An Exciting Night for City Council

An Exciting Night for City Council
Heated debate at council meeting
Dale Willman

September 5 2012

It was an explosive evening in City Council chambers Tuesday night.

The evening began quietly enough with the last of three public hearings on the mayor’s six year Capital Program. The program is a planning document that allows city departments to prioritize large equipment purchases and capital projects.

Once the full meeting started though the fireworks began.

Accounts Commissioner John Franck spent much of the following hour presenting a defense of his office’s performance in regard to the assessment of condominium properties in Saratoga. A clerk in the Accounts office has claimed that the city has shown favoritism toward Diane Young, the owner of DCY Consultants. Young has represented a number of condo owners in the city who have had their assessments dramatically reduced. Clerk Mary Zlotnick says Young was given preferential treatment in those assessment grievances.

But Franck said that’s simply not true. He said the city has been cleaning up a mess that was left to him by his predecessor, former Accounts Commissioner Stephen Towne. The last citywide assessment was conducted while Towne was in office in 2005, and Franck said condos were incorrectly assessed at that time. The assessments were made by an outside firm hired by the city.

Condos in New York are not assessed in the same way as residential homes. A condo’s value is based on rental properties of similar size, rather than the actual sale price of the condo. And under that evaluation method, many of the city’s condos were given inflated assessments, said Franck – a fact borne out in a lawsuit filed by city resident John Hogan, who paid almost $600,000 for his condo at 87 Railroad Place in 2005 but got his $440,550 assessment dropped several years later to $202,500.

Franck said Young legally took advantage of that quirk in the assessment regulations, helping her clients get their assessments reduced, sometimes by dramatic amounts.

Zlotnick is currently on an unpaid suspension while the city pursues disciplinary action against her. Franck said Zlotnick took her charges to the district attorney, who refused to pursue them. Apparently she has also complained to the state Attorney General’s office.

Franck also defended himself against a number of other charges, many made in a blog written by John Tighe, who sat in the front row of the council room videotaping Franck’s comments.

Later in the evening the council discussed a proposal put forth by Commissioner Franck to give Pinnacle Human Resources 30 days’ notice that their contract to provide HR services for the city will be cancelled.

The city has struggled to provide HR services for a number of years. The last fulltime HR director left the city in 2009.  For a number of months afterward the city had no one to handle personnel issues.

Then the city tried to hire someone fulltime to be human resources director back in May of 2010. The salary range being offered was from $45,000 to $55,000, and Mayor Scott Johnson said “there was not one single person that signed up for the [civil service] examination.” It’s a highly skilled position, he said, and those with the skills expect to be paid more.

So for the past 15 months the city has used a consultant from Pinnacle to manage its human resources needs. Fees for those services vary, depending on the type of work provided. Under the contract, the city pays as little as $50 an hour for consulting on personnel issues, while legal research will be billed at the rate of $150 an hour.

Now Franck wants that contract terminated.

While no one involved in the situation will comment publicly, Franck is apparently displeased with the way the representative from Pinnacle has handled Zlotnick’s grievance. One source who asked for anonymity because of their relationship to the case confirmed that, saying “it’s a dispute over the handling of a particular employee,” meaning Zlotnick.

Franck told the council he would rather have a fulltime human resources director, or at the very least he said the city should change HR vendors. “I think we can do better with the taxpayers’ money.” And he said working with an outside vendor isn’t really saving the city money or serving the public. Last year, he said, the budget for human resources ran out by October 2nd, and “We did not pay these people.”

Mayor Scott Johnson said he “has issues on a number of levels with [Franck’s] motion.” Johnson said he thought the situation was being resolved by his request that Pinnacle replace the consultant with a new one. And he said the contract shouldn’t be terminated “when we have no plan in place to replace HR – there is nothing that can be done on short order.” So he indicated surprise at Frank’s motion. “My understanding was that our plan moving forward was to get a new representative from pinnacle to come in and serve the needs of the city, not to hire someone fulltime for the city.”

Soon after, Franck interrupted Johnson, saying “I’ll go through last Tuesday’s meeting, because you must have slept through it, because it was extremely clear what was going to happen here.” And a moment later Franck accused Johnson of being less than honest, saying “If you’re going to talk about it, at least be truthful about it.” Johnson shot back “I am being truthful.” “No you are not,” responded Franck, “And I will clarify that in a minute.”

Later in the discussion Commissioner Michelle Madigan gave her support to Franck just before the meeting finally broke down into a momentary back and forth, with Commissioner Scirocco the only one to remain silent.

After the council meeting, Johnson said once again that there is no need for ending the contract with Pinnacle. He said Franck’s proposal was “Premature, precipitous, and dare I say pretty much political.” It’s “the actions of a new Democratic majority,” he said.

Franck disagreed. “It has nothing to do with politics whatsoever. This has to do with liability for the city.”

The issue was finally resolved, at least for the time being, with a 3-2 party-line vote in favor of terminating the contract with Pinnacle.

But the explosions weren’t quite finished. Later in the meeting, Finance Commissioner Michelle Madigan once again offered a motion asking the council to formally decide to explore options for affordable housing in the city. She initially proposed such action back in April.

Specifically, she was asking the council to explore the possible use of two parcels of land – one at 195 Division Street and the other at 26 Cherry Street – for affordable housing. Both parcels were initially scheduled to be sold in July as part of an auction of properties on which taxes had not been paid for years. But they were pulled from the auction, and now council is trying to decide what to do with them.

After much back and forth, the debate again broke down, this time over whether the city has been “made whole” from the auction process. Being made whole means that through the auctioning off of property for back taxes the city has gained enough money to pay those taxes, as well as other fees due from the property. Through the auction of the other parcels, the city recovered all it was owed in back taxes, said Madigan, and then some.

“I’d like to add to the motion that the city be made whole on these properties, at least to the point where we’re going to get some of that tax money back,” said Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco.

Madigan replied that “We have been made completely whole on back taxes.”

“Regardless, I don’t think we have,” replied Scirocco.

“Well, we have – I mean we have – I mean, there’s no doubt about it, we have,” said Madigan.

Mayor Johnson then jumped in, saying “It really depends on how you define being made whole.”

Madigan: “Well, should I take $60,000 out of the $495,000 that I made the city whole, because we don’t think we were made whole on these back taxes? I mean, I’m very confused.”

“Ma’am, ma’am, please,” responded Johnson, which prompted Madigan to fire back, “I would ask you to please not talk to me like that. Thank you.”

Eventually a vote was taken on Madigan’s proposal, which passed once again 3-2 along party lines.

By a 5-0 vote, the council agreed to authorize the mayor to sign a contract with Official Payments. The contract will allow the city to offer residents the ability to pay taxes and utility bills with a credit card. Official Payments is the same company authorized by the Internal Revenue Service to accept credit card payments. Under the agreement there will be no cost to the city. Rather, people utilizing the service will pay a small service fee.

Dale Willman is Managing Editor of Saratoga Wire

    Zuzia Kwasniewski on September 6 2012

    The city's largest expenditure is personnel costs. Contracting out HR to a legal firm changes the HR function from providing staff development, training, goal-setting and evaluation, establishment of policy to ensure a safe and fair workplace to something else: only concern about litigious situations. This is not a sensible or cost-effective way to manage the city's largest expenditure. The Mayor may be fooling himself but he doesn't fool me. It is time to bring back an the HR director.


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