Monday, November 21, 2016

The Budget, Contingencies, and the Ramp

Tonight, there was a special meeting of Common Council to approve the 2017 budget, but the discussion was all about the ramp proposed for Promenade Hill, a pet project of Second Ward aldermen Abdus Miah and Tiffany Garriga. 

It will be recalled that a year ago, when the City failed to get a grant that would have funded the design and construction of a ramp at Promenade Hill, it seemed the Council was committed to building a temporary ramp with the $20,000 that had been allocated for the purpose in the 2015 budget. This spring, to spare our most historic park from being defaced by an unsightly temporary ramp, a landscape architect was hired to design a ramp that would be a sensitive addition to the historic landscape. The money to hire the landscape architect was provided by the Mrs. Greenthumbs Hedge Fund. 

Through the spring and summer, a group of people--representatives of the Mrs. Greenthumbs Hedge Fund, the mayor, and Garriga--worked with the landscape architect to conceptualize and approve the design and to select the materials to be used. These renderings show the design for a ramp that originates in the parking lot behind the Chamber of Commerce and continues along the border between the park and the northern half of Hudson Terrace.

Although the retaining wall for the ramp appears to be red brick in these conceptual drawings, the material that was chosen for the retaining wall is block that pays homage to the historic stone retaining walls rather than trying to imitate the red brick walls that are part of the 1970s design for the entrance.

The design for ramp at Promenade Hill was supposed to be presented to the Historic Preservation Commission by the mayor and Garriga this past Friday, November 18, but at the last minute--so last minute that the landscape architect showed up for the meeting with her presentation boards--the project was withdrawn from the agenda. The reason was the estimated cost of the ramp was about $155,000, and the City had only $60,000 to pay for it.

So, here's how the ramp and the 2017 budget are connected. It will be remembered that $100,000 had been written into the proposed budget for 2017 for legal fees to defend the City against a lawsuit that would likely follow if Proposition 1, the Fair & Equal proposal, had not passed. Since it did pass, this money presumably will not be needed, so in an email to the mayor this morning, Miah proposed that, of the $100,000 contingency, $80,000 be allocated for the ramp and $20,000 be set aside for a "low income affordable housing project study." It was this proposal, which apparently had the support of the mayor, that was the cause of contention at tonight's special Common Council meeting.

After the resolution to accept the budget was introduced, Alderman John Friedman (Third Ward) brought up the question of the $100,000 contingency. Alderman Rick Rector (First Ward) suggested that the money remain in the budget as a contingency, and the Council could decide what to do with it later. "It's a conversation we can have and should have publicly."

Garriga argued that the Council should decide now what the $100,000 is a contingency for, and Miah declared that the Council had a moral obligation to allocate the money for the handicapped ramp. 

Friedman noted that it had been "less than a week" since it was known that the $100,000 would not be needed for legal fees and "there has been zero public conversation about this issue." He suggested that the $100,000 "can either go back into the general fund, or we can allocate it later." He also cautioned, "It's not free money, and it's not found money. We're lucky we didn't have to spend it on litigation."

Rector complained that no one on the Council had seen the plans for the ramp except Garriga. "I'm not going to vote on something when I don't know what it's going to look like." He also indicated that he would support a housing study for Hudson but not one that focused only on low-income housing. "We should fund a study that shows what all our [housing] needs will be."

Alderman Alexis Keith (Fourth Ward) asked, "Can we just agree to set this money aside, and have this conversation [about how to use it] later?" Rector moved to put the $100,000 in a contingency and determine its use later.

When the motion to approve the 2017 budget was finally made, the resolution passed with only Miah voting against it. 

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