Trustee Airinhos Serradas again criticized the Cold Spring Special Board for a Comprehensive Plan-Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan at the Nov. 3 Cold Spring Village Board workshop session. On Nov. 4, Philipstown.info News Editor Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong sent him the following e-mail:
I’ve got a few quick questions in follow-up to last night’s Village Board meeting. I understand your responsibilities as a trustee to ensure that village/taxpayer money is well spent and also the need as a trustee to be aware of the activities of the various appointed boards. However, most if not all of your attention seems fixed on the Special Board for a Comprehensive Plan-LWRP. Why? Why not direct similar scrutiny to the other boards — ZBA, Planning, Historic District Review, Recreation Commission? Do you propose to focus on any or all of them in the same way in the future? If so, when?
Thanks in advance for your response,
Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
While Trustee Serradas did not reply directly to the e-mail, at the close of the Village’s Board’s meeting Tuesday night (Nov. 9), he read a statement. A verbatim transcript of his statement and subsequent comments, and the remarks of others in response, follows:
Serradas: Actually, I have a last thing. I promise to keep it short as possible, so bear with me. Last week, Liz, you sent me an e-mail. I decided to answer it but I’m going to answer it today. I’ll read you the e-mail. Then I’ll read you my response. You said: “Greetings, Airinhos. I’ve got a few quick questions in follow-up to last night’s Village Board meeting” This was the Nov. 3rd meeting. “I understand your responsibilities as a trustee to ensure that village/taxpayer money is well spent and also the need as a trustee to be aware of the activities of the various appointed boards. However, most if not all of the attention seems fixed on the Special Comprehensive Plan/WRP. Why? Why not direct similar scrutiny to other boards — ZBA, Planning, Historic District Review Board, Recreation Commission? Do you propose to focus on any or all of them in the same way in the future? If so, when? Thanks in advance for your response.”
As people know, I don’t write short responses. So bear with me. As elected trustees we have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the village dollars are being utilized in an efficient manner. As stewards of the village coffers it is incumbent upon every trustee sitting here before you to strive towards that goal. Anything short of that is irresponsible. As a best practice, it is widely accepted to audit budgets, particularly when obtaining data in the past has been so limited and forthcoming. When any trustee asks for a budget, no one needs to read, “I’ll let you know as I spend it.” That is not how budgets work. Budgets are projections of how one intends to spend allocated resources. When there is no line item for “legal” on the Comprehensive Plan Special Board budget, yet I continue to see invoice after invoice which at this point is close to $4,000, it tells me the Comprehensive Plan Special Board is working under preconceived notion that it has unfettered access to village and treats this access with a blank check.
Despite the new budget cumulative of $22,000 there should be a footnote as to how much village has spent in tax dollars on the legal budget line item being marked “legal-special.” This goes to full disclosure. Since when is it a fiscal responsibility a bad objective? Since when is fiscal accountability of taxpayer dollars regarded as a negative? This is utilizing financial best practices which are commonplace in any industry. As I stated earlier, best practice typically includes a budget that shows how money’s allocated by categories and another column that shows money spent by the same categories. As a village trustee and resident it upsets me to see this type of cavalier approach. Using your words regarding my scrutiny of the Special Board, it is currently the only board, other than the Village Board of Trustees, that has asked us to appropriate funds in excess of $5,000, which is a significant amount for our village to conference. With respect to the remaining boards, the Planning Board, Zoning Board, and Historic Review, all have line items for personal services and contractual. Those total $2,000 for the Planning, $2,300 for the Zoning Board, $1,700 for the Historic Review Board, respectively. We do not have a specific line item for the Recreation Commission but we do have a recreation budget. However, as a trustee of the village I am happy to provide the public my views on the subject and why I asked for the information regarding the budget of the Special Board. In return I think it would be interesting to learn how the Comprehensive Plan Special Board members feel about the fiscal management of their budget. It is my understanding that the current treasurer has issues with how it is managed and reported.
I chose to answer your questions out in public for one reason only. I do not want my words edited, sanitized, or usurped for your own motivations. So when you ask questions it is not clear that you’re asking questions as a resident or reporter. For every professional reporter that I’ve ever encountered that lived and reported in the village with the limits, they’ve always made the courtesy of stating `”I’m asking as a resident” or “I’m asking this as a reporter.” Lastly, for the record I want to note that this is not inconceivable that you, Liz, could have an ulterior motive and a conflict of interest reporting on this issue and for asking these questions, since your husband is current chair of this board.
I have no further to add on this. Thank you for your time and indulgence. And I did say, Michael, earlier, I appreciate what you’ve done, the reports that are here. I think this is a vast improvement and I thank you for that.
Mayor Seth Gallagher: I would just say one thing. We’ve gone over this very, very many times in the past and answered these questions quite a few times, and the Special board has done exactly what we’ve asked them to, as far as budgeting. They’ve done an excellent job. As with any other department, any other board, legal expenses have to be separate. So they would never get put to the same line. And this is as per the guidelines by the state controller. So we get advice on that by our accountant and also our attorney, so he bills to just a few different lines, one for regular village board expenses, another one for special expenses that would include litigation, work he does with the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Special Board. And then we have a separate account in the water fund for any kind of litigation or work that is done on behalf of the Water Department. So they’re doing a great job and it’s not a lot of money that they’re working with. But they’re doing, really, a good job as far as overseeing it, really, in the best interests of the taxpayers. And that’s also something: That every single bill that they sign off on comes before this board, including the legal bills.
Thomas Ambrose, resident: I’d like to just comment on this as I commented at that meeting, in that I think in terms of pure clarity, as you state in your thing, unless you’re interested in breaking out the legal costs specifically for every individual board member, the mayor, and every single board, and look at them unilaterally across the all of the budget, it does feel as though there is an unnecessary interest — in terms of a disinterested public member; I’m not on any board, I’m just a member of the public — in focusing on one board’s legal expenses as a non-specific line item. In the greater context of how much money the village is saving due to volunteer time in the Comprehensive Plan Board, it just feels as though if you’re going to start talking about legal fees of one specific board, and citing exactly how much that costs — well, how much did you cost the village, specifically? How much did the mayor cost the village? How much did, you know, the Zoning Board of Appeals cost the village? Because if you’re going to start pulling figures out for one, if you’re really talking about transparency, you need to start pulling out figures for all. And in the context of the greater budgeting process, I feel as though it’s not necessarily the right road to go down. There’s energy that needs to be asserted on other issues that are more pressing for the village than hammering on a board that’s doing a great job and not costing the village nearly as much as it could.
James Hartford, resident: I just want to say, I think, for clarification: You did say that it was cumulative of $5,000 over four years?
Serradas: We typically don’t appropriate more than $5,000. And I gave a listing of what each board is allocated. And —-
Hartford: I’m sorry. It didn’t sound like it was really that much money over the length of the existence of the Special Board. Let me put it in light of the intensity of the work that they’re doing in basically revisiting our village code, our zoning and the outlook of our community for the future. I think, obviously, we need legal guidance and it’s going to be an extraordinary amount compared to the daily runnings of any other board. So I don’t find it to be disturbing at all. I think it’s to be expected.
Gallagher: I think it’s also -— I would just say that we want them to use the attorney. I mean, that’s why I’m advised; every time they use the attorney I’m cc’d on every question. The billing is itemized, you know, referring to each topic. So they’re not — Part of the thing is they are professional consultants that are charging $175 an hour, $150 an hour, and it’s important that we do this correctly. And I think that’s why it is important they have access to the village attorney just as members of the other boards, also. I think that $4,000 is over two years or something like that.
Mike Armstrong, Special Board chairman: The Special Board’s budget for the year is $11,000; that is this fiscal year. And the —- Now it’s being increased by $1,000. Most of that money goes to consultants and to mapping. We’re not paying ourselves to go out and have meals. There’s none of that kind of thing going on. We are extremely careful with every dime that’s spent. And I can’t tell you, we, I, go through every invoice, checking every hour: Is it valid? Is it correct? And I sign off on that. Then you guys look at it and you sign off on that. So everything is very, very closely watched, down to the dime. We know to the — what we’ve got running an ad in the PCNR. We know when we’re running promotional materials. We know what it costs. Everything is being very, very closely watched. There is no waste in this process. It is very, very thrifty process. If you look at what, for example, Philipstown, you’re looking at quarter of a million dollars, $300,000. IF you look at other communities to which our Comprehensive Plan has been compared, you’re looking at half-million dollar projects. Ours is a $20,000 effort, going back including the prior year, the last year. It’s a $20,000 effort. It’s absurd, when you look at the amount of money that we’re spending, literally thousands of hours of volunteer time, doing work that other communities hired professionals to do, and, I’ll say, that this community hired professionals to do in the 1980s. They hired professionals to do the work. It wasn’t a volunteer effort, by and large. This is a volunteer effort; very, very thrifty; pinching pennies, pinching nickels, watching every single dime. And you need to know that. And I’m saying that if there’s anything, if you see somebody out, if you think there’s some money that’s being wasted, let me know. I just don’t see it. I mean, I’m watching every penny.
Gallagher: Well, I think that’s the irony of the situation, is that you are. You’re doing as good a job as anyone can do. And thank you.
Serradas: I do want to comment to Mr. Ambrose and Mr. Hartford. Everyone is focusing on the $4,000. The $22,000 has been since January, not over four years. I am deeply grateful for all the volunteer work, don’t misunderstand that. I’m not — With respect to the $4,000, that if you want to focus on the legal side. I do look at those details. I’ve questioned it in the past. I’ve asked the question, “Why are we asking the village attorney to answer a question on texting? Where is that in the Comprehensive Plan?” Meetings procedures, Open Meetings Laws. I came back from a NYCOM conference. I brought those items. I presented to the board. There are ways that we can save money there, plain and simple.
Mike Armstrong: You’re -—
Gallagher: I just want to say, I’m sorry. That’s -— I find that you can’t get into a conversation right now about specific things like Open Meeting Law and say he doesn’t need to ask the attorney. You’ve asked the attorney about many of these same, exact issues. To say you got the answers from going to a conference we talked about — we just spent $750 to send you to find out about grants. That was stuff you could, you know, get a book or find out from other ways. It’s -— we’re all the time the — If you have a question about a specific item, there’s something that he’s doing, that he’s doing incorrectly: The reason he does this is the board says that’s the way to do it. We need to change the way the board asks any person who is using the village attorney. We have to ask them to change that — We have to change that. The problem is not on their end if there is a problem. And I have yet to see that there have been frivolous expenses. And that should come up within this board when we’re looking at the bills, something like that.
Serradas: When I do bring it up, it gets rebuffed. A week and a half ago, I asked a question. It took me four e-mails to ask a question. My frustration -—
Gallagher: About what?
Serradas: Listen to me, please. My frustration led me to file a FOIL. I don’t know how many other sitting village board members have ever filed a FOIL to get information that should be readily available.
Gallagher: You didn’t have to do that. You chose to do that. Mary was actually gathering the information for you and you decided to file a FOIL. You had several people gathering information for you on the same topic. You get the answers. You don’t like it that other people don’t agree with you about the answers and so you continue to push them and try to twist them into something that is a negative, when actually it’s a positive. You are really berating people who are doing exactly what we’re supposed to do. If you can’t convince this board that they’re doing something wrong, then you’ve got to sort of live with it and move on.
Serradas: That information wasn’t available at the village level. That’s why it took so long; that’s why.
Gallagher: It was being gathered by the village clerk.
Ambrose: I’m sorry. I just need to respond to what he said and the fact that, I believe, if I’m not mistaken, that your profession is as an accountant.
Serradas: Financial and tax—
Ambrose: The dovetailing of what I’m saying is that in the greater cause, time is money, on all sides. So the time that it takes for the Special Board or any board to start digging through New York State Code, as opposed to doing a quick referral, that’s approved, to a lawyer, that’s money saved. Although it’s money spent, it’s possibly money saved. As is the time you spend looking through exactly the nature of every single question that’s being asked of a lawyer versus researching greater issues that might be of a greater benefit to the village in its entirety, as opposed to concerns about the nature of specific questions being asked when the overall accounting is not that great. If it was $20,000; $30,000 in lawyer fees -—
Ambiguous voice: Perhaps you’d —-
Ambrose: Then why are you asking about this and this? For such a small amount of time, it seems, as a resident, your time as a village trustee would be better spent researching and moving on to bigger things than looking into the specific nature of every single question. That’s all.
Serradas: So I should ignore the invoices; I should ignore what’s in front of me? When we have to approve them, I should ignore it?
Ambrose: I’m not suggesting that. I’m not suggesting you ignore anything. I’m saying that the amount of time that I’ve witnessed in these board meetings on this specific issue seems out of caliber and scope in terms of the overall things facing the village.
Serradas: I want to put this to rest more than anyone.
Someone in audience: Then let’s do it.
Gallagher: I’d like to move on now. I think we’ve worked that issue. Then the way the auditing goes, you bring up issues at Village Board meetings. If there’s a problem with it, we try and deal with them. If the board doesn’t feel there’s a problem, we sign off on them. If we do think there’s a problem, we put them aside; we try to figure out, to fix the bill. I’d like to close the meeting because we’re at two hours. And I want to thank everyone for coming.
The transcript is not an official, government document but was made by Philipstown.info, which seeks to provide as accurate a record as possible.