How and why did the City of Albany destroy so much of the Albany Pine Bush?

by Tim Truscott,


ALBANY, NY: It was necessary, or so they said at the time. We needed to put our garbage somewhere, and so did other local municipalities. They said they’d only take a little bit of the Pine Bush. But they’ve said that several times, and it’s ended up being a lot of the Pine Bush. And, besides, the City of Albany needed the revenue from taking in other people’s garbage because the State had continually short-changed Albany on state aid, and Albany has so much tax-exempt property. Not only that, we were making Big Money on this garbage, $11 million a year, $13 million a year. We were Rich! And it sure feels good to be Rich.

Every time the Jennings Administration was challenged on the wisdom of destroying more of the Pine Bush, the Jennings folks came back with one of these arguments. And most people, not knowing any better (since Jennings and his cronies are very secretive), believed it.

But some of us didn’t believe it. Jennings kept information secret, but we figured out some of the things. And his close ally, City Treasurer Betty Barnett, did not make the landfill financial information public and she did not contradict his claims of making Big Money on the landfill. Quite frankly, perhaps Betty Barnett didn’t really bother to add up the numbers.

Her problem came to be that she was also not making public the information on some illicit parking ticket activities, and that was her undoing. She found herself at the center of a scandal which cost her to lose re-election in a landslide to political newcomer Kathy Sheehan.

Sheehan followed some of the advice we gave her and started looking into the landfill’s financial situation. The problem was that there is no record-keeping system which tracks the expenses of the landfill (You say, “That simply can’t be in 2012, what with modern computers and all.”). But it is true. Part of the problem is that the City doesn’t own a modern computer. The other problem is that the Jennings Administration doesn’t own a modern computer because it doesn’t want to hear any bad news.

Each time Treasurer Sheehan looked at the landfill finances, the profitability of the landfill venture looked worse and worse.

The $11 million or $13 million was just the gross income. They had never taken into account any operating expenses such as equipment purchases, fuel costs, employees wages, etc., etc. And you might ask, “How in 2012 could the management of a city be so dumb as to not take expenses into account?” Well, yes, how could they? But they did.

Treasurer Sheehan’s financial investigation of the landfill has progressed to the point that, it appears, the landfill is not making any profit whatsoever, and in fact it may be losing money.

So, we’re taking in other people’s garbage and destroying the Pine Bush, all the while losing money. Sounds rather knuckleheaded, doesn’t it.

This sad story should become national news. It might prevent some other municipality from making the same mistakes.

Part Two of this sad story is about what feeling rich (at the expense of the Pine Bush) has done to the taxpayers in Albany.

One of the results of feeling rich is often that one is inclined to spend money. And that’s what happemed: Between 1998 and 2011, Jerry Jenning’s budget grew from $97 million to $165 million, an increase of 170 percent.

But when the landfill is really not making us rich, but we think it is, money gets spent that shouldn’t be spent, resulting in debt. Big debt. And that’s exactly what happened: Jerry Jennings debt in 1998 was $50.9 million, but by 2011 that debt had grown to over $150 million. That’s about a 300 percent increase in 12 0r 13 years.

The level of debt is one thing, but what was the debt created for? Is it good debt (i.e. taken on for productive purposes), or just “debt-for-no-reason”? Of course, there are things Jennings has spent money on which the taxpayers simply couldn’t afford.

I suspect Albany has the largest debt per capita in Upstate New York. It would be interesting to know if that’s true, but it would be a dubious distinction if it were true.

That the City had this magical cash cow in the form of a landfill was a myth. That annual $11-13 million we were told we had was spent many times over each year because everyone thought we were “rich”, and it sure feels good to be rich. It’s like winning the lottery or hitting the jackpot at the casino: One can be dirt poor and up to their eyeballs in debt, but when one has “the winning ticket” or “hits the jackpot”, it sure feels good!

The landfill was like other things which seem “too good to be true”. When things seem too good to be true, usually they aren’t true.

What a shame that so much of a world-renowned, unique ecosystem was destroyed in a sham which resulted in a terrible burden on the taxpayers. The people responsible for this should be driven out of City Hall.

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Based on the past behavior of this city administration, I doubt they are going to be able to get this ship turned around before it sinks.






Published in May/June, 2012 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter