Hugh Reynolds: Senator Sinkhole

Hein, Gallo and Schumer at the sinkhole April 7. (Photo: Dan Barton)

Hein, Gallo and Schumer at the sinkhole April 7. (Photo: Dan Barton)

I’ll agree with Kingston Times editor Dan Barton that it’s good to have a United States senator on your side when it comes to funding major public-works projects.

All hail the Empire State’s senior U.S. senator, Charles E. Schumer. He knows where the money is. He’s trying to get some for Kingston.


Schumer, who has visited all 62 counties in New York annually since taking office in 1999, was in Kingston last week for a firsthand look at infamous sinkhole on upper Washington Avenue. This was Schumer’s first on-site inspection, though he’s made numerous visits to Kingston since the road first collapsed in March 2011.

Joining the senator at the site were Mayor Shayne Gallo, County Executive Mike Hein, a smattering of citizens and, of course, local media. Hein provided a sound bite, vowing he had seen manhole covers sail 30 feet into the air when Hurricane Irene roared through the area in late 2011.

The sinkhole is now as familiar to Kingstonians as bomb trains at railroad crossings. City officials hope to have it repaired, at an estimated cost of $7 or $8 million, by the end of the year. They said the same thing last year.

Schumer and fellow Senator Kirsten Gillibrand were instrumental in securing a $1.2 million federal economic development grant to help pay for repairs a few years ago. But that proved a veritable drop in the sinkhole.

City officials have committed over $4 million to the project, but are seeking more from state and federal agencies. Like all of it. They’re also trying to tap New York City, which built the archway under Washington Avenue (now collapsed) a century ago as part of the Ashokan Reservoir waterworks. Success would bring new meaning to the legal term statute of limitations.

As Barton pointed out in his editorial last week, we all pay state and federal taxes. Let’s get some back, with maximum publicity by the political class.

Schumer bounced up to the sinkhole with, as usual, his portable podium and sound system. Youthful aides passed out press releases. Always a man with a plan, the senator advanced a rather creative ex-post-facto strategy for tapping federal coffers on behalf of his Kingston constituents.

Schumer conceded that the Federal Emergency Management Administration had “no direct experience [federalese for ineligible] for providing funding for sinkhole repairs under the Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs.” However, he added in a recent letter to FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate [part of the press packet] “it seems clear that certain sinkhole repairs could be well-aligned with the goals of the Pre-Disaster Mitigation and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs. Because current guidelines are unclear, I urge you to update the eligibility requirements … so that sinkhole repairs can be eligible expenses under those mitigation programs, provided they meet other program requirements.”

Schumer portrayed the sinkhole as a relatively minor thing until the natural disaster called Irene. No mention was made of years of neglect by the city and patch-and-pave repairs over decades which had only served to delay the inevitable.

It was John F. Kennedy who famously said that dealing with the federal bureaucracy was like wrestling with a whale. Schumer’s proposal could take years to work through the FEMA labyrinth. The last time 60 Minutes checked in, FEMA was still dealing through the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans ten years ago. Fugate, a Floridian with extensive emergency relief experience, has been FEMA administrator since mid-2009.

FEMA and Congress will consider Schumer’s sinkhole initiative. It could create a far-reaching precedent across the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Because of Schumer’s clout, federal aid to the project will probably get to first base. Will he have the juice to bring the money home? At the least, he can say he tried.

The senator’s forays around the state generate massive media coverage, but a year or two later people often look back and ask what actually happened. To stand for one’s constituents is noble. To deliver for them is more difficult.

What happens when you assume

They say it’s a lot easier to explain than to ask permission. Some 17 months ago Kingston schools Superintendent Paul Padalino secured permission from district voters to spend $137.5 million to renovate the 100-year-old Kingston High School. Now, in the wake of revelations of pre-bond approval misjudgments, he, like Lucy did to Ricky, has some explaining to do.

KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino.

KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino.

The problem stemmed from Padalino’s assumption that the State Education Department, which controls how much local districts will be reimbursed by Albany for construction projects, would pay the same as they’d been paying for the last few school district projects.

“Assume,” our linguistically inclined parents warned us, is nothing but “an ass between you and me.” (Mother was not linear.) The school district arrived at its “rock-bottom” $137.5 million reconstruction price tag after floating more costly pipe dreams. Padalino’s assumption was that the state would pay 60 percent of the cost of the whole project. That’s what he told the school board and the public over and over again. The $137.5 million was explained as costing district taxpayers “only” $55 million after Albany kicked in. Spread over 20, 30 or 40 years, it added up to only a few pizzas a week.

On a snowy December day, voters mostly stayed home, leaving the fate of the bond issue in the hands of the school establishment. About 15 percent of the more than 25,000 eligible voters in the district narrowly approved the bond issue.

Gearing up for a summer construction start on what would be a five-year project revealed   some inconvenient truths. The state limit on major construction project was and is $95 million, a rule that has been in effect for at least a decade. Padalino said he knew that, but concluded that the state, which had heretofore chosen not to enforce the rule, would continue not to do so. Wrong, said a state official, who added that an advisory on the subject had been circulated among school districts prior to the Kingston vote. Nobody from Kingston had bothered to check with him, he said. Most superintendents do, he added.

Two projects will be needed

Faced with this bad news, the district has decided to downsize the project from 420,000 square feet of construction and renovation to 360,000 square feet at the same $137.5 million voter-approved price. Since that still doesn’t get the district under the $95 million limit, two separate five-year projects will need to be designed.

There is one comment

  1. nopolitics

    So Hein saw a manhole cover fly thirty feet into the air? Too bad it didn’t strike him in the puss and send him into another county. He’s already in another world….

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