Bond act paid for staff, not accounting
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part story on how state lawmakers, public officials and the governor used funding from the last environmental bond act authorized by New York voters in 1996. The Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 passed under Republican Gov. George Pataki. Most, but not all, of the $1.75 billion has been spent and borrowed. Today’s story focuses on the search for records, and tomorrow’s story will report broader findings.
By Gwendolyn Craig
To find out how the $1.75 billion of the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 was spent, the Adirondack Explorer cast a wide net. Records requests went out in early February to agencies charged with dispersing the money, yielding a hodgepodge of different accounts. In some cases, agencies responded with nothing. The lead agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was unable to produce itemizations of projects funded.
The Explorer found some spending items were already in state management plans. For example, Lake Champlain had a water management plan identifying what could be done to improve its water quality. Projects not previously listed in management plans often went through a review process. A committee of state officials and legislators ranked these items for public comment on the DEC’s environmental notice bulletin. Some were funded through deals between the governor and state Legislature, called memorandums of understanding, “MOUs.”
The Explorer submitted Freedom of Information Law requests for a breakdown of all spending from agencies that distributed bond act money. Responses from the DEC, Department of Agriculture and Markets, Department of State, Environmental Facilities Corporation, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Energy Research and Development Authority, Department of Health, Office of General Services and New York Power Authority were mixed.
The DEC produced a two-page chart called “Appropriation Status Report” filled with abbreviations and no definitions. The record included a smaller chart, which showed that $82 million of the 1996 bond act funding remains unspent as of January . Of that, the DEC is responsible for $69 million and $13 million is under other state agencies. Of DEC’s remaining funds, $30 million is required to go to agreements with legislators that have yet to be finalized. It is not clear what lawmakers are involved with these deals. The DEC noted that the 2022 bond act has no legislative MOU requirement.
The rest left under the DEC “are projects DEC is actively working on” including air- and water-quality projects.
No one produced an audit. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said it’s not uncommon for bond money to last because of project delays, cancellations or cost reductions, he said.
“Hopefully money will be spent out, but it’s a minor amount compared to the value of the total bond act,” DiNapoli said.
DEC eventually found a few pages concerning MOUs including the 1997 budget bill listing a $25 million lump sum for clean air for schools program that converted coal-fired furnaces to cleaner burning fuels. The DEC also produced MOUs from 2003 and 2006 among former Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Democratic New York City Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
The 2006 document outlined agreement on $10 million for unspecified clean-energy transportation projects. The 2003 document provided a glimpse of MOU details: $83 million for a dozen Long Island and New York City wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
The department provided an MOU from 2018, which superseded the 2003 document, showing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie agreed to use $75 million in bond act money for a dozen projects at Long Island Sound. The U.S. Geological Survey got $3.5 million for groundwater and well monitoring.
Some agencies said they did not have 1996 bond act records, that retention policies did not require storing or keeping them. The Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Markets, two agencies in charge of many projects, lacked records. Others cited difficulties accessing paper files and documents on off-site servers.
Within a month of the Explorer’s records request, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation emailed a detailed and current spreadsheet that included all proposed and funded projects — nearly 300 entries. When sent the parks data by the Explorer, the DEC records officer responded that the law did not require the DEC “to prepare any record not possessed or maintained.”
Despite the DEC response, the Explorer found relevant DEC reports elsewhere — at The Nature Conservancy and the state library.
The Adirondack Park was a frequent feature in those reports from 1998 to 2001. It’s unclear exactly how much park residents got from the bond act, but the 2001 report shows land acquisitions and landfill closures in the Adirondacks were major priorities that came to fruition.
Those annual reports to legislators appear to have stopped after March 31, 2001 when a total of $1.1 billion of bond act funding had been committed to more than 1,600 projects. Of that, about $647 million had been disbursed.
The bond act funded 137 staff positions including 95 at the DEC, six at the Department of State, eight at the Department of Agriculture and Markets, 21 at the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, five at the Environmental Facilities Corporation and two at the Energy Research and Development Authority.
John Cahill, who became Pataki’s top aide, said the governor wanted the money spent on capital projects. Agencies, however, needed staff to review the grant applications and implement the projects.