Newburgh councilwoman: Firefighter grant ‘like robbing Peter to pay Paul’

While U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and Assemblyman Frank Skartados scrambling to save 10 City of Newburgh firefighters from the unemployment, Councilwoman Karen Mejia publicly raised an issue others must have considered: Should the city rely on temporary grants to pay for first responders.

Two years ago Newburgh tapped a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that funds the hiring of firefighters for understaffed departments. The city’s $2.4 million grant allowed it to hire 15 firefighters, with FEMA covering their salaries and benefits for two years.

On the day local officials celebrated the grant at a press conference, a timer began winding down to the day of reckoning. Would Newburgh be able to absorb the new hires’ salaries when the grant ran out. So far, the answer is no, with 10 fireman scheduled to be laid off on Dec. 31.

“Folks who approved the grant knew that it was a grant, and you should not be staffing crucial, critical personnel of a city based on grants,” Mejia said. “This is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

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Council members intensify demands over alleged spending on disability probe

A faction of the City Council escalated its war of words with City Manager Michael Ciaravino over allegations that tens of thousands of dollars in public money was spent on an investigation into disability fraud by a now-resigned police lieutenant.

At Monday’s Council meeting Councilman Cedric Brown and Councilwomen Cindy Holmes and Gay Lee took turns bashing Ciaravino over an investigation involving former Lt. Peter Leach.

Ciaravino says a district attorney’s office probe into the matter has left him unable to share information concerning the case, but Brown, Holmes and Lee say they have a right to know how money is being spent.

Brown says a resolution asking the Council to approve the transfer of $40,000 between budget accounts is related to the investigation.

“That transfer has something to do with depleting one of our funds,” he said. “We’ve been getting push back from the city manager not to tell us where that money was spent.”

Mayor Judy Kennedy acknowledged at the meeting that Leach investigation began when she asked the city manager to begin looking into disability fraud by firefighters and police officers, a subject she heard about while at a state conference.

Disability fraud is one place the city’s “money is bleeding,” Kennedy said. This year the city paid $100,000 for a retiree on disability. She also said that Leach ended his fight for disability.

“If he really deserved it … why did he recant,” she said.

Lee accused the city of spending money to investigate something that should have been investigated by someone other than the city. She vowed to hold up the requested budget transfer until Council members received more information.

“We want to know how these funds were spent,” Lee said. “We have a right to know and we are going to know or no money will be moved anywhere into that line.”

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Newburgh firefighters donate bike helmets to city kids

Newburgh’s main firehouse on Grand Street is a regular stopping point for city children needing air for their bicycle tires or a quick adjustment of their chains.

So fire officials figured the station was an ideal place to promote bike safety by distributing helmets to children. On Aug. 11 they did just that, handing out 25 of the 100 helmets donated to the fire department during a one-hour rush.

The rest of the helmets, which were donated by the Local 589 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, will be distributed to kids as they come through.

“We get kids every day to the firehouse,” assistant Chief Terry Ahlers said. “Most of the time they’re not wearing a helmet.”

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Newburgh Council, city manager discuss communication and secrets

One thing driving a group of Newburgh City Council members to consider a charter amendment giving the body final approval over executive appointments is the belief that City Manager Michael Ciaravino’s shares information with a very small loop that excludes some of the people who hired him.

Ciaravino did nothing to dispel that belief during Thursday’s City Council work session, whose agenda included a discussion about “communication” and his explanation of why he is sharing little information with the Council about philanthropist Bill Kaplan’s possible involvement in a new project.

Councilwomen Cindy Holmes and Karen Mejia, who both backed an April 27 public hearing the charter change, shared their concerns about being excluded from the information-sharing process.

Holmes cited one example: learning from residents in her ward that Kaplan and city officials were discussing his possible purchase of Newburgh’s Activity Center on Washington St.

“I don’t know nothing but what I hear,” Holmes said. “I shouldn’t have to go to Mr. Kaplan and ask him what is he doing and what is he purchasing.”

Ciaravino said talk about the Activity Center is part of a larger concept that would include Delano-Hitch Park and the Armory Unity Center. His administration has “purposely” not revealed Kaplan’s involvement because there is no firm commitment, Ciaravino said.

“To make announcements, I almost feel that we might actually jeopardize something that Mr. Kaplan’s not prepared to make.”

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Newburgh considers new lighting near scene of beating death

Newburgh’s City Council is weighing a proposal to install an additional street light in the area where a 40-year-old man was beaten to death with a metal pipe on April 3 outside a bar and restaurant on Washington Street.

Police responding to a report of an assault found Armando Soriano-Martel seriously beaten on the sidewalk outside El Rey Del Pollo IV, a Washington Street nightspot across from the city’s Activity Center. Soriano-Martel died later at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Four days later police charged Alvaro Ramos-Lopez, 26, with second-degree murder.

One nearby property owner said people drinking at El Rey Del Pollo are known to get into fights and urinate outside. A resolution before the Council calls for installing a light on an existing pole.

“We’re hoping that a street light there will improve the situation,” city Engineer Jason Morris told the Council on Thursday.

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Newburgh activist ends hunger strike, but not appetite for DREAM Act

Laura Garcia has not eaten since Wednesday night and she will still be hungry after she and other advocates for a New York DREAM Act meet at a New York City church on Tuesday evening to break their hunger strike.

Garcia, a Newburgh activist for immigrant rights, is one of a number of people who stopped eating in hopes of convincing state lawmakers to include in the new budget Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s DREAM Act proposal, which opens up financial aid programs to undocumented students.

Advocates have long pushed for the legislation on behalf of immigrant high school graduates who, without citizenship, are barred from public financial aid programs.

While the proposal enjoys the governor’s support and the support of the Democratic-majority Assembly, it does not have enough votes in the Republican-led state Senate.

A “tired and weak and cold” Garcia sat in the offices of the Newburgh YWCA on Tuesday afternoon. She was disappointed over a new budget deal that does not include the DREAM Act, but still vowed to press for the legislation, along with other advocates.

“We’re obviously hungry for making this a reality and we will continue to do what needs to be done,” she said.

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Newburgh approves agreement with baseball league

Professional baseball is coming to Delano-Hitch Stadium this summer.

On Monday Newburgh’s City Council approved an agreement allowing the six-team East Coast Baseball League to use the stadium this summer.

Along with the hometown Newburgh Newts, the league fields teams based at Niagara and Watertown in New York; Waterloo, Ontario; and Old Orchard, Maine. The league is looking to base its sixth team in Johnstown, Pa.

Newburgh’s agreement calls for the league to pay $500 per game for 30 games – 16 night games on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; and 14 afternoon games on Saturdays and Sundays.

Newburgh would also receive 15 percent of gross revenue from concessions sales and 5 percent of the sponsorship revenue.

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Local hip-hop artist pens tribute to Pete Seeger song

Beacon artist Decora Sandiford’s fingerprints are all over Newburgh – from giant outdoor murals like those on South Street and on Colden Street to the window paintings that adorn vacant houses on Lander Street and a community garden at Chambers and First streets.

On Feb. 17 WAMC broadcast a segment by Allison Dunne on the hip-hop artist’s song “Flowers.” It is a tribute to the late Pete Seeger’s iconic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and one of the songs on Sandiford’s upcoming album.

“Before Pete passed I told him I was going to do that song,” said Sandiford, who used to live on Chambers Street. “Shortly after him passing, I started writing it.”

Seeger died just over a year ago at the age of 94. Sandiford met the legendary folk singer when his group ReadNex Poetry Squad performed at Beacon Riverfest in 2011. Sandiford went on to work with Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and considered Seeger a mentor.

The video for the song opens and closes with Seeger singing.

“When you say where have the flowers gone, it can mean a lot,” Sandiford said. “It can mean hope; it can mean justice; it could mean the love for humanity. … I always got tingles down my spine every time the chorus would come on.”


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Newburgh looks to expand auxiliary police force

Newburgh’s auxiliary police force is being eyed as a resource that could help alleviate some of the stress on the city’s understaffed police department and improve public safety.

Over the past few months weekly meetings have taken place to determine how to grown the auxiliary’s ranks, City Manager Michael Ciaravino told the City Council on Thursday.

Discussions about screening applicants have also taken place with the city’s Civil Service department, he said.

“Now the marketing effort and the recruitment is going to begin,” Ciaravino said.

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Changes underway at Newburgh police department

Newburgh’s police department has changed a policy in which only one person was designated to speak with the media. Now all supervisors are allowed to issue press releases and speak with reporters, City Manager Michael Ciaravino told the City Council on Wednesday.

The department’s commanders have also been reviewing policies other agencies have governing their use of body cameras. This is occurring as Newburgh continues to seek funding to outfit patrol officers with the cameras, Ciaravino said.

In addition, the department’s crime analyst office is now providing weekly activity reports to Mayor Judy Kennedy and members of the Council, and it hosted a demonstration of scheduling software created by a company called VCS.

“The software will limit the time the police department supervisors are required to spend on scheduling, which will then free them up for supervision in the field,” Ciaravino said. “The software will also free up civilian employee time, allowing for the re-direction to more beneficial assignments.”

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    Leonard Sparks

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