Supporters of city employee and mayoral candidate Steve Noble say politics are behind allegations that he mishandled grant applications, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside funding at risk.
But city Director of Economic Development and Strategic Partnerships Gregg Swanzey, who is overseeing an audit of grants administered by Noble at the behest of his boss — and Noble’s opponent in September’s Democratic Primary — Mayor Shayne Gallo, said this week that numbers don’t lie and the risk is very real.
“I’m a professional, I know what I’m looking at and I can’t fudge that,” said Swanzey of the alleged lapses in Noble’s grants. “It’s right there in black and white.”
What Swanzey is looking at, he said, are seven grants that Noble has been involved in writing or administering in his capacity as a project manager in the city’s Parks & Recreation Department. Noble, who has worked as an environmental educator in the city for the past 10 years, was promoted in October 2014 and given wider responsibility for administering Parks & Rec grants. He announced he was taking on Gallo for the Democratic nomination in March and won the city party endorsement in May.
But Gallo raised questions about his competence and ordered the investigation after Junior League of Kingston President Beth Hanigan wrote, in a letter dated May 5, to complain that Noble had failed to advise them of a number of requirements to obtain reimbursement for a $70,000 state grant for the construction of the Kinderland II playground at Forsyth Park.
Noble contends that he did relay the information to the nonprofit group and says the examination of his grants is just an effort by Gallo to smear him ahead of September’s primary.
Swanzey: Serious lapses
But Swanzey said a review of six grants administered by Noble showed serious lapses that, if not addressed, could leave the city stuck with the bill for money that would otherwise be reimbursed by the grants.
Many of the issues identified by Swanzey in a 10-page summary of the audit he provided include problems documenting time spent as a “match” for grant money. Grants typically require that the recipient match some portion of the grant money with their own time, money or materials. Noble, Swanzey said, appears to have submitted as a match his own working hours, which Swanzey said is well in excess of actual time spent on the job.
For example in two grants, one for recycling coordination and one for environmental education at the Forsyth Nature Center, Noble has committed to spending 50 percent of his time as an in-kind match for program funds, Swanzey said. At the same time, Swanzey said Noble has logged hundreds of hours as in-kind matches for other programs — an impossibility since, Swanzey argues, Noble had already committed 100 percent of his hours to the recycling and nature education grants.
In another instance, Swanzey’s report claims, Noble submitted a match certification (which included 120 hours of his own time) for a fishing dock and accompanying education program. The document indicates that the dock has been installed and the project completed. But, in fact, it has not. In other cases, key documentation like certified time sheets or documentation of efforts to hire minority- or women-owned businesses as contractors are missing and proof of compliance with other procurement policies were never submitted.
Swanzey said that he reviewed more than $1.2 million in Parks & Rec grants dating back to 2005. All told, he said, about $342,000 is at risk because of missing documentation or other problems. In many cases, Swanzey said, the city has already paid out cash for projects and but is ineligible for reimbursement from granting agencies because of missing paperwork.
Swanzey, who has denied any political motive in the probe, said concerns over grant writing practices in Parks & Rec had been building since 2013 when he created a new shared hard drive to centralize all grant documents. All departments, Swanzey said, are expected to upload grant documents to the drive. Swanzey said he had repeatedly asked Noble to submit documents for grants he was administering, but many remained missing.
The issue “came to a head” Swanzey said, with the Kinderland II controversy. Swanzey characterized his work on the grants as an effort to rectify omissions in the grants — some of which date back to 2005 — to ensure the city will be reimbursed for money it has already spent.
“This is something that’s been going on since 2013,” said Swanzey. “It didn’t just come up.”
Timing in question
But Noble and his supporters see a blatantly political motive in the probe. Noble himself notes that he was promoted in October and given more responsibility for grant administration. It was not, he said, until he announced his candidacy for mayor that questions about his work arose. Others question the timing of a detailed response by Gallo to Hanigan’s letter expressing concern about the Kinderland II grant. The response, they note, carries the same date as the letter, May 5 — indicating that Gallo had, at the very least, advance knowledge of the issue.
Jennifer Fuentes, who worked closely with Swanzey as the city’s community development coordinator before she was fired by Gallo in 2013, said this week she thinks the focus on a few grants, all involving Noble, points to a political motive. Grants, she noted, typically come with enormous paperwork requirements and it’s common for some elements to get lost in the shuffle.
“If anybody was to look at any grant, regardless of who administered it, it’s very likely two or three things were done wrong and that includes grants administered by Gregg Swanzey,” said Fuentes. “It’s easy to pick out the most minute things and blow them out of proportion.”
It’s an implication which galls Swanzey and, he says, lays bare the difficulties inherent in challenge to an incumbent mayor from a City Hall worker.
“He’s running against his boss, so how can he be managed as an employee,” said Swanzey. “It’s really problematic.”