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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Newburgh woman organizes water drive for Flint, Mich., residents

So much of the news about the water debacle in Flint, Mich., has rightly focused on the failures of local and state officials who decided to draw water from the contaminated Flint River and then ignored warnings about health problems among the city’s residents.

For Tyhesha Garner the focus is on the children exposed to poisoned water and, like all of Flint’s residents, forced to rely on bottled water for cooking, drinking and bathing. So the City of Newburgh mother is organizing a drive on Feb. 13 to collect water for Flint. She and her family will then embark on a roughly 11-hour drive to deliver the water to the city.

“The kids are suffering, and I have two children of my own,” Garner said. “It just breaks my heart to see them in distress like that.”

The drive will start at 8 a.m. at Newburgh’s Activity Center, 401 Washington St., and last until 8 p.m. Anyone wishing to donate water can also drop it off before Feb. 13. Garner can be reached at 845-542-7371.

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City manager deletes cloud, creates storm

Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino has been accused of having a communication problem.

Now, his solo decision to delete all information stored on city government’s “cloud” because of a perceived “security breach” has angered Council members, some of who lost irretrievable information they accessed from their city-issued iPads.

Councilwoman Cindy Holmes called for an investigation of Ciaravino’s unilateral decision during Thursday’s work session, and new Councilwoman Hillary Rayford said department heads are in fear of the city manager because he uses his power “to an excess.”

During a half-hour discussion in which Ciaravino defended the decision, and Mayor Judy Kennedy and Councilwoman Genie Abrams argued against an investigation, an always-even-headed Councilwoman Karen Mejia made, perhaps, the best point.

“How does this not happen again,” she said. “This should not happen again.”

Ciaravino told the Council that “a substantial security breach” spurred his order to have reset all iPads and to replace a shared account among city officials with separate ones.

He said his mobile devices would tell him his location was being shared with now-indicted former fire Chief Mike Vatter and with former Councilman Cedric Brown, who supported Ciaravino’s hiring but then grew convinced the city manager needed to be replaced.

“I would look on my own devices and I was told that my location was being shared with Michael Vatter, my location was being shared with Cedric Brown, my location was being shared with other select Council people,” he said.

At some point Comptroller John Aber told him that his information was “distributed” across everyone’s iPad, Ciaravino said. The decision came after assurances everything created in a Microsoft suite was backed up to a server, Ciaravino said.

“It had to be done; it had to be done immediately,” he said. “This had been going on for months.”

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Skateboarding enthusiasts raising money for lounge and shop in Newburgh

If all goes well, the City of Newburgh will see contractors break ground some time this year on a long-awaited skateboard park at Delano-Hitch Park.

But a group of skateboard enthusiasts are also planning something else: a skate lounge selling boards along with coffee and sandwiches.

Over the weekend organizers held a launch party in Newburgh and went live with an Indiegogo page in hopes of raising $41,000 to open the Newburgh Skate Lounge at a yet-to-be-determined location in the city.

Melzina Canigan, one of the organizers, said the goal is to have the lounge and shop open by the first week of July. The closest skateboard shop is 20 miles away, she said.

“It’s all coming along,” Canigan said. “I’m like super-nervous and excited.”

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Newburgh school district sees big jump in number of kids eating breakfast

Last year the Newburgh school district was one of 11 districts nationwide to receive a grant funding free breakfast for all kids, a recognition of the nexus between hunger and students’ inability to learn.

During Thursday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Roberto Padilla provided examples of how the initiative has significantly increased the number of kids who start their day with a meal since it was implemented this year school year.

At Balmville Elementary School, the number of kids eating breakfast this year rose to 87 percent from 36 percent. At Gardnertown Magnet School, 86 percent versus 21 percent, and at Meadow Hill Magnet School, 86 percent versus 35 percent.

“This is a step in the right direction for equity,” Padilla said.

The grant came from the School Superintendents Association, in partnership with the Wal-Mart Foundation. Eligible districts were those with high numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price meals and low numbers of students eating breakfast.

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Town of Newburgh police chief says goodbye

Retiring Town of Newburgh police Chief Mike Clancy literally lives across the street from the department’s headquarters, but he still paused to say goodbye and to walk a line of saluting officers as he officially ended a 41-year law enforcement career on Tuesday.

He leaves at a time when a spate of police-involved shootings and other videotaped incidents involving officers have embarrassed those in law enforcement who conduct themselves in accord with their department’s highest ideals.

“Everybody in the law enforcement community’s has got to work to make things good in the communities that we serve – let the people out there know that you’re there to serve them and some of the other things they’re seeing on TV and in different parts of the country haven’t happened here and, hopefully, will never happen here, and that they can rely on you every day,” Clancy said.

Clancy, 62, started as an officer with the City of Newburgh in 1974 and rose to the rank of detective. He left the city for the town police department in 1979, starting as a patrol officer before being promoted to sergeant in 1986, detective sergeant in 1993 and lieutenant in 1995.

He became chief in February 2012, taking over a department that had just 19 officers when he arrived and grew to 60.

Before the cake was cut and before Clancy walked a gauntlet of officers, a tradition for retiring chiefs, acting Chief Bruce Campbell and Supervisor Gil Piaquadio offered some kind words.

“He goes by the book, but what’s amazing about Mike is he goes by his heart, too,” Piaquadio said.

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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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