Saratoga Springs Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran has steamrolled through a personal takeover of temporary outdoor dining in the city. In fact, this has become his personal fiefdom. He is now the czar of outdoor dining and he rules with opacity.
As documented below, attempts to secure the most basic information on how he awards the city's rights of way to local restaurants and bars and and how he arrives at the fees he charges have gone unanswered in spite of repeated emails promising to provide key information (see emails below).
A Little History
In the face of devastating threats to the hospitality industry caused by COVID restrictions on bars and restaurants, New York State allowed businesses to expand outdoor dining seating into public rights-of-way. The previous city administration set up a special committee to develop guidelines and implement a program to assist businesses in taking advantage of these new rules.
The committee was made up of Vince DeLeonardis (the City Attorney), Aaron Dryer (Assistant Fire Chief), Mike Veitch (Public Works Deputy Commissioner), and Marilyn Rivers (Director of Risk and Safety). This blue ribbon committee accepted applications from businesses and ensured that the applicants met all the requirements of the city regarding legal issues, public safety, street logistics, and adherence to insurance requirements before issuing permits. This process depersonalized the approval of applications and made sure that the key players with expertise eyeballed every application.
When Commissioner Moran took office, he quickly moved to take control of the city's outdoor dining program and marginalize the other players. The Public Works Department's role was reduced to "advice and consent." All the others who had formerly been involved in the permitting process would now only be consulted at the discretion of Moran. This kind of management is an invitation to trouble.
What Are Some Key Questions About City-Supported Outdoor Dining?
So with Moran now in charge, I wrote to him on March 27, 2023, asking the following questions.
· Do you have any documentation that supports the claim that the fire department has reviewed and approved all applications for outdoor dining since January 1, 2022 as regards adherence to the city’s fire safety requirements?
· If you do, could you please provide them to me?
· Do you have any documentation that demonstrates that all applications since January 1, 2022, adhere to access on the sidewalks to sufficiently meet the city’s right-of-way requirements and the ADA?
· Do you have a spreadsheet or other document that reports for each year on the expenses the city has incurred implementing the outdoor dining program since January 1, 2022, including staff time required to review and process the applications, the cost of acquiring or leasing the barriers, and the cost for deploying barriers?
· If you do, could you provide them to me?
· Do you have a spreadsheet or other document that reports on the income the city has received from restaurants for outdoor dining since January 1, 2022.
· Do you have any documents that explain how the fees for outdoor dining were arrived at. This would include the process that was used to arrive at these costs as well as the basis for them?
As the emails below document, first Commissioner Moran promised to answer my questions. What followed, however, were multiple emails meant to explain his delays in answering my questions, and then crickets.
A Failed Rush To Open
Moran announced that the season for temporary outdoor dining would begin on March 29 and that by that date the barriers used to protect diners eating in the parking spaces in front of the restaurants would be deployed.
As of the date of this blog (April 20, 2023), the program has still not begun. The public has not been given a reason for the delay. My sources tell me that part of the delay was due to federal and state "prevailing wage" laws. These laws require that businesses contracted to provide services to municipalities must pay good wages based on a scale determined by the state.
Under New York State Labor Law, contractors and subcontractors must pay the prevailing rate of wage and supplements (fringe benefits) to all workers under a public work contract. Employers must pay the prevailing wage rate set for the locality where the work is performed. Prevailing wage is the pay rate set by law for work on public work projects. This applies to all laborers, workers or mechanics employed under a public work contract.
NYS Department of Labor
Moran apparently selected the Fort Miller Group as the vendor for the barriers. In order for them to deploy the barriers, they would have to meet the "prevailing wage" requirement, but they do not. There is some question as to whether the Public Works Department had the needed heavy equipment to carry this out.
This is emblematic of Moran's routine failure to perform due diligence properly before rushing forward.
All of this is totally opaque. It remains unclear if the city has even approved this year's applications for outdoor dining. In fact, as far as I can tell, Moran has yet to get approval for this year's fees from the Council.
So How Did Moran Arrive At What To Charge For The Use Of Rights-Of-Way?
As the correspondence below documents, the public has no idea how Moran arrived at the fees the city charges businesses for outdoor dining permits (if he has arrived at a fee schedule for this year at all).
Judging by the previous year, the city is charging token fees for some very expensive real estate. Last year, it made no difference if a restaurant had only a small area in front of it using only one parking space or if they took up a street corner with multiple parking spaces. The fees were the same: $250.00 a year for just part of the sidewalk and $1,000.00 for parking spaces whether it was for one or many.
I believe this is a pittance of the value of these right-of-ways, but with no formal assessment of the worth of these properties, who knows?
Would You Like To Own The Parking Space In Front Of Where You Live Or Work?
For some reason, the privilege of using the space in the street in front of a business is limited to restaurants. Retail businesses would love similar privileges for their customers.
Putting aside the arbitrary nature of who benefits from the outdoor dining program and who doesn't, a major question is what is the value of the sidewalk and street parking spaces? Under Commissioner Moran, this has been a fire sale endearing himself to the businesses who are the recipients of his largess.
An Unhealthy Situation
This is representative of how Commissioner Moran operates. He appears uninterested in rigorous planning and accountability. Such an approach would require an open process involving his colleagues and their staff in city hall.
Previous Councils would never allow this kind of wild west behavior. They would insist on the details. This would normally be especially true regarding the role of the Finance Commissioner. Commissioner Sanghvi's failure to evaluate the financial considerations in Moran's initiative is more than disturbing. She should be asking the same questions that I asked.
Watching this Council is a grim undertaking.
On March 23, 2023 I wrote to Dillon Moran:
This is a follow-up to your call today:
1. Do you have any documentation that supports the claim that the fire department has reviewed and approved all applications for outdoor dining since January 1, 2022 as regards adherence to the city’s fire safety requirements?
2. If you do, could you please provide them to me?
3. Do you have any documentation that demonstrates that all applications since January 1, 2022, adhere to access on the sidewalks to sufficiently meet the city’s right-of-way requirements and the ADA?
4. Do you have a spreadsheet or other document that reports for each year on the expenses the city has incurred implementing the outdoor dining program since January 1, 2022, including staff time required or review and process the applications, the cost of acquiring or leasing the barriers, and the cost for deploying barriers?
5. If you do, could you provide them to me?
6. Do you have a spreadsheet or other document that reports on the income the city has received from restaurants for outdoor dining since January 1, 2022.
7. Do you have any documents that explain how the fees for outdoor dining were arrived at. This would include the process that was used to arrive at these costs as well as the basis for them?
Please note that the adoption of a resolution by the council did not provide any of this information.
Thank you for your assistance.
On March 23, 2023 Moran responded:
I’ve been in Boston the last couple of days and am booked full tomorrow.
I’ll get you something next week, and I will also share how it’s working this year
On March 28, not having heard from Moran I wrote:
You were going to get back to me with answers to my questions this week.
Still not hearing from Moran, on March 30 I wrote:
You said you would provide me with answers to my email this week. What is the status of my request?
On March 30, 2023 Moran responded:
Still working out some of the details.
The applications are easy to access, I’m working on the rates at present.
I have an assessors exam tomorrow so I’m not going to have everything done until next week.
On April 3, 2023 I again wrote to Moran:
What is the status of answering my questions re outdoor dining
On April 4, 2023 Moran wrote:
I will be doing an update at the Council meeting tonight. After that we can figure out what your concerns are and address them.
On April 4, 2023, I wrote:
What my concerns are spelled out in my email. To the extent that they will not be directly and clearly addressed in your presentation tonight you should answer them.
On April 6, 2023 Moran wrote:
Barb is going to be sending you the applications from the last go round.
There’s a lot going on, I don’t have staff laying around like the others.
Your patience is appreciated
On April 8, 2023 I wrote Moran:
Thank you for sending the applications. Unfortunately for some reason you did not include the schematics documenting how the outside areas would be laid out that was part of the application. These drawings would have been the only thing of value to me.
More centrally, neither your presentation at the last council meeting nor your emails addressed any of my questions. I find this troubling as you had announced that the deployment of outside dining would begin on March 29. I don’t see how you can approve any applications until you have addressed the issues that my questions were based on.
Do you plan to answer my questions?
On April 10, 2023 I wrote:
I am still waiting for answers to my email re outdoor dining. Do you plan to answer my questions?
On April 10, 2023 Moran wrote:
I’ve tried to provide you what you asked for.
What are you trying to uncover or prove here? I simply don’t have time to play wack a mole about an approval process from 2022 that I’m not directly involved with.