Sunday, October 08, 2006

RESPONSE TO BLOGGERS RE: VALHALLA WESTHELP PARTNERSHIP

I have been reading the blogs regarding the Valhalla/Mayfair Knollwood/WESTHELP partnership.
I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some points raised by bloggers.
1) As some of the bloggers correctly pointed out this agreement was approved a few years ago by the entire Town Board. As Supervisor of the town I cannot sign any agreement unless at least 3 members of the Board vote to authorize me to sign a contract. This contract was approved unanimously--by me...by Council members Eddie Mae Barnes, Steve Bass, Diana Juettner. Eddie Mae, Steve and Diana are still members of the board. Former Councilmember Timmy Weinberg also voted for the agreement.
2) Before we voted for the agreement we spent about 2 years negotiating the terms with officers of HELP USA, the county of Westchester, the Mayfair Knollwood civic association. A state agency also reviewed the proposed agreement and signed off. Former Town Attorney Susan Mancuso spent many hours reviewing the document, as did special counsel - Paul Bergins. The entire Town Board reached the same conclusions as I did - that this contract was in the interests of the town. That's why we unanimously voted for the agreement. I object to members of the Town Board responding to political pressure to void a legally binding contract -- without any legal opinion from any state agency, the comptroller or a Judge indicating that the contract is improper. Legal opinions that were provided to members of the Town Board, in advance of our vote, are available to the public for review.
3) I would be happy to share with the public informaiton about the programs offered by the Valhalla school district to residents and students.
4) I appreciate it when members of the council think critically about decisions.The critical thinking should take place before they cast their vote on a contract. I worry that if the board members direct the comptroller not to comply with their legally binding contract that other contractors won't trust the town. A promise to pay -- a binding contract --shouldn't be invalidated unless we are told to invalidate the ageement by a higher authority.
5) This agreement was unusual. In 1988, when I was a Legislator, we were advised by Andrew Cuomo, the county, former Supervisor Anthony Veteran that at the end of 10 years WESTHELP would close their operations and become a senior citizen housing complex. When the 10 years was up Maria Cuomo Cole, President of HELP USA told me that the HELP organization would honor their commitment. However- she indicated that they hoped the town would let them continue their operations. The homeless problem has not been solved, there were few problems with WESTHLP. I spoke to members of the community. They came up with a proposed agreement which included the$650,000 annual payment to the school district. If the $650,000 had not been promised to the school district the neighborhood would not have supported the continued operation of the shelter. The money is not really rent to the town - it's money that was always designated to benefit residents who live closest to the shelter. Otherwise, without the support of the neighborhood, WESTHELP was prepared to close their operation.
6) This agreement makes good policy sense. If WESTHELP closes down - would critics of this arrangement voluntarily agree to place homeless residents in their neighborhood? BOb Bernstein, who is devoting time fighting to invalidate this contract,, would probably not be very happy if WESTHELP moved near his Edgemont neighborhood. What's wrong with giving neighborhoods that help solve regional problems (like homelessness) a perk? This agreement worked -and was replicated in Long Island. If this concept is allowed to continue it could result in some communities- around the county- voluntarily agreeing to accept homeless housing, drug treatment centers, low income housing, that no one else wants.
PAUL FEINER

PAUL FEINER

12 comments:

Bob Bernstein said...

Mr. Feiner doesn't seem to understand that however well-intentioned his efforts may have been, as a public official he must always act in accordance with the law -- and when he fails to do so, as appears to be the case here, the public has a right to know about it.

The law permits towns to give gifts to school districts, but the money must always be used for programs or facilities that benefit all residents of the town. There are no exceptions. Every municipal official knows this.

Here, however, the Valhalla contract benefits only residents of the school district. That makes the contract illegal on its face.

It is also illegal in New York to give town money to private individuals and/or associations. Here, however, the Valhalla contract puts millions of dollars in the control of the Mayfair-Knollwood Civic Association, an association of private citizens accountable to no one, whose members must, according to the contract, constitute a majority of the committee that makes the decisions regarding how the town's money is to be spent.

In addition, the contract provides that if Valhalla doesn't spend in a given year all of the money the town donates, 15% of the excess goes directly to a private foundation run by private individuals who can spend the money without any town oversight at all. These provisions likewise make the contract illegal on its face -- and again Mr. Feiner would have known this when he signed the agreement.

The contract is troubling in other respects as well. Since 2003, Valhalla has received more than $1.8 million from the town -- but there is nothing in the contract that permits the town to audit these funds to determine who got the money, how much was paid, and how it was spent. This lack of accountability for public funds is shockingly irresponsible.

This year I understand that Valhalla proposes to spend as much as $880,000 of the town's money on such school-related things as smartboards, interactive schoolboards, additional teachers, field trips, publications and other curriculum-enhancing projects that would be the envy of any school district. The problem is that state law doesn't permit town money to be used for any of these projects, however worthy they may be.

Mr. Feiner seems to think that none of this matters, that as long as he had the support in 2003 of the other town board members when the contract was proposed, that a deal's a deal, it must be honored no matter what, and the law be damned.

However, town board members have each sworn an oath to uphold the law just as Mr. Feiner has. The State Comptroller is expected to issue an opinion soon on the legality of this very contract. It will be difficult to get back any of the town's money if it is determined that the agreement is illegal.

Valhalla school officials should rightfully be concerned too. Under the contract, they agreed to hold the town harmless from and against any liability the town might incur arising directly or indirectly from the town's having provided these grants. Obviously, if the agreement is found to be illegal, there may well be claims against the Town, and in turn, under the indemnity against Valhalla, to get the money back.

Therefore, if Town Board members now have reason to believe the Valhalla contract may be illegal, as I expect is the case, they should be looking at ways to remedy the situation instead of turning a blind eye as Mr. Feiner suggests.

I understand these developments may be personally embarrassing to Mr. Feiner. I know he took credit for the Valhalla contract and staked his reputation on it. But however well intentioned he may have been in trying to devise a way to benefit the Mayfair-Knollwood neighborhood, the ends do not justify the means, he is not above the law, and if this means putting an end to the Valhalla agreement, then that's what must be done.

Finally, Mr. Feiner questions whether I'd still feel the same way if a homeless shelter were to open up in Edgemont, where I live. The answer is that while I'd very much like to have millions of dollars land in my lap too, I'd know better and work instead on finding a lawful way to achieve the same objectives.

Anonymous said...

The Council people are part time. Before Gil Kamien came to work they had no resources. Mr. Feiner controlled all resources, selected attorneys, paid them etc. As we have seen in the corporate world, it is possible for one executive to "run the show", select attorneys who will provide questionable opinions, provide documents (like the Franks lease) a the last minute to a Board, and in effect not allow the board to do its job.

whatever happened in the past we may not be able to do anything about, but now the council is trying to do its job. Now Mr. Feiner is tying to stop it.

Let the council do its job.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bernstein again concedes the facts about the policy in order to spin a story on why the contract is illegal.

A. According to Valhalla Voice, an entity whose extensive research on the issue truly qualify its assertions, the town has not deferred control over the funds to a private organization. In fact, the town keeps "tight control." Zero evidence exists for the claim that money has been given to the civic association.

B. Bernstein premises his claim of illegality on the notion that the contract dollars don't go toward the benefit of the entire town. First, Valhalla Voice makes the point explicitly that the money is being controlled by the town for the interests of the town. Secondly, he concedes that the purpose of the contract is to alleviate the financial problems of a homeless shelter. This answers his arguments that the contract does not benefit the town in two ways. First, the homeless shelter provides services to all homeless residents in Greenburgh. Secondly, the service a homeless shelter provides is inherently constructive for the entire town because it reduces the overall rate of poverty throughout the town, enables more people to participate in the local economy, reduces the threat of crime, and provides humanitarian opportunities to all residents of the town.

C. Bernstein provides no answer to the fact that 4 independent legal authorities verified the legality of the contract. Town attorney; independent council hired by the town attorney specifically to remove any appearance of impropriety; Westchester County legal department, Westhelp legal counsel. The weight and unanimity of their opinion was persuasive enough to cajole an unanimous approval of the contract from the town board.

These are facts which deserve consideration before anyone charge others of thinking "the law be damned." Let's have a rational discussion which precludes unecessarily divisive attacks and concentrates on the best result.

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Greenburgh Resident said...

Bob Bernstein may be right on the law in this case. He occasionally is. He might have credibility if he could, just for a change, make a comment without blaming Paul Feiner for all the ills of the world. As it is, I consider his comment as trash talk.

Greenburgh Taxpayer said...

Dear Greenburgh Resident,

Bob Bernstein has been right every time, according to the New York State courts. I have listened to him frequently, and the only things he blames on Mr. Feiner are acts not in accordance with State law. It is just that this time, it may also negatively impact the Villages, so they are also screeming.

And I sign Greenburgh Taxpayer, as I am a resident of Unincorporated Greenburgh and while we pay most of Greenburgh taxes, as the Villages outvote us, they will continue to expect Town services without paying, and we have only Bob Bernstien to protect us.

Greenburgh Resident said...

To Greenburgh Taxpayer

How come Greenburgh was such a happy and peaceful place before we had, as you say, "only Bob Bernstien to protect us." I don't hear the villages "screeming." I hear them defending themselves against Bob Bernstein's constant demagoguery and attacks.

My taxes are less than village taxes and I don't feel that we have to dump the cost of our services on the villages. I don't need Bob Bernstein to protect me, but if he does I would like him to talk about the facts and the truth and quit using every speech to malign the Supervisor. Maybe then I could concentrate on what he says about the problems he says exist.

And you should learn that the name Bernstein is not spelled Bernstien, and that the word screaming is not spelled screeming.

Greenburgh Taxpayer said...

Dear Greenburgh Resident,

There are many reasons why your taxes may be less than Village taxes -- we could compare taxes v. service all day long -- but that does not allow the Town of Greenburgh to charge unincorporated Greenburgh for things that the courts and the law say he can not. Obviously you are in favor of the Town of Greenburgh charging Unincorporated Greenburgh for amounts that should be charged to the entire town. I do not agree with you.

Anonymous said...

I live in Edgemont. Bob Bernstein only wants one thing--he wants everyone to hate each other. He wants Edgemont to secede. He wants the villages to secede. He now wants Mayfair Knollwood to secede. He wants to stop the town from getting an indoor tennis bubble which would benefit tennis players. Bob Bernstein's anti village efforts led to Elmsford leaving the Greenburgh library. This will cost unincorporated Greenburgh residents over $250,000 a year. Bob Bernstein's fights are costing me, as a resident of unincorporated Greenburgh money and he's ruining the quality of life in the town.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bernstein did not cause the library fiasco (which I doubt the state will let stand) -- and I have never heard him say anything about wanting Mayfair Knollwood to be a Village -- I doubt he cares -- that assertion is comical.

I can't imagine he wants everyone in Edgmont to hate each other -- I have never heard him say anything about the village secssions

but -- enough about bob -- this blog is about Valhalla -- all Bob said he wants is for the Town to act lawfully -- I take him at his word

Anonymous said...

Per www.valhallavoice.com

I would like someone to make certain that this indemnity is really solid. And this time, when we get a legal opinion, let's get a real one -- one that in the words of councilman sheehan is actioable.

The Valhalla school board continues to dance to the tune of the Mayfair Knollwood Civic Association, agreeing to further indemnify the Town of Greenburgh, putting taxpayers on the hook for more than $2.2 million should anyone sue for the return of this money illegally transferred from Westchester County to the Town of Greenburgh to the Valhalla School district and used for boat rides on the Hudson, opera tickets. Greenburgh has no reason to defend against a lawsuit now that the Valhalla School District has agreed to pay all costs and to be responsible to pay all the money back. The Greenburgh Town Attorney thinks the deal is illegal and the Comptroller is auditing it.

Anonymous said...

Here is what Mr Feiner said about the shelter in 2003. Does it sound like he was thinking about the entire town of Greenburgh?

http://valhallavoice.com/PDF/Westhelp/Feiner-Futia%20ltr.pdf