After honoring the Glen Cove Auxiliary Police and going through regular business at the city council meeting of Tuesday, Nov. 14, the meeting took a less pleasant turn as the public comments section of the meeting began.
John Hanley questioned Mayor Ralph Suozzi and members of the city council on the recent New York State Comptroller's audit of Glen Cove, asking what councilmembers' responses had been to the report's statement that the comptroller's office had warned the city for 10 years that fiscal problems existed and were exacerbating annually, due to the city's overestimation of revenues and underestimation of expenses. City Councilman Mike Norman took to the microphone and said that there was always an open back-and-forth discussion with the comptroller's office. "When the comptroller raised questions," said Councilman Norman, "we would discuss the issues and give them answers. All figures and questions were addressed on paper and all reports are a matter of public record and available for review." He stated that the prior administrations put out aggressive budgets, and their explanations were accepted by the comptroller's office.
Mayor Suozzi stated that part of the city's past fiscal problems has to do with the fact that the city's Annual Update Document (AUD) was often filed later than it should have been. "In 2005," he said, "it was not a timely document, but this year, the AUD was done five months earlier [than required], in October." The mayor added that as long as he is in office, all future audits will be done within the first six months of the year, so that the city can begin the budget process with current information, adding that the 2007 budget was done with actual figures, "reviewed and reviewed, line by line."
Brian Pemberton took to the podium to state that the auditor's report, which, he noted, said that Glen Cove is in "severe fiscal distress," has been out for a month, and yet no one from the city has come forward to answer for it. He asked if council members were aware that the city was so far in debt, directing the question to Councilman Joe Gioino. The councilman told Mr. Pemberton that had he (Mr. Pemberton) attended the city's budget meetings, he would have known the city's financial situation. "Nothing has been hidden," said Councilman Gioino, "In fact, when Jed Morey ran for mayor [in 2003], he talked about finances all the time. Moody's has all the figures. Nothing has been hidden."
Mr. Pemberton then turned to Councilman Norman, saying that the councilman had said last year that the city's finances were in good shape. "You're the money man," Mr. Pemberton said, "Residents didn't know we were $10 million [sic] in debt and we wouldn't have if this audit had not been done. I want to know why this happened. You say aggressive figures; I say phony figures."
Councilman Norman said Mr. Pemberton needed to look at the variances included in the budgets. Mr. Pemberton repeated that the city was warned against overestimating revenues but "continued to jack up the figures." Mr. Norman, while acknowledging that he did not expect to change Mr. Pemberton's mind, explained that prior administrations had included in the budget "things we thought were going to happen that didn't," creating a cause and effect situation. He said that budgets were done in cooperation with all city department heads, the city controller and the mayor, and by the time a budget reached the public, all questions were answered and substantiated.
A back and forth continued between the two men, with Councilman Norman stating, "I accept responsibility to answer financial questions. I'm very proud of the work I've done. The work was not done in the dark." He offered to go through any variances with Mr. Pemberton and answer any and all questions.
Mr. Pemberton left the podium by reiterating that, in looking at the state audit, "You jacked up numbers to make pretty budgets. I find that deceitful. They were not aggressive numbers...they were phony."
Steve Gonzalez continued the financial discourse with Councilman Norman by stating, "I think you are living in a fiscal fantasyland where no one pays the bills." Mr. Gonzalez said that whenever it came to preparing a budget, "You said things were rosy and that the city had a surplus. If the state knew about this, they would have come down hard on the city. I'm disheartened," he said, adding that the city has accumulated its debt over many years. Mr. Norman again said that the city needs to be aggressive in budgeting to make the tax base grow.
Mr. Gonzalez referenced a letter in the prior week's Record Pilot written by Mr. Pemberton, in which he stated his feelings that Councilman Norman should resign from the city council. "If you were here and I were there, you would say the same thing to me. I think you should think about resigning or not running for city council next year. This is a case of total fiscal mismanagement."
Councilman Norman's immediate response was to state that he would not speak the same way to Mr. Gonzalez, were the roles reversed. As to a resignation, the councilman said, "Absolutely not. I was elected to this office and will continue to serve my term. In November, I'll see what my options are and make a decision, but there is no doubt in my mind that I have done the right thing. Anything in any budget can be explained, and to make implications otherwise is improper and insulting." He added that the city has spent money to raise revenues based on a long-term plan and that "We can't always go to the taxpayers. As city officials, we have to be aggressive."
Mr. Gonzalez left the podium commenting to Councilman Norman that "People are tired of rhetoric."
Mayor Suozzi took the microphone to say that he believes that bad budgeting, not aggressive budgeting, in the past has led to the situation at present. "Revenues in the past were optimistic and tax increases did not address the deficit. If taxes had been raised nine out of the past 12 years, this year's tax increase would be smaller. We are all to blame for the situation. People should have questioned why there were no tax increases all those years." He stated that he ran for mayor because he knew the city had fiscal problems and will do his best to shed expenses while he is in office. "I'm glad I asked for this audit and I welcome input from the state. I take responsibility for the 27 percent tax increase this year, but the increase does not address the deficit. Money is the most important issue in our city. As long as I'm mayor I will continue to steer the ship with all the information on the table," the mayor said.
Janet Blatt turned attention to the waterfront development, noting that Glen Isle Developers has handed in the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Study) on the property. She was critical of those who are "representing our city," she said, in negotiations with the developers. She said she does not believe that CDA Executive Director Cara Longworth is on the side of the people of Glen Cove, and "should have been relieved of her job. [City Attorney] Dan Deegan is not doing his job," Ms. Blatt added. "He does not know environmental issues."
She criticized Ms. Longworth for not having the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) represented in a recent EPA informational meeting on the history of the waterfront cleanup put together by Ms. Longworth, adding that Michael Mason, project manager for the NYS DEC would have refuted statements made at the meeting by EPA Superfund project manager Ed Als.
Pat Tracy began her comments with a statement that "No one in city hall knows what's going on." She stated that in a 1999 ROD (Record of Decision) concerning Captain's Cove, the aforementioned Mr. Mason of the DEC had said that the land at Captain's Cove would not be clean enough for residential living for 50 years. Mr. Mason could not be reached for comment at press time, but according to Ms. Longworth, she has spoken with him as recently as a few days ago. Ms. Longworth discussed the ROD with Mr. Mason, who, she said, stated that he never claimed the land would not be suitable for habitation for 50 years. He also said, stated Ms. Longworth, that at the time of the ROD, plans for the waterfront included commercial and light industrial business, and that was the standard to which the EPA planned to clean the site. However, over the years, plans were revised to include zoning for a residential component, and the EPA proceeded to make its cleanup standard more stringent, in order to accommodate that. As of now, Ms. Longworth said, she was told by Mr. Mason that the DEC is drafting deed restrictions for the land and will forward them to the city for review when they are completed.
When Robert Benazzi took to the podium, he commented that the city and its residents have "lost focus." He referenced former Mayor Thomas R. Suozzi, saying, "As mayor, he looked for assets and he found federal funding to clean up the waterfront, although some assumptions were made that did not all come to fruition.
"Are we in a better position than 15 years ago?" he asked rhetorically. "I think so, although we may not know it right now." He said that the city could never have afforded to do all the work necessary to complete the waterfront revitalization on its own, "so we partnered with a developer to get the environmental study done. The developer now has to answer. Some things we agree on, some we don't...a majority of issues, we just don't know." Mr. Benazzi continued to say that harder work should have started years ago, and it needs to start now, including questions on the cleanup, traffic and intermodal transportation. "If we don't like the answers we get, we have to look elsewhere," he said, "but the process is in place and has to be taken to its end. It doesn't help to keep reviewing...let's start the process."
Mayor Suozzi called the current waterfront situation a "labyrinth of issues" and stated that, while he would have done things differently, he will take the time now to slow things down. "This land will not be sold unless it is clean," he emphatically stated. The city will be reviewing the DEIS from Glen Isle, and checked for completeness. The mayor stated that he had been surprised by, and was not happy with, the presentation of the DEIS by the developers at holiday time.
It will be long past any and all holiday times before the questions related to the development of the waterfront are settled; the discussions are sure to go on for many meetings to come. The next city council meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. in city hall. There is also a workshop, the first of three, scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 29 in city hall to discuss the city's new Master Plan. Wednesday's topic will be quality of life and our neighborhoods.