Supervisor Toni Hokanson and the majority have butted heads with Councilman Jeff Logan and Councilwoman Kitty Brown over the Community Center. Logan sees a disorganized system that gobbles up taxpayer money the way Pac-Man goes after little white dots. The supervisor sees a nurturing place where townsfolk can come to have fun on the cheap.
For people like Parks and Recreation Director Chuck Bordino and The Arts Community’s Peggy Paparone, the Community Center represents both an exciting challenge and a long-missing home base.
“It’s been a great help for us, in that it gives us a permanent place or semi-permanent place to call home,” The Arts Community president said. “It’s invaluable.”
A brief history of the center
In mid-2009, after more than ten years in the works, the 3,500-square-foot New Paltz Community Center opened its doors. Part of a payment in lieu of taxes with Albany-based developer First Columbia, the center was an unfulfilled promise handed down from one town supervisor to the next, year after year.
Since then, Recreation Director Bordino and members of The Arts Community have worked to book the center’s calendar with classes, activities, senior citizen luncheons and special events.
While 2009 did not see much activity, because the town was still setting up shop at the center and getting everything ready, 2010 did see a start in classes. This year, in 2011, some unsuccessful classes have been dropped and an outline for how the Community Center might work into the future has emerged.
At the Town Board table, the Community Center became a hot topic this spring when the fact that the center’s financial practices are being audited by the state comptroller became a known fact. Logan objected to the town acting as a bookkeeper for the Community Center teachers. Supervisor Hokanson admitted that the financing organization could be tightened at the center, but focused on working with the state auditor to fix the problem.
The organization and finances
A Freedom of Information Law request made by this paper in June did validate some of Councilman Logan’s accusations about the disorganization of financial records on Community Center spending.
Part of the reason for the confusion comes with how the town’s financial software labels and sorts teachers for the Community Center. Most of the records of spending and revenue show names and companies you might expect to see -- Central Hudson provides the power to the center, Kimlin Propane provides the propane and propane accessories, and Time Warner provides the internet access.
When it gets to the teachers, the labels begin to make less sense. For instance, the town’s tai chi teacher Martha Cheo appears as a vendor named “CheoMart.” Other teachers appear in a similar “last name, first name” format.
If the teachers were the only individual people named in the financial report, keeping track of Community Center spending and revenues would be easy -- they aren’t.
Along with the teachers are other people who’ve been given reimbursements or payments from the town. For example, one woman got a $40 refund for a class she didn’t attend.
Supervisor Hokanson got roughly $100 back in 2009 as a reimbursement for the fishing derby, which she funded up front with her own money. Other mysterious, non-teacher “last name, first name” vendors appear in the report as well. Often why the town paid them money is not directly identified in the report.
Outside of the report, individual receipts for what the town spent are on file, stored by month and in alphabetical order. They generally have more information about why the town spent money in a certain way than does the financial history index, but they are boxed and viewable only by special appointment with the town.
“The boxes will be brought to you one month at a time, once you have flagged which vouchers you are requesting, copies of them will be reproduced at $0.25 per page,” Supervisor Hokanson wrote in her official response to this paper’s FOIL request.
Without a real working knowledge of exactly who the town’s teachers are and the correct spelling of their first and last names, requesting a specific voucher is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Promotional materials for the town-sponsored classes at the Community Center also do not identify the teachers by name, making it difficult for a private citizen to understand the town’s financial history. In at least one case, a specific class like yoga continued to be offered, but more than one person had taught it since 2010, splitting up the financing even more.
One little-known tidbit about the New Paltz Community Center classes is that a good deal of them are run by The Arts Community. Only about seven of them are official Town of New Paltz classes -- chair yoga, Euro dance, tai chi, Zumba, Defy Gravity, a.m. yoga and belly dancing. A few of the events, like Circle of Love or reiki, are also sponsored by the town but can’t be called classes per se. To confuse matters more, promotional materials do not distinguish between the classes offered by the town or The Arts Community.
During an interview with Hokanson on June 14, the supervisor did not immediately know which classes were official town-sponsored classes. As she reviewed the financial information that came back with the FOIL, she also had some questions about random, unexplained “last name, first name” expenditures.
Despite the confusing financial paperwork, the New Paltz Community Center had only lost about $3,715 in 2011, according to a May report from Recreation Director Bordino. Out of the $30,000 Community Center budget, there had been $15,891 spent at that point and $12,176 received in revenues.
Supervisor Hokanson pointed out that the nearly $4,000 was a small fraction of the town’s overall $11 million budget. “It’s probably not even one one-hundredth,” she said.
In mid-June, Bordino reported that all of the town’s Community Center classes were in the black -- with the exception of A.M. Yoga, which had lost about $100.
“We are addressing this issue by assisting the instructor with more advertising and summer specials,” he wrote in the memo. “In the past, if a program continued on a negative course for a reasonable period of time, we discontinued the offering.”
He also wrote that the classes at the center had already surpassed the money they made in 2010.
During an interview at his office in the Community Center, Bordino defended the job he’d done so far, pointing out that the community was getting a good deal from the teachers. “In most of our programs, our teachers are making below market value -- and charging nominal fees,” he said.
Whereas Councilman Logan has said that the town’s taxpayers are subsidizing failing tai chi classes by keeping the Community Center open, Bordino denied that.
“We’re not incurring costs from the taxpayer for classes,” he said.
A lot of the costs associated with the Community Center have to do with keeping the building up and running -- paying bills for heating and maintenance. “The bottom line is we’re not going to turn a profit here,” Bordino explained.
The Arts Community has long been one of New Paltz’s resources for teaching people how to sing, act or create.
“We’ve run classes for 35 years,” explained Paparone, the president of The Arts Community and one of their founding members. When they run classes in the Community Center, the group rents out the space at a special $15-per-hour rate -- and they pay their teachers as contracted employees. They do not rely on the Town of New Paltz for bookkeeping.
That $15-per-hour rate exists only for New Paltz-based non-profits or religious organizations that offer classes for which there is no entry fee. They also can’t charge more than $8 per person for a class.
As part of their accounting to the town, The Arts Community has to track and figure out whether or not their classes included out-of-town residents -- a restriction that Paparone objected to, since her group rents and is not directly affiliated with the town.
Despite some minor gripes about the paperwork her group had to fill out to satisfy the town, The Arts Community president had nothing but praise for the venue.
“It’s worked out well,” she said. “Paying rent at the Community Center is more of a permanent thing.”
At first, The Arts Community started as a group that worked almost exclusively on the SUNY New Paltz campus, offering classes for students and residents to enjoy. Later, after being shut out of the college, they moved to the public schools. With New Paltz Central School District working to fight its own budget crisis, small groups like The Arts Community faced higher rent costs -- so they were forced to move again.
The New Paltz Community Center seemed like a match made in heaven. “It’s a very nice thing,” Paparone said of the center.
Bordino said he tried to learn from The Arts Community as to how they’ve set up their classes. “They’ve been in the community for a long time. And we kind of lean on them quite heavily.”
For Supervisor Hokanson, recreation in the Town of New Paltz serves a more important role than some people might want to admit.
“We have serious problems in New Paltz with our youth with very early alcohol use and early drug experimentation,” she said. As the supervisor sees it, recreation is a good way to keep kids occupied enough to keep them off of drugs. She also sees it as an essential service that a town should provide -- like maintaining roads, hiring police to prevent crimes and keeping the sewer running.
“Recreation is a responsibility of the town government,” she said, adding that more could still be done. “We haven’t been meeting the needs of the current residents.”
One criticism of Hokanson’s plan for recreation could be that a privately owned gym might be better suited to do the job -- that way the people interested in fitness could seek it out, while other taxpayers got a break.
“These are basic needs that residents need for recreation. Yes, a private gym could provide some of these opportunities, but not everybody can afford that -- especially in these economic times,” she said.
Town Board members Logan and Brown have pointed out the expenses inherent in keeping a municipal building open. Hokanson pointed out that all facilities -- recreational or government-related -- had upkeep costs.
“It is our responsibility to maintain public facilities,” she said.
Councilman Jeff Logan has stood out in his criticism of how the New Paltz Community Center is being run under Supervisor Hokanson and Director Bordino. In terms of what he’d do to make the center successful, he said he’d merely change the leadership.
“The answer is to get a competent director in the center and a supervisor that will actually direct the people that report to her,” he said. “The books are a mess, there is no leadership, there have been complaints about the director … our rec center director does not have the skills needed for the job: unable to use basic office computer systems, understanding of budgets or budget process, refuses to come to town meetings, non-responsive to requests for information.”
Logan’s stance since the news of the audit became public has been that the town should not keep the books for the individual teachers. Instead, the teachers should be able to rent out the space and manage their own finances. Supervisor Hokanson has countered that that would essentially destroy the Community Center programs, driving up costs.
As for the supervisor saying that the Community Center’s approximately $4,000 in net loss this year was small compared to the full budget, the councilman didn’t buy it.
“Sorry, I respect every cent we collect in taxes, and I want to make sure every cent and dollar is spent wisely,” he said. “Not watching the cents leads to dollars of waste, as we have seen under Toni’s lack of leadership.”
While it might seem that the attack on the center means that Logan would have nothing to do with it at all, he begged to differ.
“The Community Center is a great place to spend money: we built it, we maintain it, we heat it, we cool it, we feed people there, we hold blood drives, we give away cloths to those in need and it is our 911 center should we ever need it,” he clarified. “It is a great place to run programs out of -- but not to be subsidized by the taxpayers -- Chuck and Toni don’t even know.”
Logan’s differences with Supervisor Hokanson do not stop at the Community Center, and some people have speculated that he’s pointing out her faults to make his own run for supervisor this fall. Logan denied that he was politicking or electioneering.
“Political reasons? I watch the budget and respect the people that put the money in the budget -- the taxpayers. Sorry some view this as drama,” he added, “I view it along with many others as watching the money we are entrusted with to be spent wisely and with sound fiscal responsibility.”
Logan said he felt Hokanson does well as a sort of ceremonial head of state for the town, but that’s about it. “Toni is great at chicken barbecues and Rotary luncheons, but these unfortunately don’t make for a fiscally sound town.”
Supervisor Hokanson accused Logan of not looking at the whole picture.
“I think that most of the criticisms I’ve heard are more emotional and reactionary than factual,” she said. “They’re not focused on the greater good for the community.”
She added that recreation helps to improve the quality of life for people in the Town of New Paltz in ways that are hard to quantify. “They can’t just be looked at by dollars and cents.”
When he sat down with this paper, the recreation director did not name names, but was careful to point out that a minority of the Town Board seems to be targeting his department, almost ruthlessly.
“We get a lot of criticism. We get a lot of negativity,” Bordino said. “We’ve done very nice things here. We get very few accolades.”
What the recreation director hears from people in town doesn’t match the rhetoric at the board table, he said. “I don’t get this from the public.”
Publicity of the Community Center, its classes and other recreational opportunities in New Paltz could potentially be a way that the town could make up for expenses on the center.
The Town of New Paltz also has a fragmented group of parks -- the Community Center near Town Hall, the New Paltz Sports and Recreation Park near the Ulster County Fairgrounds and the BMX track on Clearwater Road.
Add to that the parks either jointly operated by the town and the village -- like Moriello Park -- or those just belonging to the village -- Hasbrouck Park -- and you have a recipe for confusion. One possible solution to that problem is to create a promotional “Where to have fun in New Paltz” map showing where all the parks are in relation to the rest of town.
Supervisor Hokanson seemed to like the idea of such a map, and when asked if New Paltz was doing enough to promote where its parks were, she said she thought the BMX track might be more well-known than other parks.
“We could use more publicity about the Sports and Recreation Park,” she said.
That state auditor should finish his work on the Community Center financing hopefully by September. At that point, the Town Board will likely discuss what recommendations that auditor has made.