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townhall_120Town Board members were shocked to learn Monday that money the Town awards to the Lansing Older Adults Program (LOAP) and other local programs may be illegal.  Town Attorney Guy Krogh presented a three page summary of law that outlines specific kinds of programs that are eligible for public funding.  He said that municipalities like Lansing may only expend public funds on organizations that are covered in the New York State constitution, or that are covered by exceptions passed by the State Legislature.

"LOAP certainly isn't within the statutory exceptions," Krogh noted.  "So the question is, what's the basis for that expenditure?  I think this is probably an impermissible gift of public funds, though it may be authorized if it was structured differently."

Krogh explained that at one time government was allowed to support local charities and not-for-profit institutions, but in 1874 New York and other states changed the law to say that public money can't be spent on 'pet projects,' but could only be used for specific charitable purposes as authorized by State statute, or when a definite public service is met.

Krogh said local programs must have an underlying contract, and show there is a specific, direct benefit to the Town.  He noted that if LOAP were part of a governmental organization, for example, part of Lansing Housing Authority, then the Town would need to pass a local law to authorize a public transfer of money.  Also affected are Town donations to Lansing Seniors, Gadabout, and Foodnet.

He said that TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit) is an example of a legally authorized not-for-profit that is under strict regulations that govern how they spend money donated by municipalities.  He said that when TCAT became a private not-for-profit organization they would no longer be eligible for public funding unless they got statutory authorization, so they lobbied the State Legislature and got legislative authorization for that money.  He said that the municipalities contributing to TCAT must still show the specific benefit to their municipalities, and prove that their money is not just supporting TCAT's general operations fund or activities in neighboring municipalities.

"It's a mess," Krogh said.  "There is also a comptroller's opinion that says a municipality expending its resources to pay its attorney to research whether this or that is eligible is also an impermissible gift of public funds.  So there's a point at which I can't keep researching this, and there's a point at which, if someone thinks they're eligible the burden is on them to come forward and show you why."

Town Supervisor Scott Pinney says that he favors cutting the funding unless LOAP and other organizations can prove to the Town Board that they are eligible for public money.

"We're protecting the Town taxpayers on legal issues," he says.  "We certainly don't want to end up with other groups that ask for money and deny them money based on legal issues, but doing things improperly on the other hand.  So we really need to protect ourselves."

In a parallel discussion Town officials started kicking around ideas that could save youth services in Lansing if the County Legislature accepts County Administrator Joe Mareane's recommendation that funding for youth services programs be cut.  But the Town simply funding the Lansing Youth Services Commission could be equally illegal.

"Everyone refers to the Youth Services Commission as being an organization," Krogh said.  "Exactly what is it?  There is no doubt that a County Youth Services Department administering programs in municipalities within the county is entitled to spend public money on that endeavor.  But if the County stops funding programs in municipalities like Lansing, there is serious question as to whether it is legal for the Town to fund the Lansing Youth Services Commission.  What is Lansing youth Services legally?  That very much impacts whether they are even allowed to get public money in the first instance."

Pinney proposed bringing some version of the youth employment program under Town auspices, saying that the Town could save that part of the program in some form.  He said he favored starting there because no only would the program continue to afford youth employment opportunities, but that the jobs offered participating youth could be primarily within the town, which he said would better justify the expense.  Funding programs that are part of the Town administration is legal, of course.  An example is the programs administered by the Town Recreation Department.

Krogh suggested that it might be time for the Town to create its own Youth Services Department, using the approximately $26,531 it would have contributed to the County program.  The money would be used to hire a part time youth services program manager and pay for as many of the programs as the Town could afford within that dollar amount.  That would be considerably less than the $52,609 that was budgeted overall for Lansing Youth Services this year.  Approximately half of that figure is the money from the town, and most of the other half came from Tompkins County.  Smaller amounts come from the Lansing Community Council and the United Way.  The County piece is now in jeopardy of being eliminated.

Deputy Supervisor Connie Wilcox said she would support bringing youth services under the Town umbrella, but would not support raising the amount of money the Town currently contributes.  Some or all of the remaining dollars could be restored if the Lansing Youth Commission chooses to raise the money independently.

Pinney told the board he thinks they should wait to see what happens with county funding of the program side before trying to figure out what to do about it.  Some ideas included using the money to pay for an employee who would manage a Town Youth Services department.  That would insure continuation of services to Lansing youth, even if it is at a reduced level.  It was suggested that position might be part of the Parks and Recreation Department if it were to be created.

"Personally I don't believe our funding Youth Services is illegal," Piney says.  "It's such a big thing.  But if it is and we pull it over to the Town side, it would be totally legal then."

But it won't be that easy for the other four groups.  This year Lansing Seniors received $1,500, LOAP $5,000, Gadabout $4500.00, and Foodnet $4500.00.  Lansing Youth Services Agreement with Cooperative Extension was for a maximum of $26,531.00.  Town Board members said they wanted to continue supporting these causes that they said just about everyone agrees are worthy efforts.  Krogh noted that the Town Board could elect to ignore his legal advice.

"There is a certain amount of political expedience to continuing past gifts to avoid the ruckus that would be created by those angry members of the public that are in favor of this who will accuse you of pulling the rug out from under your own senior citizens," he noted.  "Politically that can look ugly."

But Pinney was concerned about putting the town at risk of fines or court costs, saying he would not want to do anything that would cause the Town any liability.  The rest of the board agreed that protecting Town interests is their responsibility.

Councilman Marty Christopher was against stopping the funding, but acknowledged that the law appears clear that it is illegal.  He also expressed a concern about whether the Town could be liable for past gifts.  But the consensus was that 1) laws change, so it may have been legal in the past, and 2) that it is imperative that the Town bring itself into compliance now that town officials have been notified that they are out of compliance.

Officials agreed to give LOAP, Lansing Seniors, Gadabout, Foodnet, the Lansing Youth Services Commission, and any other organization the opportunity to present their cases to the Town Board before a budget is decided upon.  But that will mean officials of those organizations will have to scramble to understand the law and show how they meet legal requirements.

Board members were confronted with these legal issues for the first time in a budget meeting Monday.  Pinney says he only saw Krogh's summary a half hour before the meeting started.  Monday's discussion was somewhat on-the-fly as a result, and board members agreed to keep the issue on their agenda for further discussion.  All agreed that the five organizations should be notified as soon as possible so they can prepare justifications for their funding as early in the budget process, which started a few weeks ago, as possible.

Minimally Town officials are clearly interested in saving youth services in one form or another.  They say they still hope the County Legislature will put youth services funding back into their budget, and there was no talk as yet of reducing the amount the Town of Lansing contributes.  But how those programs will be saved is up in the air.  Town Board members said they would continue to discuss options going forward.

"What we're talking abut here is trying to pick up a program that may no longer exist," said Park Superintendent and Recreation Director Steve Colt.  "We're talking about considering ways to continue something that has been running forever, and may not run any more because the County's going out of business in this particular area.  We have to do something to save what we can."

But the other organizations' money may be more problematic.  Unless their officials can prove they are entitled to public funds, or come up with a contract and restructuring that makes them eligible, the money the Town has contributed in the past may disappear for them.

"A lot of not-for-profits are deserving of public support," Krogh said.  "But you know what?  They have to do fund raising."

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