARPA funding despite assurances to be transparent and inclusive in the decision-making process. The city has until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate the funds, received in two equal tranches of $26 million. The funds must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026, or be returned to the federal government.

Last year, the council agreed to begin soliciting applications from organizations seeking ARPA funds with the understanding that the application would be reopened after the initial funds were depleted and the city received its second $26 million payout from the federal government.

In January, lawmakers approved the creation of a citizen advisory committee to review the applications and make recommendations on what applicants should be funded after residents requested a say in the process during a series of community stakeholder meetings held last fall. Members of the committee were finally appointed in April and finished reviewing the applications at the end of May, according to Porterfield.

But recommendations from the committee were never made public or discussed by lawmakers in the three months since, and several lawmakers, including Council members Carmel Patrick and John Polimeni, said they have no interest in reopening the application process due to confusion.

“This is one of the most screwed-up processes I’ve ever been a part of,” Polimeni said at Monday night’s meeting.

The council’s decision to allocate funds was also criticized by the city’s Republican Committee, who blasted the council’s actions and criticized lawmakers for failing to use the funds to address infrastructure needs.

“The passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) delivered oodles of cash and with it a real opportunity to change our community for the better.
Unfortunately, but predictably, Mayor McCarthy and the City Council not only failed to seize that opportunity, but they embarrassed every city
resident in the process,” Matt Nelligan, the committee’s chairman, said in a statement Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some community members said the council’s actions left them confused about how the review process was intended to work and questioned whether or not community input was ever taken into consideration.

“I’m a little bit misunderstood about what happened last night and how that created transparency and fairness for the community because I don’t know what conversations were had,” William Rivas, a community leader who works with city youth, said Tuesday.

Rivas works with several organizations, including COCOA House and the Schenectady Youth Coalition, that applied for ARPA funding. But he said there has been no updates or communications from the city regarding where those applications stand.

Porterfield, meanwhile, said she was unaware that the documents were not made available prior to the meeting, but said the council reviewed all of the applications in advance, and believes that lawmakers have been transparent throughout the ARPA allocation process, though she acknowledged some hiccups.

“I thought we’ve been pretty transparent in putting the information out there and saying how much is available,” she said. “I think the short answer to that is ‘no.’ We’ve done tours around the city. All of those things happened, which is why we wanted to be inclusive of the public.”

But one community leader involved with an organization seeking the federal dollars, who asked not to be named, said there has been no communication from the city, and that the City Council’s decision to allow organizations to apply for funding appears to be misleading for organization’s hoping to receive funding.

Politics, the person said, seemed to have gotten in the way of things.

“As so often happens with the city, there’s a lack of communication and transparency in terms of understanding what their process is and how it’s going to operate,” they said.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

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