MILTON – After questions were raised about taxpayer actual costs, the acceptance of an indirect gift from an anonymous donor and the committment of a New York State agency land purchase, the donor has decided not to donate a promised $500k for the Town to acquire Camp Boyhaven in Middle Grove.
The Milton monthly board meeting room was at maximum capacity on Wednesday, April 25, with the crowd extended into the hallway, mostly residents in support of the property purchase. Since May 2017, board members have consistently voted unanimously to continue with a proposed deal to purchase the recently closed 300 plus acre site with Kayaderosseras Creek access and a swimming lake, proposed as a passive-park open to the public.
The site was owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America as a site for the Schenectady County chapter for nearly a century before closing due to dwindling membership.
In an email to Chairman of the Planning Board Larry Woolbright on Monday, then again on Tuesday to Woolbright, attorney Jim Craig and Supervisor Scott Ostrander the Ballston Journal requested specific details about interest costs to taxpayers of the $500k bond after discovering the open space actual fund balance was only about $85k. Bonds are generally secured by municipalities to finance capital projects and are interest bearing debt securities.
Woolbright and Craig did not respond, however, Ostrander said he “didn’t know” how much the interest could actually be, and early estimates “could be as high as $10k annually, or more, for several years meaning taxpayers could be paying an additional cost of $50-70k plus. That is without the costs of building demolition, insurances, maintenance and other expenses to make the property ready for usage.”
Funds were asked to be included by Woolbright,in the 2018 budget, in an email to the board last November however, no monies were allocated by the board in the current budget to maintain the property.
Taxes were increased for 2018 after a $1.2 million dollar bookkeeping error was discovered to be recurring in the amount of $400k, for three consecutive years.
According to Supervisor Ostrander, it is “highly likely” taxes must be increased again next year based on the information coming in from the firm auditing and closing the books for 2016 and 2017, just to get the town on a path to financial health.
Visibly upset, Town Councilman Benny Zlotnick, a long-standing member of the Boy Scouts of America said, “no one cares if their taxes are going up. The only thing I hear from people is when are we going to get the 300 acres. It’s incumbent upon us to act.”
Councilwoman Barbara Kerr, who served on the budget committee during the time the bookkeeping error had been occurring said, “the board should demonstrate its commitment to the Boy Scout council and vote to approve the sale and figure out the financing later.” Kerr was outspoken about cost cuts in the 2018 budget, including the elimination of a $10k lawn mower for maintenance of existing town parks.
A suggestion that “didn’t make sense” according to Jason Miller, the town’s Director of Maintenance and Recreation as well as Deputy Highway Superintendent.
“We haven’t done the park maintainance things listed in the Open Space Plan for Burgess-Kimball Park, Woods Hollow, Trieble Park or Cottrell-Harrington Park,” said Miller. “We just bought Boice Park a year or so ago and we really haven’t done anything with that.”
Miller believes Woolbright’s plan financially was to count on future funds to be deposited by developers according to the town’s Open Space Incentive Fund, however, resolution no. 36-2015 dated July 15, 2015 states “twenty percent (20%) of future funds collected from developers for the park fees…shall be allocated…, so long as the Town is fiscally sound.”
“Something we are not right now,” adds Miller.
In recent months reports surfaced about an anonymous person aiding the town’s purchase with a $500,000 donation to the Twin Rivers Council, contingent on the property being preserved as a park for public use and for exclusive naming rights. An offer Woolbright announced was rescinded after efforts were made to ensure the indirect gift would not violate any laws or create any future ethical issues for the town.
“This civic minded individual expressed from the very beginning his concern that his name not be made public … I regret to inform the board that the donor has now taken his offer of support off the table because of attempts to discover his identity,” Woolbright said. “If there is any way for the town to salvage this opportunity at the last minute, I urge you to take it.”
Woolbright’s role in the purchase process has come under scrutiny after almost a year of headlines surrounding embattled former Supervisor Dan Lewza, allegations about workplace conduct and ethics charges were lodged.
In several letters, emails and documents from former Supervisor Lewza, Woolbright is identified as a contact and a volunteer. A possible conflict since the Open Space Committee is tasked with acquiring additional park lands as they become available.
In order to accept the position as Chairman of the Planning Board for Milton, Woolbright’s resignation from the Open Space committee was accepted on March 16, 2016. Neither Woolbright or Attorney Craig responded to whether or not this posed any particular conflict or ethics concerns for closing the deal. At the board meeting, Kerr said Woolbright was given permission by the Open Space Committee to represent the deal although verification of the statement by committee Chairman Frank Blaisdell has not yet been received.
Calls to inquire about the town’s acceptance of the donation, compliance with financial transparency required of non-profits and compliance under newer major gift tax laws were not returned by attorney Julie Calareso from Albany or town attorney Craig. Calareso represents the donor in the contract.
Councilman Benny Zlotnick asked Woolbright if the anonymous donor might reconsider, to which Woolbright responded that, “he is a middle-class man with a wife and kids. His friends, neighbors and family don’t know that he’s got this money, he wants to keep it that way … he is very afraid that his identity is going to get exposed by these forces that are trying to uncover it.”
Zlotnick, who at one point held back tears during the meeting, castigated the questioning of the anonymous donor’s motives in an opinion video posted on Facebook several hours earlier by Ballston Journal Publisher Angela McFarland for using terms like “money launderer “when referencing the source of the funds after transparency in Milton government was demanded through last year’s election season and into the new year by regular attendees of town board meetings.
A sentiment echoed by Kerr as “ridiculous” and by groans and applause from audience attendees.
News of the loss of half the Boyhaven acquisition money was quickly followed by a motion by Kerr to fund the entire purchase through tax revenue, which was seconded by Zlotnick, before later rescinding his support temporarily due to fiscal concerns raised by Councilman John Frolish and Supervisor Scott Ostrander, who explained that, “we don’t have a tree we can pull [the money] out of.”
Both Councilwoman Kerr and Woolbright were adamant that the board must come to a decision at the meeting or else the property would be lost to “open bid[ding]” and “developers.”
“I don’t know why we think we’re in such a rush when they can’t sell the property … I’m not comfortable with, in five minutes, laying out $500,000 in town funds,” Councilman John Frolish said.
Malta Town Attorney Tom Peterson, who acted as a stand-in for the absent Milton Town Attorney, explained that “you can’t authorize an action that costs half-a-million dollars without having a source for those funds,” and tried to calm the fears of losing the deal entirely, saying, “I spoke to the attorney for [the boy scouts] this afternoon and he indicated that he wasn’t aware of any particular issues keeping us from closing [the deal] in the next couple of weeks.”
Local developer and attorney Frank Rossi Jr. criticized those who he felt were “crucifying the supervisor” over the proposed purchase, which Rossi said was “underfunded to start with.”
“There are a lot of open questions in this entire process … you’re opening yourself up to another permissive referendum and I’m aware of a lot of people who will act this time … there is a shell-game going on [NYS using the Town to restrict the land] , there is a lot of due diligence that was missing in this project, there is a lot of money that is missing in this project.”
Rossi said in a follow-up call clarifying his remarks, “it effectively causes the land to be devalued for the State to scoop up based on a lower appraisal and gets around the law that states the State pays taxes based on the assessed value a private citizen would have paid for the land even though the State takes it as forever wild. The State is playing a shell game, I suggested, at the Town’s expense.”
Woolbright has stated in several public meetings the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation would be purchasing a portion of the land in which the town would recoup a portion of their expenditure. A representative from the DEC who did not wish to be identified said they have expressed an “interest” in purchasing the property.
Woolbright did not respond to the question whether or not the state was committed to the purchase.
Information Rossi says is a big part of the discussion. “There’s no price or actual offer or promise to pay the same amount of money for the acreage. Once held, the property value risks going down because it is undevelopable, like wetlands. That’s even if they actually buy at all.” (Additional information link submitted by Rossi for reference is HERE).
The purchase contract also states a “financial committment or assurances of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) to purchase a portion of the Property for expansion of Middle Grove State Forest (see “APPROVALS, item 5).and is not intended to create any binding obligations.”
A follow-up letter from NYS DEC said “This letter is not intended, and will not be construed, as an offer by DEC to acquire the property. It is mutually understood that this letter is an expression of intent only
Those who were in favor of the town retaining Boyhaven for public use consistently expressed the will to privately fundraise the money necessary to purchase the property. Though, no formal strategy was determined by those at the meeting.
Rossi set up a GoFundMe immediately following the meeting for anyone to donate to https://www.gofundme.com/milton-purchase-of-camp-boyhaven.
At the end of the meeting, Supervisor Ostrander stated that, “The board has done all they can. It’s in the attorneys’ hands now. They’re going back and forth about wording, things that have to be done that haven’t yet been done. There’s stipulations that haven’t been met. So for these people who say ‘we haven’t done our job,’ we have.”
A continuation and emergency meeting requested by Zlotnick will be held on Tuesday, May 1 at 7 p.m. at the Milton Town Hall to further discuss the issue. Representatives of the Twin Rivers Boy Scout Council are expected to be in attendance.