North Hempstead borrowed more than $186,000 to renovate the town attorney’s offices, including a $103,000 furniture bill, at a time when officials struggled to keep the town budget under the state-mandated tax cap, documents show.
Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth proposed the upgrades as part of the town’s capital plan, which was unanimously approved by the council’s five Democratic and two Republican board members after she took office in 2014, and again in 2015.
Good government groups say such bonding should be used for large, expensive infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, not office upgrades.
“It was embarrassing to have this representation of where our town attorney and staff were in fact working out of,” Bosworth said, adding that borrowing to do the work was necessary. “You can’t get a grant to renovate a town attorney’s office,” she said. “It was important that this be done as planned.”
The renovation included a new kitchen and a law library that, two months after it opened, has no books or computers. The town attorney’s office has a staff of eight lawyers and three permanent support staffers. Summer interns and consultants have used the space, officials said.
Republican Councilwoman Dina De Giorgio said renovations were needed, but she did not think the town would be charged more than $100,000 for the furniture.
“One-hundred thousand just for furniture seems a little excessive,” she said. “That seems like a lot of money. Not happy about that.” Council members Peter Zuckerman and Viviana Russell defended the borrowing. The other three council members could not be reached for comment or declined to comment.
Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request show that borrowing for the furniture was approved in October 2015, just as the town froze purchasing and looked for trims throughout the budget, including repurposing unused furniture, to stay under the state tax cap.
Borrowing “will cost the taxpayers more money when you pay it back over the years in interest,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonpartisan group in Manhattan. “It’s inefficient for taxpayers to pay for items as low-cost as furniture that ends up costing them much more in the long term.”
The interest rate for the bond notes was 0.25 percent for 2014 and 2015, but rose to 0.83 percent in 2016, totaling $2,462 in interest payments for the first three years of the borrowing. Officials said they did not know when the payments would end, but that the town could pay off the remainder of bond notes after five years.
According to invoices provided by town officials who put the total project spending at more than $186,000, the renovation project included:
— $22,548.60 for partitions
— $18,797.36 for carpeting
— $8,500 for an architect
— $4,869 for kitchen renovations
— $3,084.82 for a conference table
— several $1,200 storage cabinets
— white marker boards/exhibits costing $191 each.
Town officials also paid $2,090 for a reception desk, even though the town had purchased one in 2011, invoices show. The newer desk is kept in the Town Hall’s basement, under a cloth, and is expected to be used at a park office, said Town Attorney Elizabeth Botwin.
In the law library, 12 table tops are put together to form two long rectangular conference tables. The tables cost $617.05 each for a total of $7,404.60. The library can seat 30 people and has been used by other departments for meetings and lunch breaks, officials said.
North Hempstead officials said the attorney’s suite of offices hadn’t been upgraded since the 1950s and that the renovation presents a more professional appearance as the town looks to move away from using outside counsel and rely more on the town attorney’s eight lawyers. Bosworth said the town spent $617,000 on outside legal costs in 2013, $241,000 in 2014, and $175,000 in 2015.
North Hempstead lawyers say the refurbished suite is a needed improvement from the “dank,” outdated space. Cubicles, new desks and carpeting replaced warped furniture that was not ergonomically correct, desks with broken drawers, stained carpets, and stacks of record-filled boxes spread haphazardly throughout the office.
“There’s a much greater sense of pride in everyone’s work when you have an office that you have the furniture that the doors open,” Deputy Town Attorney Michael Kelly said. “Where you have storage space, where you can actually find things, that you don’t look down, you have a dirty carpet.”
Botwin said that “for reasons that I don’t know, when the rest of the departments in Town Hall were renovated with ergonomically correct furniture, the town attorney’s office was left out.”
Jon Kaiman, town supervisor from 2004 through 2013, said he oversaw improvements to the receiver of taxes and town clerk’s office, and that the town attorney’s office was in line then for renovation. “We would look at a department or one of the buildings, and make whatever improvements we thought we could afford,” Kaiman said.
North Hempstead ended 2014 with $348,017,613 in accumulated debt, putting it among the top four in terms of debt load on Long Island that year, the most recent for which data compiled by the state comptroller’s office is available.
North Hempstead usually finishes the year with budget surpluses, and officials have said the town is paying down debt at a greater rate than in the past. Moody’s Investors Service in March has given the town a “positive” outlook.
Most of the furniture was purchased from National Office Furniture of Manhattan. Town officials are disputing more than $16,000 in delivery charges.
The town did not seek bids for the architectural work by H2M architects + engineers of Melville because the contract was below the $10,000 minimum threshold that would trigger a public bid process for professional services, Botwin said.
“Government should be as tightfisted with taxpayer dollars as possible,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, an Albany-based watchdog nonprofit, who questioned borrowing for office renovations. “Typically you borrow for large capital investments where you are using the facility for a long period of time — buildings, roads, bridges.”