Legislators question whether renting out vehicles was legal
By Holly Toal
Putnam County rented buses to advocates for a proposed senior center at the Butterfield development in Cold Spring to bring supporters to legislative meetings when the measure was being considered — an act that lawmakers who have questioned the cost of the project called a misuse of county property.
Kevin Wright (R-Mahopac) said renting county buses to transport seniors to the meetings was “unquestionably improper, if not worse,” and that the matter should be referred to the state Attorney General to review its legality.
“I need no clarification, I know it’s wrong,” Wright said at the county’s Sept. 22 Rules Committee meeting. “It’s inexcusable; just horrendous.”
The matter came to light after a group of seniors was seen disembarking from a county vehicle at the Historic Courthouse in Carmel before the legislature’s Sept. 6 meeting. At the meeting, the county approved a 15-year lease to rent space at the former Butterfield Hospital site in Cold Spring for a senior center. The agreement has been scrutinized because the county plans to spend $1.3 million to develop the center and because it has not released details of the lease.
Barbara Scuccimarra (R-Philipstown) said she didn’t see any conflict with renting a county bus to seniors who wanted to attend a legislature meeting when they may not have other means of getting to Carmel.
“The Office for Senior Resources does transport seniors to anything they want to go to,” she pointed out. “They’ve been to Albany to lobby for senior issues, they’ve been to memorial services. I don’t believe it’s that unusual for the Senior Resources to transport seniors. And whether to bring the attorney general into this … I don’t know if I see the necessity for that.”
Carl Albano (R-Carmel) also said alerting the attorney general would be a waste of time.
“We bused seniors to a meeting about a senior proposed project in their town,” he said. “I’m not losing sleep over this.”
Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls), who chairs the Rules Committee, said she was astonished that the county had rented its buses to a group that hoped to influence a vote. “In the eight years that I have been here … I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “I don’t understand how you don’t understand that this is inappropriate.”
Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) said that while a notice posted about the availability of transportation to Carmel for the meetings “was not worded properly” because it “did not appear to be open to everybody,” lawmakers wanted to encourage seniors to “participate in government.” Newsletters distributed to seniors by the county suggested they attend the legislative meetings to “offer their support for this important project.”
Joe Castellano (R-Southeast) agreed with Nacerino and emphasized that taxpayers had not paid for the buses. Instead, Cold Spring resident Donna Anderson, an active supporter of the senior center, was invoiced on Sept. 8 by the Office for Senior Resources for $742 for round-trip bus service to legislative meetings on May 3, Aug. 23 and Sept. 6.
This led former Cold Spring trustee Stephanie Hawkins to ask the Rules Committee if the county was starting a bus service. “Are county transportation services for hire?” she asked.
Discussion turned to what role Patricia Sheehy, head of the Putnam County Office for Senior Resources, had in organizing the trips. Scuccimarra asked to read a letter from Sheehy into the record. When LoBue objected, Scuccimarra said the discussion should be tabled until Sheehy could be present.
“I’m surprised Pat Sheehy wasn’t invited here to speak on her behalf,” Scuccimarra said. “We should not discuss this any further until Pat Sheehy is here to defend herself and can read this [letter] from her boss in Albany” at the New York State Office for the Aging.