More than two months after Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Regional Economic Development Council awards announcement, details on some Cayuga County water quality improvement grants are still turbid.
The Nature Conservancy was awarded one of the largest grants in the region at $1,124,069 and Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District was awarded $280,000 for projects in the Owasco Lake watershed. The conservation district was slated for an additional $300,000 for erosion control throughout Cayuga County. All three consolidated funding applications went through the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
A REDC 2017 publication provides a short description of the projects, but to learn more, The Citizen filed Freedom of Information requests with the DEC on Jan. 4 for the three grant applications. The DEC denied those requests, as well as subsequent appeals, citing for all three a clause of the public officer's law that "if disclosed would impair present or imminent contract awards."
"Consolidated Funding Applications that are approved by a Regional Economic Development Council are still subject to review and approval by the funding agency and control agencies in accordance with the State Finance Law and the applicants are required to sign a Master Grant Contract," the DEC's denial letter on Feb. 12 read.
In a statement to The Citizen Friday the DEC added that the New York State Attorney General and Comptroller have to approve the contracts. The agency also has to collect proof of insurance, workers comp, disability coverage and other items from awardees, it said.
Empire State Development, which oversees the awards as a whole, reiterated that contracts are not finalized by the time of the December announcement and negotiations begin between the state agency and awardee on "the proposed state assistance."
"Depending on the agency, program and project request, this process can take weeks or months to complete," ESD said. "In some occasions, awards may be less than the applicant requested, and negotiations between the parties are necessary to determine project feasibility and scope; or a project is modified from its original proposal in the CFA and requires the award to be modified accordingly. Additionally, awards are contingent on the information provided by the applicant in the CFA, which often contain private and proprietary information."
Language in the REDC book states "Central New York $86.5 million awarded to 112 projects," and may make recipients and the public believe those funds are finalized, however.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, told The Citizen when it filed its appeal with the DEC, that if there were five entities vying for this money and no award had been made, he could understand how that could affect the negotiation process.
"But if there's only one recipient getting the money, how can disclosure impair any sort of a process?" he said.
Upon reviewing the DEC's appeal denial, Freeman said the DEC did not explain how disclosure would impair present or imminent contracts, and it would be responsible for proving that should it be challenged in court.
In a statement to The Citizen Friday, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said there should be more accountability to taxpayers with the REDC process.
"REDCs have distributed billions of dollars in grants and every nickel has come out of the pockets of hard-working New Yorkers," he wrote. "It's our money they're handing out, and we have every right to know exactly how they're doing it. The complete disregard for transparency in the state's economic development programs is unacceptable."
Cameron J. Macdonald, executive director and general counsel for the Government Justice Center, said the fact that there was an application period followed by an announcement makes it difficult to understand how the section of the law DEC quoted fits without giving further explanation.
The Nature Conservancy published a press release on Dec. 20, he added, which highlights its "$1.1 million grant to protect Owasco Lake and clean drinking water in Central New York."
"They sure think they're getting the money," Macdonald said.
Jim Howe, director of the conservancy's central and western New York chapter, spoke with The Citizen in January about the Owasco Lake funding. He said the conservancy was looking to expand its water quality work east, and plans to identify "where are the most strategic parts of the watershed that are necessary to protect and restore in order to improve water quality."
"Our hope is we can identify some key parcels, and we'll be talking with the owners of those parcels, and talk with owners on their future plans for the property," he said. "We have a totally blank slate right now."
According to the REDC's description, the conservancy "will purchase up to six parcels in the Owasco Lake watershed for protection and potential restoration of riparian buffers and wetlands. This project will reduce sediment and nutrient loading to Owasco Lake."
Howe had a different view from the description.
"I think for us, it's going to be about impact rather than acreage," he said. "We didn't want to constrain ourselves with an acreage number or a set number of properties, so we wrote it as, 'we're going to figure it out.'"
Cayuga County officials knew nothing about the conservancy's plans after the awards were announced, and speculated based on the description that parcels were going to be purchased at the southern end of Owasco Lake where the inlet is located.
Howe was not aware that the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council and the Owasco Watershed Lake Association are working on a Nine Element Watershed Plan to map pollution sources to the lake. Officials, including OWLA and the conservation district, have identified strategic properties in the watershed with a $600,000 grant from the state and have begun implementing projects as of last year.
Howe said the conservancy will be talking to key stakeholders in the area already working on these issues. Ultimately, he hopes, whatever is done with the funds will reduce harmful algal blooms and protect the area's drinking water.
The conservation district's $280,000 grant, according to the description, will go towards constructing streambank protection structures in the towns of Locke and Moravia to reduce erosion and nutrient inputs to Owasco Lake. The $300,000 grant will focus on preparing road culverts and crossings for heavy storm events throughout the county.
Jumaane Williams, a three-term New York City councilman, will challenge Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary later this year.
Williams launched his campaign at a press event earlier this month in New York City. His announcement followed a listening tour that included stops in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.
The listening tour convinced Williams, of Brooklyn, that there would be support for his campaign.
"It was very surprising and eye-opening to see how similar the problems are across the state and how much we need the state to respond," Williams said in a phone interview. "We started picking up endorsements earlier than I expected, as well, as from elected officials."
There were individuals who expressed interest in supporting his campaign, but that was difficult until he formally declared his candidacy for lieutenant governor.
At the press conference Williams held to launch his campaign, he announced the support of several elected officials from downstate and upstate. Two state lawmakers — state Sen. Kevin Parker and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte — endorsed him. His upstate supporters include Syracuse Common Council members Latoya Allen and Khalid Bey.
The lieutenant governor has traditionally played a minor role in state government. Williams wants to remake the position by using the New York City public advocate as a model.
The public advocate in New York City is the second-highest post in city government and acts as a government watchdog. Like lieutenant governor, it is an elected position.
As the "people's lieutenant governor," Williams said he would be independent from the governor, whether that's incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking a third term, or someone else.
Lieutenant governor is a standalone position for party primaries, but the gubernatorial and lieutenant governor nominees of the same party run on a joint ticket in the general election. If Williams win the primary and is paired with Cuomo, he wouldn't outright oppose the governor's agenda.
"If he's actually doing the things that he's now beginning to say he wants to do, I want to work with him or whomever the governor is to get that done," he said. "If it's more of the same kind of lip service or no service at all, then I'm going to continue doing what I do."
If elected lieutenant governor, Williams said he would focus on many of the issues he's been working on now in New York City government. Housing and homelessness would be a priority. He noted that there is an upstate-downstate coalition forming to address the homelessness problem, especially in cities across the state.
Equitable funding for education, job creation, decreasing gun violence and immigration are among the other issues Williams would focus on if he ascends to statewide office.
The Democratic primary will likely be held Thursday, Sept. 13. The state Legislature recently approved legislation to move the primary date from Tuesday, Sept. 11.
Williams could be a formidable foe in the primary. He could pick up significant support from downstate voters, especially in a primary when turnout is expected to be low. He is gaining support from progressive groups across the state. The People for Bernie Sanders, which supported the Vermont senator's 2016 presidential bid and remains active, endorsed Williams this week.
Hochul, though, will have incumbency on her side. She has traveled across the state — she has visited all 62 counties each year since becoming lieutenant governor in 2015 — and has been active in the role. She hails from Erie County, the largest in upstate New York, and she should have no difficulty raising the funds needed to fend off a competitive challenge.
Jeff Lewis, Hochul's chief of staff, dismissed Williams' announcement as a "political, self-promoting stunt." He added that Hochul's top priority is governing, not politics.
"It's too important. With Washington on offense, we need to be protecting New Yorkers and delivering an important, on-time budget this year. That's her main focus right now," he said.
With more than six months to go until the primary, Williams said he will continue to build his campaign infrastructure. He has already announced the launch of a Buffalo committee to support his campaign.
Williams believes he has the right message to win the nomination on Sept. 13.
"New York state is often looked at as the progressive bastion for the rest of the country," he said. "I'm not sure if we've been living up to that in the best way. I want to help, with my voice, to make sure we do that."
With the focus on gun safety measures in the aftermath of the latest school shooting, U.S. Rep. John Katko has faced pressure from Democrats who believe he is a puppet for the gun lobby, specifically the National Rifle Association.
The NRA is the top gun rights group in the country. It has long defended the Second Amendment and opposes legislation they believe would infringe on the constitutional rights of gun owners.
One way the NRA advocates for pro-Second Amendment policies is by supporting candidates who share their views. Since he first ran for Congress in 2014, Katko, R-Camillus, has received the NRA's support.
Katko has an A rating from the group. But more importantly, he's received donations from the NRA's political action committee.
Federal Election Commission records show Katko has received $11,900 from the NRA dating back to the 2014 election cycle. A bulk of the money — $9,900 — was given to Katko during his 2016 re-election campaign.
The NRA continues to support Katko's campaign. He received $1,000 from the group's PAC in March 2017.
As discussions about gun control measures and school safety ramp up, Democrats say Katko should decline the NRA's support. One of his would-be Democratic opponents, Anne Messenger, said last week that the Republican congressman should return the NRA's donations.
"Rep. Katko has to decide, on the issue of gun safety, whether he stands with his constituents, or with the NRA and the Republicans in Washington," Messenger said in a statement. "He can't have it both ways."
Later in the week, Katko outlined several proposals he either supports or is considering to address gun violence. He is reviewing whether the federal government should raise the minimum age for gun purchases and may support universal background checks.
He did come out in support of banning bump stocks and a greater focus on mental health treatment.
Some of the proposals Katko may support aren't backed by the NRA. The most notable example is raising the age for gun sales. After President Donald Trump and other GOP leaders proposed raising the age for buying assault rifles, the NRA spoke out against the plan.
Will the NRA's stance on that and other proposals affect Katko's thinking? He says no.
He acknowledged he's received the support of the NRA and other interest groups in the past. One example he mentioned is donations he's received from the railroad industry. (He serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.) While the railroad industry groups have supported his campaign, he said he has cast votes that go against their preferred policies.
He believes he can do the same with the NRA.
"I'm not beholden to them at all and I think the facts speak for themselves and what I just outlined for you is probably the best example of that," Katko said.