Thursday, January 18, 2018

Downtown Hospital: A Serious Miscalculation . . .

It should now be pretty clear from the e-mails previously posted that the idea of placing the new hospital Downtown originated with our local officials (elected and unelected):  NOT Albany (the Governor's Upstate czar did not like the idea) and NOT the MVHS Board (they had to be "steered" to Downtown and cajoled with promises that Downtown would be made cost "neutral" compared to the St. Luke's site (i.e., Taxpayers would pay for any additional costs)).  So how did we get to where we are now?

Governor Cuomo originally wanted to advance two new state of the art hospitals to demonstrate how health care could be streamlined: one Downstate in Brooklyn, one Upstate in Oneida County.

Mr. Brindisi, to his credit, lobbied for language to ensure that the new "Oneida County" hospital would be convenient to Utica's poor. The legislature's attorneys inserted the "largest population center" language to achieve that objective.

However, they said neither "Downtown Utica" nor "City of Utica," nor even "largest population city" nor "largest population municipality," which would have forced the hospital into Utica. That would have been risky for site selection considering that Utica is only 17 square miles in size. The use of the word "center" does NOT confine the site to one in Utica.

It should not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Governor not only wanted to improve healthcare, but also to demonstrate to the nation that he could accomplish something good for the public. The insistence of Mr. Brindisi, Mr. Picente, Mr. Dimeo, Mr. Palmieri, and the other usual suspects that the hospital had to go Downtown to accomplish "economic development" (NOT a consideration under the hospital legislation) not only places at risk completion of the hospital, but the Governor's reputation as well.

When the only poll that was taken demonstrated that half of the respondents were against placing the hospital Downtown, why would the Governor want to support that? The Governor wants to be known for accomplishing something good, not causing public controversy. A state-of-the-art hospital should not be controversial, but placing it Downtown has made it so.

Insisting that the hospital has to go Downtown  is a serious miscalculation by our local officials. You have to question "What were they thinking?".

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Downtown Hospital Revelations: Vass Blog's Take

Michael Vass did a great job comparing statements in FOILed e-mails on the hospital with what was published in local media at the time.  Well worth reading!

Backroom wheeling and dealing in Utica may affect NY-22 and other elections

Monday, January 08, 2018

Downtown Hospital: Locally Conceived & Hatched . . .

There should be little doubt where the idea of placing the hospital Downtown originated and how that decision was made . . .(click images to enlarge) . . .
[Updated 1/13/18 to add bold quote in 4th box down]
  "I think downtown should be looked at first."
"Scott needs this for his board and help build consensus on a site option ... we need to know if we can make case for a downtown site and in the process include it as part of the URF stragegy"
"Scott sent me an email and made it clear that he has to evaluate sites and cannot automatically go to a downtown site without having looked at other sites"

"We need to make sure that [Director of Upstate Revitalization Richard] Tobe sees this as transformational. He is the only person I have talked to date who pissed on this as a project. . . . My whole thought process in bringing Elan on board is to make sure that we guide siting decision in favor of downtown."

"HE was not that enamored . . . . he was also not impressed . . . None of that impressed him."

"I spoke to Scott last week and relayed my preference for a downtown site. I know he has a Board to deal with but I hope he impresses upon them that a downtown site is preferable."

"Would you like me to reach out to Scott to ensure that he understands direction . . . ?"

"I feel like walking away from this whole thing and telling the community and hospital if you don't want this thing downtown then good luck at St Luke's and don't come see me for one ounce of state support."
[Updated 1/13/18 to add bold quote in 4th box down]

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Maybe we should call it the "Screw - U District?"

Happy New Year, folks, and welcome to "business" as usual in Utica and Oneida County with another speculative "Public-Private" scheme!

Twenty Eighteen kicks off with another forward looking editorial from the OD that is heavy with excitement but light on facts: "Nexus Center good way to begin new year."
The planned development of the Nexus Center -- a tournament-based sports and recreation hub -- on the a 1.9-acre site just east of the Aud will be one more thing to keep the downtown renaissance moving forward. . . .

 . . . It’s likely be funded through public and private funds. . . .
That is all we are told about the financing.  What we are not told is (1) that the Aud Authority has a limitation on bonded indebtedness of no more than $2,000,000  meaning the project will likely require County taxpayers to back the venture much like they did with the Aud expansion; (2) that the Aud Authority is still being involuntarily subsidized by the customers of the Mohawk Valley Water Authority (MVWA) to the tune of $732,000 annually as a matter of state law with mandated increases into the 2030s; and (3) that ownership by the Aud Authority means that another 1.9 acres of prime Downtown Utica property will be permanently removed from Utica's tax rolls.

The editorial cites Utica's central location and alleges a "need" for such venues to conclude that the center could "play a major role in economic development."
Utica Comets President Robert Esche has said that revenue would be based on out-of-towners coming here. The planned three sheets of ice could also be converted into lacrosse and soccer fields, he said earlier, so the complex could be capturing all sports, truly built around recreation, tournament-based play. He estimated it would mean roughly 300,000 to 350,000 out-of-towners coming to the area per year.
If this is true, then why isn't the Comets organization building this facility with its own money, and keeping the property on the tax rolls? It seem that, again, money from MVWA customers and the credit of county taxpayers are being lent to a private venture. 
In addition to creating an enterprising new venture in the city, this project also will eliminate a major downtown eyesore next to the vibrant Adirondack Bank Center auditorium. Demolition of Tartan has been scheduled, and depending on the weather, Annese said, it could be gone by the AHL All-Star Classic later this month. Previous asbestos contamination was abated when Bowers Development acquired the property last year -- and Bowers will pay for the demolition, Annese said.
What are we to make of the fact that Bowers acquired the property and performed asbestos abatement just to sell it to the Aud Authority and pay for demolition a year later? It is doubtful that Bowers is being an altruistic angel. There is a story there that the OD is not telling us. Regardless, elimination of a Downtown "eyesore" is again an excuse for government to get in bed with a private enterprise.
The center is a key component of the proposed U District, first mentioned by Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente in his 2017 State of the County message.
Maybe we should start calling it the "Screw-U District?"

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Turkey Day "Turkey" from the O.C. B. of L.

A Turkey Day "turkey" for you . . .  According to WKTV:

"The Oneida County Board of Legislators approved to keep funding fixes to the county's sewer district on Wednesday."

The legislators may approve the funding, but they do not provide the funding, which ultimately comes only from the sewer rate payers in the Greater Utica area. 

"The decision did not require much debate, as the county is under a consent order from the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to fix the sewer infrastructure." 

This decision is the latest reflection of a 50-year-old flawed "regional" set-up, relatively recent Suburban/County law violations, a rushed 2007 signing of the consent order, and, maybe the wrong solution. 

Half of the legislators who oversee the district and set sewer rates are unaffected by it. Because it costs their constituents nothing, there is no incentive for them to understand sewer district issues. Almost half of the other half represent the suburbs which were able to expand their tax base more cheaply due to the law violations. These folk will not be inclined to place the true cost of a solution entirely on the jurisdictions that benefited. The remainder are the outnumbered Utica legislators who would have to make an extra effort to study and understand that their constituents are the ones getting screwed.

If you want to understand in depth what has happened, start with "Sewer Incompetency and Irresponsibility," follow the links therein, then search this blog for "consent order."

In a nutshell, owing to the make up of the BoL, there has been no accountability for the bad decisions that led to the consent order, and no accountability for the bad decisions that followed.  Expect more of the same.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Counterpoint to a Counterpoint . . .

A few days ago on the Utica Phoenix site, Marques Phillips offered a "Counterpoint" to Cassandra Harris-Lockwood's earlier post "Going to the Hospital."  Mr. Phillips essentially believes that opposition to a Downtown Hospital is motivated by an anti-Utica bias (my words). Here is a full response:

Mr. Phillips' "Counterpoint" claim that opposition to placing a new hospital in Downtown Utica is based on a notion that "Utica isn't good enough" easily avoids important matters that Uticans should think about. It also avoids the possibility that hosting the facility may not be such a good deal:  that Regional decision-makers have found yet another way to dump costs associated with a regional facility onto the backs of beleaguered Utica Taxpayers. There is little dispute that we can use a new facility. The relevant questions are "Where is the best place? And for what purpose?"

No comfort is taken from the fact that a "professional firm" was hired to survey different sites. That firm is Mohawk Valley EDGE:  a regional "economic development" agency supported with our tax dollars that is also a "private" entity, shielding its activities from public scrutiny and making it difficult to know whose interests it serves.  EDGE has seemingly made an industry of using public grants for "make work" projects, often moving facilities from Point A to B with little to no sustainable increase in jobs.  Its efforts have often been to the detriment of Utica. It has induced sprawl and has frequently required massive infusions of local dollars for new infrastructure, which the public will have to maintain forever. The Downtown Hospital appears to follow the same "M.O."  When it proposed Downtown as a possible hospital site, EDGE ignored the Utica Master Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Gateway District regulations (the will of Utica's people). It literally marketed to MVHS the properties of individuals and businesses without their knowledge, as well as blocks of city street pavement without the public's knowledge. Whose interests did these actions advance? Why did EDGE presume it could market private property? Why did it presume that it had the authority to make Utica planning decisions and change Utica traffic patterns?

Public Health Law Section 2825-b  supplies the grant for new hospital facilities. Its sole purpose is to strengthen and protect continued access to  health care services by funding projects that "consolidate multiple licensed health care facilities into an integrated system of care..."    Several things suggest that officials are using the state's money to advance a local private and/or political agenda rather than the foregoing.  Although the site determination held the greatest consequences for the public both under this law as well as for other reasons, EDGE offered Downtown to MVHS with NO PUBLIC INPUT.  Afterward, the discussion of alternate sites, particularly those that have bearing on the law's purpose, has been deemed "out-of-order" because Downtown was "a done deal." EDGE's studies, which supposedly compared alternate sites, have been kept out of public view. MVHS/EDGE/local officials have given the public no compelling health care-related reason to place the project Downtown, while at the same time claiming that doing so would somehow economically transform Downtown (which is not a consideration under the law).  Hospital officials are on record saying that they were told that they HAD to choose Downtown or there would be no state money.  Since the legislation out of Albany does NOT expressly limit sites to ones within Utica, EDGE/local officials appear to have conditioned their assistance upon MVHS placing the facility Downtown rather than its "back-up site" on the St. Luke's Campus -- and for purposes other than those in the law.

Placing the hospital Downtown will clean-up a handful of blighted buildings, giving an appearance of "success" while generating years of "progress" reports that will boost the media image of the politicians. It may also temporarily benefit some Utica-based trade unionists during the construction phase. However, belief that a Downtown Hospital would spur economic development nearby is not credible because (1) hospital complexes are largely self-contained with exhausted employees wanting to go home after their 12-hour shifts, (2) earlier urban renewal projects that concentrated employees into new office buildings failed to spur other development, and (3) no studies have been offered to demonstrate successes from this approach.  

Wherever the project is located, it will DECREASE hospital beds and jobs because those are MVHS objectives of consolidation. Placing the project Downtown, however, will additionally eliminate most of the jobs associated with the 40 businesses that will be taken.  Prior local projects show that taking businesses causes most of them to permanently close because the business owners' private wealth that is destroyed by the wrecking ball is only partially reimbursed by the "market value" received for real property. The spectacle of our government officials actually cheering the destruction of private jobs -- for whatever reason -- sends a chilling message to would-be investors in Utica. 

The economy of Utica and the region depends on the viability of its small business sector.  While most small business start-ups fail, chances for long-term survival are improved if they are located in a "hub" with other businesses nearby.  Utica cannot lose 28 acres of its Central Business District to a medical campus without threatening its future as a place for small businesses to start and grow. This is a Regional loss because suburban locations would be hard pressed to match the advantages found in Utica's CBD for low costs, pre-installed infrastructure, and close proximity to other businesses. This is particularly true now in an era where investing in Downtowns has again become fashionable. It is also particularly true for the Columbia-Lafayette corridor between Baggs Square and the Brewery District because the choicest properties in the latter neighborhoods have already been snapped up for redevelopment.

Placing the hospital Downtown threatens Utica's future financial stability.  Ninety plus parcels will be permanently removed from the tax rolls, while municipal services will be extended to new, non-paying facilities.  Uticans will have their taxes raised to cover (1)  the lost property taxes and service extensions, (2) the lost sales taxes from taken businesses, (3) the City's share of a new parking garage, (4) a substantial portion of the County's share, (5) replacement of the police garage, and (6) costs for brownfield and infrastructure remediations. EDGE's balance sheet that purports to show that local taxpayers can afford the project leaves out many of these costs but includes speculative revenue from new medical office buildings -- speculative because the buildings are not currently proposed and because it is unlikely that medical providers who built new facilities in places on and near the St. Lukes' Campus, in South Utica, and in the Utica Business Park will abandon those investments just to be near the new Downtown Hospital.  

Lastly, moving the hospital from the St. Luke's Campus to Downtown will HARM local health care by increasing the distance to the medical providers in the aforementioned places. How does moving the hospital a couple miles away from its rehabilitation facility and skilled nursing home on its current campus foster "an integrated system of care?" Mr. Phillips' argument that the existing St. Luke's facility must be closed while a new hospital is built on that campus is belied by the fact that several wings were added to the existing facility over the years with no interruption in service.  

In sum, placing the new hospital facility in Downtown Utica will harm Utica, Uticans, Utica businesses, and local health care.  It is time to focus on the purposes of the legislation and build where more grant money will go toward health care. Build the new facility on the St. Luke's Campus.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Come Together ... Right Now . . . For the Hospital . . .

St Luke's Campus vs Downtown Utica
→ Site already owned by MVHS with plenty of expansion room and is almost shovel since it is served by newer public infrastructure.
→ Conveniently located near the center of Greater Utica's population, shares a campus with a Rehab facility and Nursing Home, and is close to newly established private medical facilities on French and Burrstone Roads and in the Utica Business Park (the region's existing "medical district").
→ No property or sales tax losses.
→ No private sector job losses
→ No change in land use.
→ No street grid disruption.
→ No added burdens on the taxpayers.
Preserves the opportunity for traditional, incremental economic development Downtown which is consistent with the Utica Master Plan and is already remaking Downtown Utica.

→ Cost of Property Acquisitions, Environmental Remediation and infrastructure revisions.
→ Cost of a parking garage and new police garage (and maybe more)
→ No room for future expansion without impacting others.
→ Loss of Property Taxes 90+ parcels
→ Loss of the Sales Taxes, Private Sector Jobs, and “Sweat Equity” from 40 businesses
→ Inconvenient location, especially for nursing home patients, and is far away from existing private medical offices and facilities.
→ Incompatable land use with the surrounding neighborhoods.
→ Street closures will make Downtown Utica less friendly for businesses remaining behind.
Speculation that it will spur Downtown development by persons with a track record of failure.

When you do a side-by-side comparison of the two sites, the choice of putting the new hospital facility Downtown makes no sense and deserves the opposition it has received.

When you read the legislation which created the grant that is driving the new hospital, the St. Luke's Campus seems tailor-made to the law's description of the project's location and its objectives. Choosing the St. Luke's Campus will save money, be easier to implement, and be a better fit for health care.

Mohawk Valley EDGE made a serious miscalculation when it steered the MVHS board to the Downtown Utica site with NO opportunity for public input. Objections would have been obvious years ago. EDGE appears to have been thinking of its own interests (or the interests of certain local politicians) rather than regional health care needs.  

MVHS needs to focus on its mission to provide the best possible health care for the region and should not be distracted by the myriad issues attached to a Downtown Utica site. MV EDGE, Oneida County, and the City of Utica need to stop trying to force the new facility into Downtown Utica and instead focus on how they can help MVHS best meet the grant's criteria at the St. Luke's Campus.

Choosing to put the new hospital Downtown is dividing the community.  Putting it at the St. Luke's Campus is something everyone can get behind.

Let's come together to support the New Hospital on the St. Luke's Campus. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Downtown Hospital Deja Vu . . .

For those on Facebook, Robin Raabe had a thought provoking post a couple days ago detailing her experiences running a business during the Arterial project as indicating what Downtown businesses will face during a hospital construction project.
"We have been stunted in our growth, we have lost 20-30% of our customer base & sales . . . For the betterment of the City with the Arterial Project, we had become on the verge of collateral damage in the face of progress. As a stand-alone business surrounded by road work, noise, dirt, road closures, re-directs, & general lack of accessibility, we have been at the brink of non-existence. We know that additionally, there are no less than 3 other small businesses directly affected by the road work. Think of that.. this is "just road work". What will 8 plus years of building a hospital/ parking garage/ traffic pattern routing, and more do to the businesses surrounding the proposed work area, let alone the 40 plus businesses that will be sacrificed for the job."
It was deja vu listening to the Common Council the other night claim they "had not made up their minds" on the hospital and offered to meet with representatives of the No Hospital Downtown and Better Utica Downtown groups to understand their concerns. We heard the same things when the Arterial was under consideration.

A number of us fought the Arterial project because of the permanent erosion of the tax base (70+ parcels off the tax rolls), closure of businesses, permanent closure of Sunset Ave and Warren St. as cross streets, and the construction of a wall across the neighborhood. No one wanted to listen, especially the City Council. Their fear of losing a $60M project proved greater than their fear of dividing a neighborhood, making the local street grid more difficult to navigate, losing businesses and jobs, and decreasing the tax base. 

The same Dynamics appear to be in play now with the Downtown Hospital -- magnified five fold.

Fear of losing the project is going to drive the decision-making.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Pig in a Poke . . .

The City of Utica is being threatened: "Warning to city: No garage, no new hospital"
“If there’s no garage, there’s no downtown hospital,” Steve DiMeo, president of Mohawk Valley EDGE, told Utica Common Council members at a meeting of the Economic Development Committee Monday.
As yet no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Downtown Hospital has been produced.

The Downtown Hospital is not only in material conflict with the Utica Master Plan and various pieces of legislation over the years that established the community's character, it will open a whole Pandora's box of impacts that may make the Downtown site for the new hospital unpalatable.  Will sanitary sewers and water lines designed to handle loads from a grid of small customers be able to handle the load from one or two large users?  Will existing storm sewers be able to handle the quick runoff from acres of new parking lots? Will hazards to human health be created by the destruction of many old buildings? Will the blockage of streets create traffic congestion, air pollution, and inconvenience for people not going to the hospital -- and possibly lead to business decline and blight elsewhere? Will the change in land use from tax-paying small businesses to tax-exempt large institution make city services financially unsustainable? What will happen to the two hospital sites that will be left behind? Will they become blighted like the Psych Center did? Who will pay to mitigate the various adverse impacts? City taxpayers? Water users? Sewer users?  An EIS now will help to answer these questions.

Asking the City to make a decision on the garage now without an EIS is asking it to make a decision blind.

MVHS' "back up" site at St. Lukes has plenty of room for the new hospital in spite of a small federally-regulated wetland.  Numerous large construction projects have occurred over the years there with no disruption in hospital services. No change in community character will occur by constructing the new hospital there, and no businesses will be booted out. There will be no loss in tax base. No streets will be blocked. Considering that there has been a decline in beds at St. Luke's, adding the activity currently at St. Elizabeth's would appear to be only an incremental increase in use over what had previously been at St. Luke's.  Simply put: the St. Luke's site is practically "shovel ready."  It makes no sense to put the new hospital elsewhere.

The Downtown Hospital is a "Pig in a Poke" -- and the taxpayers and water/sewer rate payers will be left holding the bag.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Aud: Still Using Your Money . . .

Saturday's OD celebrated "Multimillion dollar Aud renovations adding suites, boxes, restrooms." It is good to see the Aud brought up to current standards. We can be excited by its modern design and amenities and take pride in having a facility that competes with the best of them in the American Hockey League (AHL).  But there are still some troubling aspects to this deal that we need to think about.

First, it was disappointing that the construction started with no renderings in the media (until now), no public outreach, and little opportunity for public engagement and involvement over the 3+ years the project was being considered (see Aud Authority Minutes).  The Aud is, after all, (1) a building paid for by the Utica taxpayers, (2) an engineering landmark with its cable-suspended roof, and (3) involuntarily subsidized by the customers of the Mohawk Valley Water Authority (MVWA) to the tune of $732,000 annually as a matter of state law with mandated increases into the 2030s.  Reports by Aud Authority accountants make clear that the Aud cannot survive without this subsidy.

Second, luxury suites may be a staple of the AHL, but they seem out of touch for an area that has been in decline, bears some of the highest levels of taxation in the country, and where water-users have no choice but to pay for this.   Like the County's luxurious terminal at Griffiss for the owners of private planes that taxpayers are paying for, it seems that average Joes and Janes are expected to pay for the accouterments of our local elite.

Third, when we were lucky enough to get information on the financing of the project, we were not given the full story.  The OD reported the project as being "helped" by a $5.5M County bond plus a state grant. The Sentinel reported that
The county executive explained it is cheaper for the county to borrow the money than if the Aud obtains the funding on its own. Payments to the county by the Aud will cover the debt service, he said.
We are left with the impression that the County got involved to save the Aud money. We are not told that the Aud Authority has a limitation on bonded indebtedness of no more than $2,000,000 which this project will easily exceed.  So the County is assisting the Aud in exceeding its debt limit! To make matters worse, official documents on the subject seem to be written to conceal this fact.

Read the Board of Legislators' resolution authorizing the bond and County Executive's cover letter (at left). The letter makes one believe that the project is needed to meet building codes and that the suites, etc. are just thrown in as extras. The debt limitation isn't mentioned. The resolution does not mention payments from the Aud Authority at all, but instead speaks of an annual assessment on "lots and parcels of land within said District" without ever identifying the lots, parcels or "District."  Is this just poor draftsmanship, or concealment?

Fourth, the Aud Authority's contracting day-to-day management functions to people who also USE the facility may have allowed a conflict-of-interest. 

It seems that we have created a local government structure which responds more to special interests than to the average person.