Wednesday afternoon the Newburgh Community Land Bank held their monthly meeting. Their Consulting Director, Madeline Fletcher, as well as their consultant from Pace’s Land Use Law center, Jessica Bacher, met with me prior to the meeting and they responded to some of the concerns I raised in my earlier post, as well as answering some additional questions.
Size of Land Bank
Fletcher pointed out that the land bank does indeed include the entire City of Newburgh. Carefully reading the application submitted to ESDC supports this. While it is true that a small section of the city was chosen as the “target area,” nothing prevents the land bank from operating city-wide.
The subject of the size of land banks came up during the board meeting. Allan Aztrott brought up the possibility of collaborating with the county, although this remained a point of speculation.
In speaking to Fletcher and Bacher, I asked them what was meant by the commitment of the city, as described in the land bank application, “to concentrate its police and code enforcement efforts in this target area to ensure the success of the Land Bank’s operations.” They described that what usually happens is “passive” enforcement, where code enforcement responds to calls for help. What concentrated or targeted enforcement might entail is more proactive approaches to code enforcement. The women explained that this has not happened yet, and that two consultants are completing a study of the city currently to make recommendations on code enforcement, and that this study will help shape future actions. They did not give me an explanation of what targeted police enforcement would be.
While I bemoaned the lack of pursuing alternative revenue streams, such as collection of tax liens, Ms. Bacher provided the explanation that Newburgh actually does a very good job of servicing tax liens, and thus this would be an unlucrative option for the Land Bank to pursue.
Another potential source of diversified income would be rental money. During the board meeting, a substantial portion of the discussion was focused on the HOGAR properties, which are now in foreclosure and subject to legal action by the city, Key Bank, and the county. These are a few properties on Dubois Street that were rehabbed and put on the market with great fanfare a few years ago. The city had invested several hundred thousand in a Restore grant at the time. After the pending legal actions are settled, the land bank’s hope would be to possibly acquire the properties and, due to the soft market, use them as rentals.
In a follow-up email, I asked Ms. Fletcher if she could share a more itemized budget than the brief and confusing one in the ESDC application. In our pre-board meeting, she did confirm that the land bank had indeed received a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. In my email, I had asked specifically for something that would breakdown what the separate in-kind contributions were from the various entities (city, Greater Newburgh Partnership, and St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital.)
Ms. Fletcher responded that, “At this point, we do not have a better budget to offer. We are working on breaking things down further and will be happy to provide when we’ve firmed it up better. We still have to figure out exactly what consulting we need, etc. As we go, our expenditures will be more refined and we will firm up the budget. At this point, we know roughly what resources have, we have to fine tune how they are allocated as our expenses become clearer.”
Cryptic Parting Remarks
As I left the table with Fletcher and Bacher just before 4 p.m., as our interview was concluded and the board meeting was about to begin, Allan Aztrott introduced himself to me and provided a one page summary of the hospital’s 2011 budget. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this, and anyway, if you are interested in the hospital’s finances you can access their tax returns from the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder and/or an even more complete accounting statement from the NYS Attorney General’s Charities Bureau website (although both sites have the information posted for 2010, not 2011 yet. Keep checking.)
Mr. Aztrott provided some pleasant facts about the hospital and then asked why the Newburgh Parking Tribunal had finally passed in Albany. “I don’t know,” I said. And he pointed out that it was the hospital’s lobbyist that lobbied for it.
Sure enough, you can look up the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics’ website, click on “view a filing,” and with a little effort you can find all the bills that the hospital and/or the Greater Newburgh Partnership has lobbied for, and the lobbyists they employ.
Mr. Aztrott also bragged that the hospital provided grant writing services to various city grants, including the Fire Department and FEMA-related.
Should this mean that the hospital owns the city and dictates public policy?
It is a delicate question. The city council was distraught at Thursday night’s meeting when the subject of PILOTs came up. Having gone to school in New Haven at Yale, I am familiar with the intricate relationship that can exist between a major nonprofit and its city, which in this case includes a PILOT.
But contributions can take many forms. Is grantwriting ongoing? How much, and can we attribute a dollar amount to that? Certainly this is a contribution, which our anemic city budgets appreciate.
The fine line is somewhere around doing things that help our own neighborhood and interests, and doing things that are in the interest of the entire city. That line is muddied when government is outsourced behind-the-scenes, or one interest is so powerful it becomes a strangling force on our council members and government. Then democracy goes out the window, and some other form of human organization takes over.