The Road To Easy Street Goes Through The Sewer
John Madden – Football Player And Head Coach
Many Rockland County residents are still unaware that nearly $3M of our sewer tax money was almost spent on an emergency services garage and tactical team headquarters for the Clarkstown Police Department. Even worse, Rockland County Sewer District No.1, which was sitting on a $25M surplus, was set to pay for this through bonding as opposed to taking the funds from its surplus.
In a previous report by my Rockland Voice colleague, Michael N. Hull, this project was exposed and the county’s bond counsel issued an opinion that bonded debt could not be approved for a facility that mixed county and town functions. After these two developments, the project was promptly removed from the Rockland County Legislature’s agenda prior to a public hearing and a vote. Inexplicably, however, this project is now back up for public hearing on the April 7th, 2015 County Legislature agenda, meaning that there are still forces out there trying to push this through.
Why would the sewer district wholly fund the building of a facility to be used primarily or at least partially for the Clarkstown Police Department? Why would the sewer district look to take on bonded debt while sitting on such a large surplus? These and other questions about this project certainly deserve answers. Unfortunately, those answers haven’t been forthcoming. Perhaps this has to do with the conflicting ways in which the project was presented.
Clarkstown Town Supervisor and Sewer District No.1 Commissioner Alex Gromack was selling this project as a town police garage to be used to house specialized police vehicles and equipment that Clarkstown currently has no place to store. Since these town assets are currently rotting away outside in the elements, he explained it was necessary to get them indoors to protect the town’s investments. Certainly, if the town spent money on these investments, it makes sense to take reasonable steps to keep them in good shape. But somehow, the need for a garage expanded and the new facility would suddenly also serve as a headquarters and launching pad for the town police department’s 30-man tactical division. It would also be used a remote location at which suspects and informants could be questioned without having to be seen coming and going from police headquarters. And by the way, some of this equipment could be used in the event of a sewer emergency. The best news for Gromack was that he could sell this as not costing the Town of Clarkstown a dime since sewer district taxes do not show up as a town tax levy. It was free money in Gromack’s version of reality, but not to the taxpayers that ultimately foot the bill.
Gromack publicly stated that the sewer district was happy to make the funding for this facility available to the Town of Clarkstown, but he never once mentioned bonded taxpayer debt. As a commissioner in the sewer district, he surely knew this was the case. He also cited, more than once, that the sewer district had spent an enormous amount of money in Ramapo where Christopher St. Lawrence is the supervisor and also sits on the Sewer Board with Gromack. According to a recent Journal News article, over $181M was spent in Ramapo on upgrades and $25M was spent in upgrades in Clarkstown. A reasonable interpretation of Gromack’s comments on the Ramapo spending is that Gromack believes Clarkstown deserves the equivalent money Ramapo received from the sewer district.
However, if Ramapo had valid needs for sewer upgrading and Clarkstown had fewer needs, why would Gromack as a sitting commissioner on the sewer board feel that way? A very possible explanation is that Gromack knows or believes that money spent in Ramapo wasn’t used exclusively for sewer related needs. Mr. Gromack needs to explain his comments, and if he knows of money that was spent on non-sewer related projects in Ramapo he needs to go public with that information given that the county’s bond counsel has determined that would be illegal. If Gromack and the sewer commission have a differing opinion on the legality of bonding this facility, that needs to made public in terms of who issued that opinion and when. More importantly, Gromack must level with Clarkstown residents and stop considering this as “found money”. This funding was coming from taxes, likely going up yet again as the result of an additional $2.5M in bonded debt for this project.
Even worse for Mr. Gromack is the strong appearance of impropriety regarding the engineering and architectural fees paid to two firms hired by the Town of Clarkstown. DCAK-MSA, a local architectural and engineering firm, was paid $9,800 to conduct a feasibility study on the project. That fee is just under the $10,000 mark whereby it can be covered as a line item in a Town department and avoid anything other than a Town Board vote. This raises a potential red flag especially when you consider that the town has engineers on staff that presumably can perform some of this work.
The need for this service is even more questionable in light of the fact that the town also entered into a contract with another firm, H2M Architects and Engineers for design development and construction documentation for a fee of $412,300. Because this contract falls under the scope of “professional services”, RFPs and bids were not required. Under New York State procurement law, professional services can be exempted from bids and RFPs for a good reason, however, this is the regular practice in Clarkstown. Certainly the Town Board can request RFPs to make sure they are getting value. This is particularly intriguing when you consider the overall amount spent for the work as compared to the cost of the facility.
There is a large State agency known as the New York State Dormitory Authority that offers insight into why this spending is highly questionable here. The Dormitory Authority manages construction projects of all sizes for municipalities and sets fee schedules that are binding on State Government. These fee schedules serve as a guide for municipalities on what they should expect to pay for professional services that don’t require RFPs or bids. According to the fee schedule set by the NYS Dormitory Authority, the architectural and engineering and project fees for a building of this cost should be $247,500. Yet, the town has already allocated $412,300 over multiple resolutions and the total cost is set to rise to over $445,500 without any type of formal bid. Essentially, we are paying nearly twice the fee the NYS Dormitory advises and are entitled to no explanation from Mr. Gromack as to why. Even potentially more troubling is that these two firms come up over and over again when Clarkstown outsources architectural and engineering services. At the very least, it seems like the town has grossly overpaid for these design, engineering and project management fees especially when we also pay over $180,000 a year for the Clerk of the Works, Ed Lettre, shown above whose job it is to manage these projects. Why is Clarkstown paying so much money to these two firms?
Councilman George Hoehmann had been lobbying for the adoption of this NYS Dormitory fee schedule on all town projects for some time given the inherent issues that come along with the lack of an RFP process. Reports of this are noted in prior workshop and town board meetings dating back to at least 2011. At a February 3, 2015 meeting, the Town Board finally passed a resolution presented by Mr. Hoehmann to adopt the New York State Dormitory fee schedule for all town projects. Unfortunately, this sewer/police facility was already contracted at the time. Perhaps the Town administration didn’t even care about the cost, as Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 was going to reimburse the town? However, due to all the controversy regarding this facility and the opinion of the county’s bond counsel that it is actually illegal, the town will be on the hook for $445,000 that has already been spent on design fees for a facility that isn’t likely to be built. The town doesn’t have this money budgeted, so taxes are likely to go up again.
Mr. Gromack and the Sewer District could certainly try to pull the town police functionality out of the facility, but if they do so, why would the facility still cost $2.5M? Clearly, a basic storage facility to house a few town sewer pump trucks along with light towers and generators could be built for a few hundred thousand dollars. The same holds true for a police garage, which should have been a cost consideration at the time those vehicles were purchased. Mr. Gromack has no one to blame here but himself if he winds up costing Clarkstown taxpayers $445,000 without a police garage to show for it.
On the county side, Aney Paul is the only member of the sewer commission that happens to also be a county legislator. The Sewer District, in stark contrast to Alex Gromack’s take on the project, had presented this project as a facility to house upgraded sewer pumps and equipment. The project was then amended to house emergency services vehicles to be used in the event of sewer-related emergencies at an additional cost of $2.5M in bonded taxpayer debt. Why would a garage for a few sewer vehicles cost $2.5M plus design and engineering fees to bring that cost to nearly $3M? There was no mention that at least a significant portion of this facility would be used as a Clarkstown Police facility. It was being sold as an add-on to a $11M project to upgrade sewer equipment in Clarkstown. There was no mention at all of the Clarkstown Police Department’s tactical unit or use an interrogation facility.
Aney Paul either had no idea that this was going to be used as a police facility, or she was fully prepared to allow her colleagues in the county legislature to vote to approve this bonding without informing them of the true nature of the facility. Neither scenario is acceptable. Is there any doubt at this point that Aney Paul is unfit for public office? She either has no idea what is going on in the sewer district in which she is a commissioner or she was willing to purposely deceive her fellow legislators in order to sock the taxpayers with an additional $2.5M in bonded debt. Is this the type of representation we want in our county government? Legislator Lon Hofstein has publicly stated that he attempted to get some answers from Ms. Paul and called her to hear her side of things. Ms. Paul told Mr. Hofstein that it was Ash Wednesday and she’d have to call him back. Not surprisingly, Mr. Hofstein is still waiting for that return phone call. Interestingly, Mr. Hofstein also stated he received three phone calls from two Clarkstown officials offering a private explanation of the project. Mr. Hofstein insisted that any explanation be made to the full legislature and that was the end of that.
In light of all these concerns, plus the recent resignation of Sewer District Chairman, Julius Graifman, just prior to the release of the bond counsel’s opinion that this project was illegal, it is hard to understand how this project can possibly go forward. However, one needs only to go back as far as the recent Brega Bus Wash Giveaway to see first hand how certain forces in local government can continue to try to push through spending that is clearly unnecessary.
The Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 Commission serves at the pleasure of the Rockland County Legislature, controlled by the Democrats and led by Alden Wolfe. Therefore, Mr. Wolfe and the Legislature bear at least a good portion of, if not the ultimate responsibility for what goes on in the sewer district. Rockland county Sewer District No. 1’s recent accomplishments include 1) being fined $950,000 for violating the Clean Water Act, 2) a loss in an eminent domain case in which a property the sewer district valued at $244,800 was ruled by the court as having an actual valuation of nearly $9M, plus interest and legal fees for a total cost to the taxpayers of $12.7M, and 3) the declaration of the Clarkstown police garage project as an illegal use of these funds by the county bond counsel. The sewer commission includes Christopher St. Lawrence, whose offices were raided by the FBI and is presumably still under federal investigation. It also features Spring Valley Mayor Demeza Delhomme, who is being sued by his own village in an effort to remove him from office for his outrageous behavior. Mr. Wolfe is now presenting Thomas Ninan for appointment to the commission. Mr. Ninan’s destructive tenure on the New City Library Board is a story all unto itself.
Something certainly smells rotten here. Let’s see who comes forward to try to clear the air at or before the County Legislature meeting on April 7th. The people of Rockland deserve a full and honest explanation of this and until that is delivered this project must not go forward. Based on this and all the other incidents, a formal forensic audit and investigation needs to be done into the past spending of Rockland Sewer District No. 1 as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, there is a smell emanating from this sewer district that keeps getting worse.
[For background to this article please see two earlier pieces written by my colleague, Michael N. Hull 1) Is Something Rotten In Rockland County’s Sewer District No. 1 and Chairman of Rockland Sewer District No. 1 Resigns As Political Stench Worsens.]