ALBANY — During their monthly legislative meeting on the evening of Monday, June 13, Albany County legislators passed a number of resolutions—nearly all of them unanimously.
The one measure that engendered any real debate, a resolution which will allow the office of District Attorney David Soares to revamp his department’s payment structure, also ultimately passed after several legislators stood to argue in favor of sending the legislation back to committee.
Legislators agreed to authorize the purchase of eight new hybrid vehicles for the Department of Public Services from a dealership in Webster, NY for $185,326, and an agreement with Creighton Manning Engineering in Colonie to provide design and construction inspection services on the Helderberg Rail Trail. They approved overtime and allotted grant funds for county departments, appointed Albany Councilwoman Dorcey Applyrs to the Albany County Board of Health, and authorized the establishment of a county-wide sustainable energy loan program.
They also approved a 50-year lease agreement with the Soldier On veterans project planned for the old Ann Lee Nursing Home property, a county-owned property that County Executive Dan McCoy has proposed to renovate and lease to the Massachusetts-based organization.
In a statement released the same day, McCoy called the action a “milestone” and said, “From the very beginning, we established that we would face challenges and obstacles and that there were those who were skeptical about how we would get this project done. I am extremely proud and humbled that we’ve reached this point and now that it has come to this, we appear to be gaining support and changing minds. With tonight’sapproval, we can continue our partnership to work to improve the lives of the many veterans who live in the region.”
The reason Soares requested the debated budget amendment, according to legislators who spoke with him on the subject, is to establish “a career pay scale” for department prosecutors. The current structure allows for little movement within the department—making it difficult to reward, and thereby keep, prosecutors over the course of their careers. The new structure would give attorneys more specific titles, which are associated with consistent pay scales and is meant to provide district prosecutors with a clearer sense of career progression.
The sum total of the changes is budget neutral, meaning that the budgetary bottom line will be unaffected. According to the DA’s office, all positions have already been filled, and the restructuring only breaks up the current positions—currently all with the same title of Assistant DA—so they represent a clear career path within the department progression.
“We’re losing people right and left,” said Heather Orth from Soares’ office, while presenting the request to the legislature’s Audit and Finance committee on May 25, “mostly to the state and to other county departments. They’re leaving because we don’t have a progression for them; they come in and get great experience and we basically become the training ground for state prosecutors. Our hope is that, by putting in this progression, we’ll give our prosecutors something to work toward.”
Asked by Legislator Peter Crouse (R-24) why the restructuring wasn’t included as part of the original budget passed at the beginning of the year, Orth answered that the department originally asked for 10 percent raises for its employees, but were denied by the legislature. Back at the drawing board, she said that the decision to overhaul the entire payment/title structure was made with the goal of “changing the culture of the office.” She said, “We wanted to really put in roles and responsibilities that delegate for each individual, from ADA I to ADA VI, what they’re supposed to accomplish.”
“There are an awful lot of questions,” said Legislator Richard Mendick (R-36), immediately before the body voted at the June meeting. “When I took a look at the numbers that were received from the district attorney’s office, a lot of questions came up.
“We, as legislators, have a fiduciary responsibility,” he said. “We should not vote on any piece of legislation that we don’t understand.” More specifically, Mendick expressed concerns about how the changes would impact other county departments. he pointed out out that the amendment would create seven supervisory positions, called bureau chiefs, who would oversee 28 other attorneys. “Do you need that level of supervision,” he asked, going on to question the fact that 18 of the 37 positions would be getting raises that are greater than 2 percent, half of which would be receiving double-digit increases between 12 and 209 percent, while 11 positions (30 percent of department prosecutors) would see their salaries cut. “These are not numbers that I’m making up,” he said.
Acknowledging that the amendment was touted as budget neutral, Mendick said that his own calculations showed a 2017 budget increase of $40,000. “This sort of proposal really should have been handled during the budget process,” he said, adding that he would like a chance to compare turnover rates among county departments and suggesting that the resolution be sent back to committee until outstanding questions have been answered.
Legislator Gary Domalewicz (D-10), chair of the county committee on audit and finance, responded to Mendick, saying that Orth had answered questions during the previous committee meeting, and reiterated that the resolution was budget-netural. Following another 30 minutes of debate, the body voted and approved the measure by a vote of 28-9 with one abstention. (No votes: Legislators Burghdorf (R-23); Dawson (D-35), Drake (R-19); Grimm (R-29); Higgins (D-5); Mauriello (R-27); Mayo (20); Mendick (R-36); and Stevens (R-31). Legislator Reinhardt (D-33) abstained.)
Department changes should go into effect on July 1.
CORRECTION: In our print edition, Sam Fein (D-6) was incorrectly reported among the nine who voted against a resolution to allow the office of District Attorney David Soares to revamp his department’s payment structure. Mark Grimm was erroneously omitted from that list of nine who voted no.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.