Schenectady council ‘coffee klatch’ persists
Dems meet in secret on spending priorities for federal grants
SCHENECTADY The city’s Democratic council members held another secret meeting to discuss how they will distribute the $2.8 million federal grant the city receives each year.
Councilman Vince Riggi, who was not allowed to attend the Community Development Block Grant meeting because he is not a Democrat, compared the rest of the council to a “sorority” for not letting him in.
“There continues to be certain members of the council who treat their elected positions as belonging to a cozy little coffee klatch instead of acting in a bi-partisan manner,” he said, adding that the public voted him in and presumably wants him to participate in all discussions. Democrats held this meeting and some last year without advance notice, including to Riggi.
But the Democrats apparently did not seem to come to any agreement during their meeting, unlike their secret discussion of the budget last year.
This time, they are each still supporting a different cause, and trying to persuade the others to vote to fund it.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said she suggested several ways to reduce some agencies’ grants so that other projects could also be funded. She did not want to discuss those ideas in public, because it might unnecessarily upset the agencies involved, she said.
“It’s so intricate, how the money can be moved around,” she said, referring to the complex federal restrictions on the percentage of the grant that can be spent on various types of activity. Some of her proposed reductions turned out to not be possible because they violated those rules.
“So why make anyone panic when it’s not a viable solution?” she said.
Councilman Carl Erikson added that secret meetings could allow council members the safety to brainstorm.
“People confuse thinking out loud with decisions,” he said. “I might change my opinion as I think out my ideas. If I was to do it in public, I think it becomes distracting to the public.”
Observers might call him up angrily to tell him why his ideas were “stupid,” he said, adding that most brainstorming sessions end up with many dumb ideas and a few gems.
All the council members were willing to discuss their ideas after the closed meeting, explaining in detail what they said they discussed during the meeting.
Erikson said he wants to pave roads and rebuild sidewalks. To pay for that, he’s willing to give up some of the projects that have been funded for years.
He said CDBG money should be used to support projects for up to three years, not indefinitely. “I think the money needs to be moved around and given to new efforts.”
He also supported Councilwoman Denise Brucker’s proposal to fund a volunteer reading program at the city schools.
She suggested $5,000 to $10,000 for materials. But he said it should be more.
“How nice would it be to move $50,000 to that and jumpstart the volunteer program?” he said.
Brucker said the program was worth funding because all the money would be spent on materials, mainly books. She noted critically that many other agencies use their CDBG money for salaries.
“To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s totally a win-win,” she said. “Let’s face it. This is really an emergency. I think it’s one of the most important things we could have ever funded.”
Perazzo said she wants more money for the summer lunch program, so that Schenectady Inner City Ministry can feed more children.
“A couple thousand dollars is all the difference in the world” to the program, she said. “Others, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
She said the lunch program and other projects could be funded by reducing all grants to last year’s funding level. Some City Hall functions got small increases this year.
But since the city isn’t giving raises to its employees, Perazzo said, those raises “aren’t really fair.”
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said she is still pushing for the Community Loan Fund, which could open a satellite office in Schenectady for $20,000.
She said the council members are still far from an agreement.
“We’re going back to the drawing board.”