Look up the word “boondoggle” in the dictionary and there it is: “n. Hudson River Black River Regulating District.” Unabridged versions will have photos of the seven members of the district board that oversees the operation. Wait a minute, describing what that board does as “oversight” is to stretch the truth as if it were saltwater taffy.
The state inspector general told us in a report that the board of the Hudson River Black River Regulating District — hereafter known as HRBRRD — seemed not to have a clue when it came to the activities of Glenn LaFave, its previous executive director. No need to bore you with details you already know, like a whole bunch of assertions by the IG that LaFave took numerous vacations, but never charged it against his vacation time and so received a $24,000 buyout that he did not deserve. The board also allowed LaFave to work from Watertown, his hometown, even though all other former directors worked from the Albany office. LaFave thereby racked up more than $45,000 in unnecessary bills for meals and hotels. You know, stuff like that. With the posse hot on his trail, LaFave refused to cooperate with the investigation and got out of Dodge, or left the HRBRRD, a year ago.
None of this is the tiniest bit shocking for any news reporter working in Upstate New York for more than about 45 minutes. Over the years, whenever a boss would order up an investigative piece, if you were desperate, you knew that you could pull out and freshen up HRBRRD (hereafter known as HRBR) expose. Thank you for that, HRBR Board of Directors.
Not that HRBR does not do good things; it does very good things. For most of the past century, this public benefit corporation has controlled downstream flooding through a series of dams. But many people are saying now that these good things should be accomplished without sticking it to the taxpayers of Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Washington and Warren Counties, as is now happening. Or, sticking it to the homeowners in those school districts up around the Sacandaga no longer getting those guaranteed tax payments from HRBR for lands it owns.
“I just hope that Governor Cuomo sees what is going on here,” Kathy Jimino, the Rensselaer County executive, told me a few days ago. “I think he will see how unfair it is, what the Hudson River Black River is doing to us.” What the HRBR is doing, as many of you know, is trying to take approximately $5.5 million away from the taxpayers of those five counties. For 85 years, HRBR got its operating funds from fees levied on the hydroelectric utilities downstream, but then a federal court came along and said no, the utilities do not have to pay those monies, so the HRBR (hereafter known as the HR) apparently threw a dart at a board and it stuck on these five counties as the ones that seem to benefit from the flood-control activities and so decided that they will pay.
“I have taxpayers out in Grafton and Stephentown,” says Jimino, “and the last time they were affected by the flow of the Hudson River was right after the Ice Age when the ice was melting and the river was formed. And they’re supposed to help pay Hudson River Black River’s budget because they lost their sugar daddy?” So, she has not paid for three years now and the matter is before the courts, as they say.
Jimino says: “We couldn’t pay even if we wanted to. We don’t have the money. The $1.16 million that the district assessed against us just happens to correspond to a 2 percent rise in the county tax
rate. Remember that 2 percent tax cap the Legislature passed and then told us that we would just have to learn to live within our means? So if we pay Hudson River Black River we have no money to pay for any increased cost of anything else and the state (Department of Environmental Conservation) approved this new unfunded mandate and then wiped its hands of it.”
About the same time the HR was losing its principal source of income, according to the inspector general’s report, LaFave was enjoying 85 “working lunches” at a cost of $4,200, with no backup showing they related to business. And the board itself was throwing two — not one, but two — big parties, several thousand dollars at your expense, to celebrate some anniversary.
The way Jimino sees it, HR costs should be part of the state budget and the agency itself should be taken over by DEC or the Transportation Department or the State Canal Corporation. She thinks that Governor Cuomo’s SAGE Commission (more initials!) should put HR out of commission and get the job done, at statewide expense, with fewer employees.
“Look,” says Jimino, “I can keep an eye on the weather and if it’s raining in Buffalo, I can make the phone calls too, so that they let some water out of the reservoir and there’s no flooding.” Now, don’t go blaming Jimino, because she is too young, but why over the years did politicians like Jimino not scream and holler that the HR was a boondoggle and that its work probably could and should be done by some state agency at less cost. No screaming, no hollering, because the utilities were paying the bills and you did not even notice it in your monthly bill.
And, more importantly, each and every one of those politicians hoped and prayed that they could be Glenn LaFave.