The Saratoga Sun -

Questions for garden board

Financial misconduct alleged, lift station discussed at Saratoga council meeting

 


At the Dec. 20 meeting of the Saratoga Town Council, about five members of the public were present to hear council member Will Faust level accusations of financial impropriety against members of the community garden board. “They’re writing their own grants to line their own pockets,” Faust said after the meeting, referring to garden member Cindy Bloomquist and Chris Shannon, who is in a relationship with Bloomquist and owns Prancing Antelope construction

Faust suggested the council begin thinking about how to dissolve the board, which would require a majority vote from the council.

In Faust’s reckoning, the board ran afoul of ethics while disbursing funds from a nearly $20,000 two-year U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Grant. The grant was awarded to the community garden board last spring to study hugelkultur pollination methods, and the Town was to act as a pass-through agent for the board as it disbursed the federal funds.

“There’s been several things where there appears to be conflicts of interests within the billing (for the grant),” Faust said. “I’m talking about the near-$6,000 that went to Prancing Antelope for construction costs,”Faust clarified a bit later.

Prancing Antelope is a construction firm owned by Shannon, who is romantically involved with Bloomquist, the secretary of the garden board.

“When a member of the board is using their own business to gain public money–whether it’s money coming from the USDA or the Town of Saratoga or our taxpayers–I’m not saying anybody did anything legally wrong, but that doesn’t sit well with me,” Faust said. “It infuriates me,” he continued. The money involved comes from the federal government.

Moving forward, Faust said, “I think the question is: ‘Can this function be better served by a non-profit organization rather than an arm of the local government?’” He suggested the board begin the process of transitioning to being a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. That way, he said, donations could be tax deductible and garden members could focus on “running it as they see fit and not have to comply with some of the red tape that goes with being a Town Board.”

Contacted for comment (neither Shannon nor Bloomquist could be reached over the holiday weekend), the board’s treasurer, Glee Johnson, vigorously disputed any hint of impropriety and questioned Faust’s motives in making his charges. According to Johnson, the mayor and all council members were made aware of Prancing Antelope’s role in construction as far back as June, and the firm was selected out of necessity rather than nepotism.

“We started (garden work) late in the construction season and quite frankly, you couldn’t have gotten anyone (else) to come in and do it,” Johnson said. The charges from Shannon’s firm were about half as much as another firm would have proposed, Johnson estimated, and were closer to $5,000 (“$5,148, to be precise”) than the $6,000 figure Faust provided.

“We (garden members) have three young people and the rest of us are middle-aged or retired,” so the heavy labor had to be arranged through a contractor, Johnson said, though she noted volunteers also put in over 1,400 hours on the project.

Johnson also took issue with Faust’s suggested reformulation of the garden as a 501(c)(3). “As a 501(c)(3), we could not get a USDA grant,” Johnson pointed out.

Furthermore, around $8,800 of the approximately $19,900 USDA grant has been disbursed. Johnson said that according to a termination clause in the grant, as the pass-through agent, the Town “could end up having to give the money back to the USDA,” if the board is dissolved before the experiment is completed.

If the community garden can’t pay for construction costs through Prancing Antelope, Johnson had a suggestion of her own. “Maybe investments should not be made with (Faust’s) Edward Jones through the Town, and construction should not be done with (council member Richard Raymer’s father’s) Raymer Construction. And maybe (the Town) should close their account with Shively Hardware (affiliated with mayor Ed Glode), too.”

There was also some action items from other boards at the meeting. From the water and sewer board, Raymer announced that a lift station was installed without proper authorization earlier this fall on a property between 10th and 11th Streets on Rochester Avenue.

Lift stations are used to elevate waste water to tap into a sewer system. By town ordinance 13.36.070, a developer is supposed to get approval from the town council and the mayor in order to install such a system.

According to Raymer, the town’s former zoning officer Kent Smith gave the developer permission to install such a device without consulting other town officials. Raymer said Saratoga Director of Public Works Jon Winter, and the chair and vice chair of the water and sewer board met with the contractor to discuss the issue. The contractor is also working on two additional sites, and had plans to install a similar lift station in at least one of them.

“Where we go from here, I do not know,” Raymer said. “It’s the board’s recommendation that we do not want a bunch of lift stations because it just creates headaches,” Raymer told the room.

Glode seemed willing to defer on a decision for the time being. “We’ll see where we go from there, I guess. I don’t see any motion this evening,” he said.

The next meeting of the Saratoga Town Council is 6 p.m. Jan. 3 at town hall. It will be the first meeting to feature new council members Jennie Lou Ivory and Steve Wilcoxson, who will replace outgoing council members Judy Welton and Sue Howe.

 

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