A look back at the last environmental bond act New Yorkers passed
By Gwendolyn Craig
This November, New York voters will decide whether the state will take on unprecedented debt for environmental projects, something they have not been asked to do in 26 years.
The Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022, requested by Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul, promises $4.2 billion for climate, air- and water-quality projects.
Originally $3 billion as proposed by former Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2020, it was put off at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. After Cuomo’s resignation, Hochul and state legislators increased it.
The last such bond act, touted by Republican Gov. George Pataki, won approval with a 55% endorsement. The Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 provided $1.75 billion “for protection of New York’s air, water and abundant natural resources,” according to an annual report.
What became of that borrowing?
Records show nearly 95% of the money is gone, but about $82 million remains and more than $100 million is still authorized to borrow. The state may use some this year after announcing in July that $1.5 million of bond act funds will be used at Imperial Mills Dam in Plattsburgh on a fish ladder for salmon to journey to the Saranac River.
What New Yorkers and Adirondackers received is partially available from agencies in charge of expenditures:
- Thousands of acres including some of the most desirable parcels in the Adirondacks, like Whitney Park.
- Cleaner heating systems to replace coal-fired furnaces in New York City schools.
- Remediation of heavily polluted sites, including one of the country’s dirtiest water bodies at the time, central New York’s Onondaga Lake.
- Adirondack landfill closures.
- Millions in grants and loans for drinking water projects.
- Non-environmental projects and a wish list from individual lawmakers, like the preservation of a church steeple in Watertown and the restoration of Rensselaer County’s courthouse.
Using a mix of methods and programs, government leaders listed projects, said Jessica Ottney Mahar, New York policy and strategy director for The Nature Conservancy. Some involved applications and a ranking system. Some were already outlined in management and open space plans. Others were funded through agreements between Pataki and legislators known as memorandums of understanding.
“Critics said this is just pork barrel spending,” Mahar said. “Pork” describes government spending for projects that benefit a specific lawmaker’s district.
She said this year’s bond act does not include projects that have already been decided. Instead, the legislation spells out purposes and pots of money for things like climate change mitigation and water-quality projects, along with things that could be considered eligible. Project costs may only be reimbursed. The latest bond act also requires 35% of the funding go toward projects in disadvantaged communities with a goal of 40%.
A Pataki surprise
Bernard Melewski remembers when the 53rd governor of New York proposed the bond act to a room full of environmental advocates.
“It came as a complete surprise to the environmental community and an even bigger surprise to members of the state Legislature,” Melewski said. He was the legislative director for the Adirondack Council in 1996.
It wasn’t as much of a surprise to those close to Pataki. Gavin Donohue, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation at the time, considered Pataki an environmentalist. Donohue said Pataki would often visit the Adirondacks. The governor even bought a farm in Essex on Lake Champlain.
As an Assembly member in 1993, Pataki helped create the Environmental Protection Fund. Advisers to the former governor said he doesn’t get enough credit for growing that fund. It started at $31 million and is $400 million today. But, they said, this was the start of his rapport with environmental groups. The connections would help his bond act crusade.
Yet environmentalists had a mixed relationship with the governor. During his bond act campaign, Pataki dealt with adverse publicity about DEC Commissioner Michael Zagata. Zagata was a former oil company executive, and had been using state-owned vehicles for personal trips. He was under scrutiny for what some considered his lax environmental regulations and settlements with polluters, too, the New York Times reported.
Sitting in an Essex County diner in the summer of 2021, Pataki recalled a meeting in Lake Placid before the bond act passed. People stood outside and protested, outraged over the spending plan. He had proposed a $1.5 billion bond act, though the Legislature would boost it by a quarter billion dollars.
North Country residents had been critical of state land acquisitions and weren’t eager for more. In 1989, for example, the state exercised its powers of eminent domain to take ownership of Pine Lake in Hamilton County causing ill will among Adirondack Park residents, Melewski, 71, recalled. It may have been one of the reasons an environmental bond act proposed in 1990 failed, he said.
“To a great degree, his (Pataki’s) party was campaigning against the 1990 bond act, so people were pretty amazed that he thought he could persuade the Republican Party to support it,” Melewski said.
With Democrats President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in the White House, environmental issues were a national priority. There was an upcoming presidential election, too, which Donohue said worked in Pataki’s favor for ensuring strong voter turnout.
Donohue and Pataki’s counsel Mike Finnegan left state service temporarily, rented an office near Pataki’s New York City base and campaigned for the bond act. Pataki would conduct weekly check-ins and raised funding for the campaign, Donohue said. The team would identify lawmakers they thought needed convincing, and Pataki would call them, Donohue said. They also identified projects in every DEC region that they thought could become a bond act investment.
“We were very careful because we did not want to overpromise and under-deliver,” Donohue said. “There wasn’t one area of the state that the governor ignored.”
Some groups that typically supported Pataki, including a now defunct organization called Change-NY, pushed back. The organization raised over $400,000 for advertising against the measure, reported Albany Law School. Thomas Carroll, Change-NY’s president, declined an interview with the Explorer, saying he had “long forgotten the details.” A separate group sued the state arguing that the bond act violated the state and U.S. constitutions. The lawsuit failed.
Records show some Democrats were ambivalent, including Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman, who denounced the bond act as adding to the state’s “already staggering debt.” Opponents also warned it would fund more pork. Bragman would later vote in favor of the bond act bill.
Lawmakers currently in office, including Assembly members Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, voted against the 1996 measure. Both Democrats did not respond to requests for comment. Steve Englebright, now head of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, voted in favor.
John Cahill, the DEC commissioner who replaced Zagata in January 1997, said one of Pataki’s biggest challenges was convincing voters in the Adirondacks.
Pataki remembered someone telling him at the protest in Lake Placid, “It’s nice to have such a beautiful place, but if you can’t have a job and you can’t have a home and you can’t live here, what does it do?”
Pataki wanted Adirondackers to trust him, he said. While he had his eye on conserving significant parcels in the Adirondacks, he compromised with residents by funding projects focused on the economy. Pataki encouraged funding for renovations to Olympic facilities. The Olympic Regional Development Authority received $860,000 to upgrade wastewater and drinking water systems at Gore Mountain in North Creek, for example.
Samuel Sage, president of the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, who spent summers during his youth in Lake Placid, called the Olympics developments a “major tragedy.” The 78-year-old recalled riding up the Northway with family as a young boy, his grandfather remarking how glad he was that Lake Placid had not turned into Lake George. “The Adirondacks will never recover from that,” Sage said of the 1980 Games. “It just brought too much attention and money into the Adirondacks.”
Former state Sen. Betty Little, in the Assembly at the time, said small communities needed money to fix failing dams and costly water infrastructure and were eager for bond act help. State Sen. Ron Stafford threw his considerable clout behind the bond act. The Republican from Plattsburgh was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee from 1993 to 2002 and if Pataki wasn’t stumping in the Adirondacks, Stafford was.
“Too many times we were left behind,” Little said. “It was unusual to have the North Country jump on board and be in support of it because usually so much of the money goes to downstate and other parts of the state.”
Divvying up the money
After the bond act passed in November 1996, Pataki compared himself to a predecessor who rose to president.
“Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt, whose bully pulpit I share today, put it best 86 years ago when he said, ‘Of all the questions … which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the central task of leaving this land even better for our descendants than it is for us,’” Pataki said.
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. Read more
On Jan. 14, 1997, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Richard Brodsky, D-White Plains, held a hearing on how to implement the bond act.
A transcript suggests Brodsky was still irked that the governor had approached environmental organizations about the bond act before cluing in legislators. He had concerns, he said, about the Pataki administration holding secret meetings without them and called for a “culture of cooperation.”
Some environmental group leaders, even those asked directly to be part of the bond act campaign, were miffed by the administration’s behavior, too. Andy Mele, the environmental director for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, described how he had once been privy to the administration’s private meetings until he wrote a letter in the Times Union critical of the DEC.
“We’d like to urge that you know details, before releasing any money,” Mele told Brodsky and the committee. “This Bond Act money cannot look or act like reelection pork.”
“There is something of an aura of intimidation out there,” Brodsky said. “And it may be accidental, and it may be that people get disinvited for politically incorrect statements.”
Sage also testified at the hearing. The Atlantic States Legal Foundation had sued Onondaga County over sewage pollution in Onondaga Lake. Sage said the county and Pataki administration were negotiating cleanup plans behind closed doors. When the Legislature passed the bond act bill and voters approved it, $75 million was carved out for Onondaga Lake. Sage was skeptical of how that money would be spent, he said during the hearing.
Bill Farber, supervisor of Hamilton County’s Town of Morehouse then and now, came before the committee concerned about the state land acquisition process. Farber didn’t appreciate the change in how nonprofit organizations were buying land for the state to later purchase.
There were questions, too, about whether bond act funds should go to new staff positions at state agencies. Some felt hiring staff was inevitable. Others felt that lead agencies, like the DEC, were already short-staffed and would use bond act dollars to fill vacancies.
Adirondack land acquisitions
Pataki’s personal connection to the Adirondacks perhaps made it a conservation spotlight.
At the time, timber companies were pulling out of the park, alarming environmental organizations. They worried developers could take possession of large tracts. Adirondackers worried about the state buying all that land.
Under the $790 million clean water pot of money, the bond act allocated $150 million for open space and farmland protection.
The state used nearly $26 million to preserve about 139,000 acres of the paper company Champion International’s timberlands – including the south branch of the Grass River, the Santa Clara tract including the St. Regis and Deer rivers, Quebec Brook and Madawaska pond wetland area — in the northwest corner of the Adirondack Park. Most of it was under conservation easements, which would allow sustainable forestry activity on parts of the land. Cahill called it in a report “the largest-ever land conservation agreement in New York State.”
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, was the executive director of the Association of Protection of the Adirondacks at the time. The Champion deal was exciting for environmental groups, he said, but “it was extremely frustrating for St. Lawrence County and local folks.” Though the lands were identified in the state’s open space plan, many local government leaders were not part of the easement or purchasing discussions and didn’t know how imminent it was, Gibson said.
As DEC commissioner, Cahill said his department focused on conservation easements so that there was public access while keeping working forests in place. It was a compromise for Adirondack communities and lawmakers, he said. Sage said easements are more expensive in the long-term than purchases and create a “checkerboard effect of land.” Gibson, too, said the Champion deal has led to many questions still unanswered about conservation easements – how they are promulgated, regulated and enforced.
Nearly $2.5 million was used to acquire 776 acres of the Bartlett Carry property, including about 3 miles of shoreline along Middle and Upper Saranac Lakes in Franklin County. About 216 acres were protected under a conservation easement. The DEC called the property “a key linkage in the wonderful Adirondack canoe routes that paddlers enjoy along the Saranac chain of lakes.”
About $1.3 million helped acquire 300 acres on the eastern shore of Lake George in Warren County. Another $2 million was used for 341 acres near Lake George including Rogers Rock. Another $1.95 million, according to the 2001 DEC report, was slated to buy nearly 4,000 acres and put a 9,000-acre easement on land along the Raquette River.
The borrowed funds also financed the 15,000 acres of what many called “the crown jewel of the Adirondacks,” Whitney Park and its Little Tupper Lake. The $17.1 million deal used about $2.5 million of bond act money, while the rest came from the Environmental Protection Fund. It was a win for environmentalists after owner Mary Lou Whitney and her husband John Hendrickson had proposed a subdivision there. A landscape photo of the property was on the cover of the DEC’s 1998 annual report.
“Preservation of this uniquely valuable wilderness area in the heart of the Adirondacks is a high priority for Governor Pataki, and its protection will remain as part of the Governor’s lasting environmental legacy,” Cahill wrote in the report’s introduction.
The bond act funded historic land acquisitions elsewhere, including parts of Moreau Lake State Park, Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area and Sterling Forest on the border with New Jersey.
Pataki “bought and preserved more acreage than any governor in the history of the state,” Donohue said.
More water projects
Long Island Sound received the most from the clean water category, $200 million.
Also among the seven priority waterbodies, Lake Champlain, received $15 million. Some Champlain projects reduced nutrient loading via updating the sewage collection system for the Town of Dannemora and creating a wastewater management program for the Village of Port Henry and Town of Moriah. Funds also went to reducing farm manure runoff.
The state set $15 million for dams, some of which went to Adirondack projects, such as $236,000 for the towns of Minerva and Wells for reconstruction.
Some of the $50 million slated for state parks benefitted two Adirondack campgrounds, including $300,000 for a new boat launch at Moffitt Beach Campground in Lake Pleasant. As of the DEC’s 2001 report, more than $500,000 had been paid for an improved water supply system at Fish Creek Pond Campground in Saranac Lake.
Under the clean water program, $50 million went to municipal parks, historic preservation and heritage areas.
State Parks records show the Adirondacks benefited with $30,000 toward the renovation of a turntable at the North Creek Train Station, where then-Vice President Roosevelt was summoned from the Adirondacks following President William McKinley’s assassination. Nearly $800,000 funded restoration projects at Fort Ticonderoga in Essex County. Lake Placid got $50,000 to design and construct a waterfront park on Mirror Lake, the Town of Schroon got over $105,000 to renovate its park and the Town of Keene received nearly $200,000 to turn Marcy Field property into a park.
Some of these projects had little or nothing to do with the environment and shouldn’t have been funded, Sage said.
Another questionable pot of money under clean water was $25 million for fixing environmental violations at state facilities. Sage called it controversial but wondered how else some of those problems would have been resolved. One project costing $300,000, for example, fixed the waste system at Brown Tract Pond in the Town of Inlet. Sewage had been leaching into the St. Lawrence River drainage basin.
Adirondack communities received millions in loans or grants for drinking water system upgrades. Lake Placid, for example, received more than $1.7 million in a leveraged loan through the Environmental Facilities Corporation to refinance a storage tank. The Raquette Lake Water District and Town of Long Lake received over $300,000 in a state grant and over $130,000 in a loan for system improvements. Other towns and villages also benefited.
When Pataki sat down with the Explorer in the summer of 2021, he discussed the $175 million for solid waste projects in the bond act, especially the $50 million focused on closing landfills in the Adirondacks. Under former Gov. Mario Cuomo, legislation passed tightening landfill rules and regulations to protect water quality. Pataki said it made no sense economically and small communities were struggling to comply. The governor decided to close all the landfills in the Adirondack Park.
“We should not be trucking solid waste into one of America’s most treasured parks,” Pataki said at the time.
It was in response to the Essex County Landfill, which municipal leaders wanted to expand to accept trash from New York City. In 1998, the state began paying Hamilton and Essex counties to truck their trash out of the park. The state still subsidizes them with $150,000 for Hamilton County and $300,000 for Essex County from the Environmental Protection Fund.
Outside of the Adirondacks, the biggest dump to close was the Fresh Kills Landfill. The bond act authorized $75 million to shut down the 3,000 acres on the western shore of Staten Island, where nearly 14,000 tons of waste was dumped daily. It was a project that received hearty support from then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The landfill officially closed in 2001.
Clean air, brownfields and environmental restoration
New York City benefited from two categories of the bond act that did little for the Adirondacks but were still considered crucial. Air quality was designated $230 million and funded programs that mostly impacted metropolitan residents.
Dozens of schools were still burning coal in the 1990s. As of the 2001 DEC report, the conversion to natural gas was slated for 74 schools, mostly in New York City but some in western New York. The program was expected to reduce 31,000 tons of carbon emissions.
Pataki’s personal pet project was funding clean-fuel vehicles. The state purchased more than 400 compressed natural gas buses and more than 150 hybrid buses from 1998 to 2008, as well as charging infrastructure, a spokesperson for NYSERDA said. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority purchased the most buses through the program, over 340.
Cahill said Pataki was ahead of his time with his interest in electric and hybrid vehicles. Pataki was right, Cahill added, that transportation was going to be “a significant component of the fight we’re going to have on climate change.”
There was funding to bring vehicle inspections businesses, as well as dry cleaners, to new state emissions standards.
A program for environmental restoration projects and fixing brownfields received $200 million. No brownfield projects in the Adirondacks were funded, according to available records, but the program assisted with some major projects from Buffalo to Schenectady.
Looking to November
Gerard Kassar, chairman of New York’s Conservative Party, personally supported Pataki’s 1996 bond act, though the party took no position. He thought Pataki’s spending plan showed voters “the very obvious and needed issues” that would be financed. Kassar is dubious of Hochul’s bond act proposal and called it “another form to buy votes.”
“We do not believe this is actually money going to good use,” he said.
Sage is a supporter of environmental bond acts, but he’s hesitant.
“It’s all politics, and this is one of the evils of the whole bond act process,” Sage said. “It’s a trade-off, done largely out of the view of the public. I vote positively for them. Maybe I do while holding my nose a little bit, but you know, at some point the good outweighs the bad.”
Those that helped get Pataki’s debt package passed in 1996 are skeptical that Hochul can convince the public to vote for the 2022 bond act. With inflation, the coronavirus pandemic, international wars and other concerns, some don’t think it’s the right time.
“The number one reason I think the (1996) bond act passed was we had a governor that was dedicated to the cause,” Donohue added.
Others describe a climate change crisis and argue the $4.2 billion is needed now more than ever.
Cahill thinks the Hochul administration needs to get more specific to win voters. “It’s one thing to have great concepts like wetlands and climate, renewable resources, but voters are going to want to know, how is it going to benefit me,” Cahill said. “Without real, if you would, meat on the bones, it’s going to be hard to convince voters if they can’t see real benefits to themselves and to communities.”
Mahar, of The Nature Conservancy, said there are items proposed in the bond act she thinks will resonate with New Yorkers. Funding for flood mitigation, like culverts, can help both downstate and upstate communities hit by severe storms in recent years. Mahar could see it funding visitor use management in the Adirondacks and Catskills. The Conservancy also expects the bond act to create at least 84,000 jobs, based on a study it commissioned.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who was in favor of the 1996 bond act as an Assembly member, thinks the public will pass Hochul’s, noting that past environmental bond acts have received voters’ support seven out of eight times since the 1960s.
Cahill and Donohue hope the 2022 bond act prevails, too. Donohue said people who don’t normally work together need to join forces.
“I’m not saying that we have a blueprint of success here, but it was a lot of hard work,” Donohue said.
Pataki put a team together led by his top aides. Hochul has been relying on surrogates, such as environmental groups, to promote the latest bond act proposal, but she is warming up her deputies.
In recent weeks, her aides have met with state units, including the Adirondack Park Agency, to discuss what the bond act could provide local communities.
APA Executive Director Barbara Rice said while the bond act focuses on environmental projects, funds could also be used for recreation, public health and safety. Adirondack communities, she said, could tap into the borrowing for wastewater infrastructure, septic system and municipal stormwater projects.