County funding boosts food programs for hungry, homeless students

Cans of vegetables and tuna fish.

Bags of dry beans and loaves of bread.

Jars of peanut butter and boxes of cereal and pancake mix.

Volunteers deployed around tables inside the food pantry of St. Francis of Assisi Church in the City of Newburgh rushed to fill a gaping need – stuffing plastic grocery bags and backpacks with provisions for hundreds of homeless and hungry school children in the Newburgh Enlarged School District.

For years the district has used the so-called “backpack” program to ensure children do not go hungry, especially when they’re home for the weekends and not able to eat breakfast and lunch at school.

It is a program celebrating an expansion, thanks to funding provided last year by Orange County. And Executive Steve Neuhaus stopped by the pantry to see the fruits of that funding – canned and dry goods that will feed more children than the program originally could serve.

About $375,000 was designated in September 2015 for “Orange Cares,” a new partnership with the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. Funding has covered backpack programs in Chester, Highland Falls, Middletown and Newburgh. The goal is to expand the program to Port Jervis and Valley Central, Neuhaus said.

“I think it’s key because a lot of places are afraid of the stigma and they’re afraid to start the program because of the stigma they’re going to have with it,” he said. “At the same time, there’s young men and women and their families that are suffering.”

Newburgh’s school district started distributing care packages to students four years ago. Students are given backpacks and each week they receive food prepared and delivered by volunteers at St. Francis.

Roughly 30 kids were served the first year, said Bill Morgan, homeless liaison for the Newburgh school district. By the end of this year, the program will have served an estimated 560, he said.

Last year, the district identified 841 homeless students, the seventh-largest total among all districts in the state, Morgan said.

“We can’t have academic success until the basic needs of a student are met,” he said. “By having this backpack program, it just gives them one extra layer of stability so that, one day, they can have that academic success that they have the right to.”

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Amid the shootings, something ‘beautiful’ in Newburgh

As a train of over 150 marchers in a peace rally began arriving at Delano Hitch-Park on Monday to decry the shooting deaths of two women at a Halloween party in the City of Newburgh on Sunday, they passed a parking lot where pastors Annette and Jose Vasquez, and a small army of volunteers quietly prepared for an event representing a different side of the city.

Three years ago the pastors heard how parents felt the city was too unsafe to take their kids trick-or-treating for Halloween, and how those who took their children to the surrounding towns felt unwanted and were stopped and questioned by police officers.

So the Vasquezes, who pastor Church at the Bridge on Broadway, decided to organize “Trunk or Treat,” an event in which businesses, firefighters and police officers, organizations and residents decorate their car trunks and vehicles, and hand out candy and other treats to kids at Newburgh’s Activity Center.

The event has blossomed, with attendance from the first to second years rising to 1,500 from roughly 900, and the number of decorated trunks increasing from 37 to 56. Over 2,000 were expected at this past Monday’s event, Jose Vasquez said.

The increase in volunteers and kids represents something bigger than just candy, he said. It represents a unique collaboration whose supporters include Newburgh’s recreation department, TEAM Newburgh and businesses from the city and towns.

“It’s a beautiful picture when people can come together – organizations, businesses, people in the community, children, families, government,” he said.

Despite being a city with a large number of children, Newburgh is not a great place for trick-or-treating, said parent Doris Lopez. Some parents worry about safety, and many residents choose not to stock up on treats and open their doors to strangers, she said.

Lopez remembers the first time she and other parents drove to the Town of New Windsor on Halloween. They were met by officers who wanted to know what they were doing in the area, she said.

“It makes you feel unwanted; it doesn’t make you feel welcomed,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong.”

Lopez started bringing her kids to “Trunk or Treat,” but is now is among the residents decorating their trunks and dispensing candy. Also participating are local businesses and organizations, Newburgh’s fire and police departments, and students from Mount Saint Mary College.

Rodolfo Camacho, a Newburgh resident and the owner of Liberty Locksmith, is one of the businesses who have sponsored a trunk all three years. He and his wife decorate their business’ truck for the event.

“We work here and we make money here,” he said. “We try whenever we can to give back to the community.”

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Newburgh police lieutenant closes door on 18-year career

City of Newburgh police Lt. Thomas Murphy officially retired after 18 years on Wednesday, with colleagues lining the sidewalk outside police headquarters and saluting as he exited the building.

Murphy had served as a lieutenant since 2008, and before that held the rank of sergeant. Previous assignments within the Newburgh police department included the Anti-Crime and K-9 units and the SWAT team.

“The heartstrings are pulling toward the officers and the people of the city, but it’s time to go,” Murphy said. “The stars are aligned.”

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Supporters press case for rehiring of fired Newburgh tax collector

Former Newburgh Tax Collector Helen Murphy is flanked by the Rev. Jeffrey Woody (left) and attorney Michael Sussman.

On a night when sign-carrying supporters of former Newburgh Tax Collector Helen Murphy continued to protest her firing, City Manager Michael Ciaravino suggested that a review of her case is part of the investigation triggered by former Comptroller John Aber’s arrest on a grand-larceny charge.

The Rev. Jeffrey Woody and attorney Michael Sussman were among those accompanying Murphy to Monday’s City Council meeting. For months Murphy and her supporters have waged a public campaign over her firing by Aber, who is alleged to have stolen cash paid by people to use the city’s boat launch.

Their end game is to see Murphy reinstated to the position, something Ciaravino raised as a possible outcome as the district attorney’s office and his administration investigate Aber’s office.

“We are going to proceed with a mind toward fairness and justice, and that also includes any disciplinary action that has been taken with regard to any employees,” Ciaravino said.

“If we find that, at the end, the information that we have indicates that a number of actions need to be undone or reversed, then we will do that.”

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Imaginations on display at Newburgh school district art show

Inside a section of Motorcyclepedia Museum on Wednesday afternoon, Meadow Hill art teacher Rachel Williams and a steady stream of proud parents admired the works that filled a wall: paintings, pencil and crayon drawings; and animation cells.

The fruits of Newburgh school district students’ imaginations are being shared with the public. Through May the museum is hosting an exhibit of works by elementary and junior-high students from five schools: Balmville, Gidney Avenue, Meadow Hill, Temple Hill and South Junior High.

As a Newburgh Free Academy graduate, Williams knows the paths art classes can open up for kids.

“They’re painting; they’re making clay sculptures; they’re doing a little bit of everything,” she said. “And when they see it up, they get excited.”

Christy Kirkpatrick, a graphic designer and volunteer coordinator for Motorcylepedia, was a schoolmate of Williams’ at SUNY New Paltz. Both studied arts instruction, she said.

They collaborated to bring student art to the museum for the first time. They initially approached Motorcyclepedia founder Ted Doering about exhibiting the art for part of May, but he suggested hosting the show for the whole month, Kirkpatrick said.

“It’s impressive – the variety of the different projects they’re doing,” she said. “We’re hoping to duplicate it on an ongoing basis.”

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Newburgh city manager says DPW head’s Facebook post to be ‘taken seriously’

Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino said a Facebook post in which Public Works Superintendent George Garrison seemed to vent about an unnamed employee or employees’ work ethic is taken “very seriously” and not going to be “swept under the rug.”

In a post last week, George Garrison wrote: “Wanted: If you are not ambitious, don’t want to work, show up once in a while, be a straight up scum… and lie through your teeth, please fill out an application with the City of Newburgh for openings. Again we are not looking for hard working honest people.”

During Monday’s Council meeting, Ciaravino used part of his regular update to address the post, which drew complaints from Councilwoman Cindy Holmes, DPW workers and the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents the department’s rank-and-file.

“It not only reflects on all of our employees, which I know the overwhelming majority of them not only work hard but they’re busting their backsides to get work done at rocket speed around here,” Ciaravino said. “I personally feel it reflects on me as well.”

Garrison defended the post, saying he has a First Amendment right to post what he wants on his Facebook page and that other Newburgh employees have posted disparaging remarks about him and city officials without punishment.

But Billy Riccaldo, president for the Southern Region of the Civil Service Employees Association, called the post a “rant” and a violation of DPW rules.

Under city workplace rules revised in 2012 and applicable to both union and non-union DPW workers,“ no employee shall publicly criticize or ridicule the City, Department, its policies or other employees by any manner, shape or form.”

“While this matter, by no means, is going to be swept under the rug, it’s not going to be hurried to a just conclusion,” Ciaravino said.

“We are going to handle this in the manner prescribed, and I can assure all of you that if you’re feeling even half of what I do, as it relates to how that reflected on our community, this matter’s going to be handled in the serious manner that’s required.”

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Safe Harbors launches capital campaign for Newburgh park project

Safe Harbors of the Hudson launched a fundraising campaign for its planned transformation of the long-vacant lot next to the Ritz Theater into a landscaped park and performance space with benches, gardens, trees and walking paths.

An official groundbreaking is set for May 2. The park, which is bordered by Broadway, Ann and Liberty streets, is expected to open in the fall and be a place where people can relax or enjoy public events, such as concerts and outdoor movies.

Safe Harbors has raised roughly $208,000 of the estimated $500,000 cost, including the land purchase. An Indiegogo page has been set up to collect donations. Contributions can also be made via Safe Harbor’s website or mailed to 111 Broadway, Newburgh, N.Y. 12550.

“This will be a transformative project,” Executive Director Lisa Silverstone told a crowd of supporters who gathered Wednesday inside the Ritz’s lobby for a press conference. “It will be a central square in our downtown.”

The project has already drawn support.

Central Hudson donated $85,000 to the project and local doctor Hannah Brooks helped with the land purchase. Members of the Bruderhof religious community will plant trees and plants during the landscaping phase and Jim Taylor of Taylor Recycling in Montgomery will donate machinery and labor to grade the property.

Taylor said he was born in a top-floor apartment of a building that used to be on the adjacent corner.

“We’re just so pleased and proud to be a part of this,” he said.

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Newburgh mayor testifies on infrastructure, funding woes

Newburgh’s infrastructure problems have been often recited Mayor Judy Kennedy, but she went through them one more time for a special committee of the state Assembly on Friday.

Her testimony before the Committee on Cities, chaired by Michael Benedetto of the Bronx, came nine days after the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced an agreement by Newburgh to spend $39 million over 15 years on projects aimed at reducing the discharge of untreated sewage into the Hudson River and Quassaick Creek.

It is a big commitment for a city with little to no room to raise taxes, and the city is under pressure to raise sewer and water rates to fund projects if it cannot raise enough through grants, Kennedy said. Those rates were doubled in 2011, and raising them again would be a big blow to property owners, she said.

“I liken this to the hunched-over servant trying to climb the hill with the pack on his back while we’re whipping the servant to go faster,” Kennedy said. “It has been a difficult row to hoe for our people.”

Nearly half the $39 million represents an $18 million project to relocate a major sewer line that is preventing development of a strip of land sandwiched between Colden and Water streets and overlooking the river.

Newburgh is hoping the project will be the beneficiary of state funding. In his 2016 budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s wants to add $100 million to a pool of $200 million created last year for water infrastructure projects.Getting the line relocated will open the strip up to the kind of development that will yield revenue for Newburgh, Kennedy said.

“If that’s where we can focus the money, it can help us take care of ourselves,” she said.

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Newburgh counsel says police review board needs support

Nearly a year after Newburgh’s Police Community Relations and Review Board met for the first time after a restructuring that included expanded powers, the board is floundering and needs support, Corporation Counsel Michelle Kelson told the City Council on Thursday.

The nine-member board started fast, raising a regular quorum over its first few meetings and actually reviewing complaints, Kelson said. By the time summer came, the board began struggling with low attendance and an inability to field enough members to conduct business, she said.

In all the board received 12 complaints in 2015, with all but three investigated.

“Some of them have tried really, really hard to make this work,” Kelson said of the board members. “We’ve had some others who have not really been supportive, and it’s been difficult in the last few months to field a quorum to actually transact business.”

Under a City Council-approved restructuring, the PCRRB replaced what had been an 11-member and long-dormant Police-Community Relations Advisory Board. Ward representatives get to appoint two members each. The Council appoints the ninth member, who serves as chair.

It was a change driven by Newburgh’s own history of poor police-community relations and a spate of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers.

Kelson said she had become de facto administrative assistant for the reconstituted board, sending out meeting notifications, copying meeting documents and recording minutes.

“Right now, if I’m not doing it, it’s not getting done,” she said.

Finding money to hire a part-time staff and to train the board were two issues discussed during Thursday’s Council work session. Some Council members suggested first having a discussion with the PCRRB’s board.

“I think that we should just review it and talk to the board members,” Councilwoman Cindy Holmes said. “I don’t think that we should just push out money to train them; we might find another training avenue.”

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Mayor lobbies Civil Service Commission to change police chief’s exam

Days before Friday’s application deadline, Mayor Judy Kennedy is making a last-ditch effort to persuade the City of Newburgh’s Civil Service Commission to offer a police chief’s test for current employees instead of the open exam scheduled for March 5.

Absent a change, current chief Dan Cameron, who is popular with both officers and residents but has yet to take a chief’s test, has to either take the open exam and be among the top three scorers or face the risk of being replaced by someone else.

In a letter addressed to Commissioners Vera Best, Richard Gadbois and Thomas Murphy, Kennedy claims the rules governing internal exams are “unfair” and discriminate against existing employees.

So far the Commission has no meetings scheduled before the deadline.

In talking with each of you at different times, I have been told that it was not fair to change the rules to fit one candidate. And if the rules were fair, I would agree with that position,” Kennedy wrote.

“However, I make the case that the current rules for the internal promotional test are not only unfair, but in fact, discriminate against qualified internal candidates whether they all want to apply or not.

While the qualifications to take the promotional exam include having two years as deputy chief, Newburgh’s officers are unable to meet that requirement because the city eliminated the position years ago, Kennedy said.

At the same time those lieutenants are assuming duties once assigned to the deputy chief, Kennedy wrote.

“This commission should offer the promotional test to any lieutenant that has been doing deputy work since 2010,” Kennedy wrote. “It is clear that any lieutenant in the City of Newburgh has de facto deputy chief experience and one of them has actual chief experience.”

The Civil Service Commission’s decision to offer an exam open to anyone instead of a promotional exam also drew strong letters from Cameron and City Manager Michael Ciaravino.

Existing state law says that “competitive class” positions like police chief “shall be filled, as far as practicable, by promotion from among persons holding competitive class positions in a lower grade.”

But existing law also gives local civil service boards like Newburgh’s the option of administering an open examination and establishing a list of test takers from which to hire.

The law says those hires “shall be made by the selection of one of the three persons certified by the appropriate civil service commission as standing highest on such eligible list.”

Even if the city opted to give a promotional exam, Cameron still faces another hurdle: The existing minimum qualifications candidates have to meet in order to take the test include five years experience as a lieutenant. Cameron was promoted to that rank in May 2012.

He and Ciaravino both argued that the five-year lieutenant qualification should be reduced to two years.

“I do not pretend to be an expert on civil service law, but I do understand that the purpose of civil service is fairness in hiring practices,” Cameron wrote in his letter. “I believe the opposite is occurring within the civil service commission, and I believe that is blatant.”

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    Leonard Sparks covers the City of Newburgh as a reporter for the Times Herald-Record newspaper. Read Full
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