Environmental Bond Act would devote $4.2 billion for climate projects

ALBANY — In November, voters will decide whether New York will take on unprecedented debt for environmental projects, something they have not been asked to do in 26 years.

The Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022, requested by Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul, would devote $4.2 billion for climate, air- and water-quality projects.

The last similar bond act, championed by Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, won approval with a 55 percent endorsement. The Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 provided $1.75 billion “for protection of New York’s air, water and abundant natural resources,” according to an annual report.

What became of that borrowing?

Records show nearly 95 percent of the money is gone, but about $82 million remains and more than $100 million is still authorized to borrow. The state may use some this year after announcing in July that $1.5 million of bond act funds will be used at Imperial Mills Dam in Plattsburgh on a fish ladder for salmon to journey to the Saranac River.

Information showing what New Yorkers and Adirondackers received is partially available from agencies in charge of expenditures:
•    Thousands of acres including parcels in the Adirondacks, like Whitney Park. 
•    Cleaner heating systems to replace coal-fired furnaces in New York City schools.
•    Remediation of heavily polluted sites.
•    Adirondack landfill closures.
•    Millions in grants and loans for drinking water projects.
•    Non-environmental projects and a wish list from individual lawmakers, like the preservation of a church steeple in Watertown and the restoration of Rensselaer County’s courthouse.

Using a mix of methods and programs, government leaders listed projects, said Jessica Ottney Mahar, New York policy and strategy director for The Nature Conservancy. Some involved applications and a ranking system. Some were already outlined in management and open space plans. Others were funded through agreements between Pataki and legislators known as memorandums of understanding.  

“Critics said this is just pork-barrel spending,” Mahar said. “Pork” describes government spending for projects that benefit a specific lawmaker’s district.

She said this year’s bond act does not include projects that have already been decided. Instead, the legislation spells out purposes and pots of money for things like climate change mitigation and water-quality projects, along with items that could be considered eligible. The latest bond act also requires 35 percent of the funding go toward projects in disadvantaged communities with a goal of 40 percent.

A Pataki surprise

Bernard Melewski, legislative director for the Adirondack Council in 1996, remembers when the 53rd governor of New York proposed the bond act to a room full of environmental advocates.

“It came as a complete surprise to the environmental community and an even bigger surprise to members of the state Legislature,” Melewski said. 

It wasn’t as much of a surprise to those close to Pataki.

Gavin Donohue, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation at the time, considered Pataki an environmentalist.

Donohue said Pataki would often visit the Adirondacks and bought a farm in Essex on Lake Champlain.  

As an Assembly member in 1993, Pataki helped create the Environmental Protection Fund. It started at $31 million and is $400 million today. This, his advisors said, was the start of his rapport with environmental groups. The connections would help his bond act.  

Yet environmentalists had a mixed relationship with the governor. During his bond act campaign, Pataki dealt with adverse publicity about DEC Commissioner Michael Zagata. Zagata was a former oil company executive, and had been using state-owned vehicles for personal trips. He was under scrutiny for what some considered his lax environmental regulations and settlements with polluters, the New York Times reported.

North Country residents had been critical of state land acquisitions and weren’t eager for more. In 1989, the state exercised its powers of eminent domain to take ownership of Pine Lake in Hamilton County, causing ill will among Adirondack Park residents, according to Melewski.

With President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in the White House, environmental issues were a national priority. There was an upcoming presidential election, which Donohue said worked in Pataki’s favor for ensuring strong voter turnout. 

Donohue and Pataki’s counsel Mike Finnegan left state service temporarily, rented an office near Pataki’s New York City base and campaigned for the bond act. The team identified lawmakers they thought needed convincing, and Pataki would call them, Donohue said. 

“We were very careful because we did not want to overpromise and under-deliver,” Donohue said. “There wasn’t one area of the state that the governor ignored.”

Some groups that typically supported Pataki, including a now-defunct organization Change-NY, pushed back. The organization raised over $400,000 for advertising against the measure, according to Albany Law School. A separate group sued the state arguing the bond act violated the state and U.S. constitutions. The lawsuit failed.

Records show some Democrats were ambivalent, including then-Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman, who denounced the bond act as adding to the state’s “already staggering debt.” Bragman would later vote in favor of the bond act bill.

Lawmakers currently in office, including Assembly members Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, voted against the 1996 measure. Both Democrats did not respond to requests for comment.

Steve Englebright, now head of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, voted in favor.

John Cahill, the DEC commissioner who replaced Zagata in January 1997, said one of Pataki’s biggest challenges was convincing voters in the Adirondacks.

In a 2021 interview with the Adirondack Explorer, Pataki remembered someone telling him at the protest in Lake Placid, “It’s nice to have such a beautiful place, but if you can’t have a job and you can’t have a home and you can’t live here, what does it do?”

Pataki wanted Adirondackers to trust him, he said. While he had his eye on conserving significant parcels in the Adirondacks, he compromised with residents by funding projects focused on the economy, such as renovations to Olympic facilities. The Olympic Regional Development Authority received $860,000 to upgrade wastewater and drinking water systems at Gore Mountain in North Creek, for example. 

Former state Sen. Betty Little, in the Assembly at the time, said small communities needed money to fix failing dams and costly water infrastructure.

State Sen. Ron Stafford threw his considerable clout behind the bond act. The Republican from Plattsburgh was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee from 1993 to 2002 and if Pataki wasn’t stumping in the Adirondacks, Stafford was.

“Too many times we were left behind,” Little said. “It was unusual to have the North Country jump on board and be in support of it because usually so much of the money goes to downstate and other parts of the state.”

Divvying up the money

After the bond act passed in November 1996, Pataki compared himself to a predecessor who rose to president.

“Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt, whose bully pulpit I share today, put it best 86 years ago when he said, ‘Of all the questions … which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the central task of leaving this land even better for our descendants than it is for us,'” Pataki said.

On Jan. 14, 1997, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Richard Brodsky, D-White Plains, held a hearing on how to implement the bond act.

Bill Farber, supervisor of Hamilton County’s town of Morehouse then and now, came before the committee concerned about the state land acquisition process. Farber didn’t appreciate how nonprofit organizations were buying land for the state to later purchase.

There were questions, too, about whether bond act funds should go to new staff positions at state agencies.

Adirondack land acquisitions

Pataki’s personal connection to the Adirondacks perhaps made it a conservation spotlight.

At the time, timber companies were pulling out of the park, alarming environmental organizations. They worried developers could take possession of large tracts. Adirondackers worried about the state buying all that land.

Under the $790 million clean water pot of money, the bond act allocated $150 million for open space and farmland protection.

The state used nearly $26 million to preserve about 139,000 acres of the paper company Champion International’s timberlands — including the south branch of the Grass River, the Santa Clara tract including the St. Regis and Deer rivers, Quebec Brook and Madawaska pond wetland area — in the northwest corner of the Adirondack Park. Most of it was under conservation easements, which would allow sustainable forestry activity on parts of the land. Cahill called it in a report “the largest-ever land conservation agreement in New York State.”

David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, was the executive director of the Association of Protection of the Adirondacks at the time. The Champion deal was exciting for environmental groups, he said, but “it was extremely frustrating for St. Lawrence County and local folks.”

Though the lands were identified in the state’s open space plan, many local government leaders were not part of the easement or purchasing discussions and didn’t know how imminent it was, Gibson said.

As DEC commissioner, Cahill said his department focused on conservation easements so that there was public access while keeping working forests in place.

Nearly $2.5 million was used to acquire 776 acres of the Bartlett Carry property, including about 3 miles of shoreline along Middle and Upper Saranac Lakes in Franklin County. About 216 acres were protected under a conservation easement. The DEC called the property “a key linkage in the wonderful Adirondack canoe routes that paddlers enjoy along the Saranac chain of lakes.”

About $1.3 million helped acquire 300 acres on the eastern shore of Lake George in Warren County. Another $2 million was used for 341 acres near Lake George including Rogers Rock. Another $1.95 million, according to the 2001 DEC report, was slated to buy nearly 4,000 acres and put a 9,000-acre easement on land along the Raquette River.

The borrowed funds also financed the 15,000 acres of what many called “the crown jewel of the Adirondacks,” Whitney Park and its Little Tupper Lake.

The $17.1 million deal used about $2.5 million of bond act money.

Pataki “bought and preserved more acreage than any governor in the history of the state,” Donohue said.

More water projects

Long Island Sound received the most from the clean water category, $200 million.

Also among the seven priority waterbodies, Lake Champlain, received $15 million. Some Champlain projects reduced nutrient loading via updating the sewage collection system for the town of Dannemora and creating a wastewater management program for the village of Port Henry and town of Moriah. Funds also went to reducing farm runoff.

The state set $15 million for dams, some of which went to Adirondack projects, such as $236,000 for the towns of Minerva and Wells for reconstruction.

Some of the $50 million slated for state parks benefitted two Adirondack campgrounds, including $300,000 for a new boat launch at Moffitt Beach Campground in Lake Pleasant. As of the DEC’s 2001 report, more than $500,000 had been paid for an improved water supply system at Fish Creek Pond Campground in Saranac Lake.

Under the clean water program, $50 million went to municipal parks, historic preservation and heritage areas.

State Parks records show the Adirondacks benefited with $30,000 toward the renovation of a turntable at the North Creek Train Station, where then-Vice President Roosevelt was summoned from the Adirondacks following President William McKinley’s assassination.

Nearly $800,000 funded restoration projects at Fort Ticonderoga in Essex County. Lake Placid got $50,000 for a waterfront park on Mirror Lake, the town of Schroon got over $105,000 to renovate its park and the town of Keene received nearly $200,000 to turn Marcy Field property into a park.

Some of these projects had little or nothing to do with the environment and shouldn’t have been funded, said Samuel Sage, president of the Atlantic States Legal Foundation.

Another questionable pot of money under clean water was $25 million for fixing environmental violations at state facilities. Adirondack communities received millions in loans or grants for drinking water system upgrades.

Solid Waste

When Pataki sat down with the Adirondack Explorer last year, he discussed the $175 million for solid waste projects in the bond act, especially the $50 million focused on closing landfills in the Adirondacks. Under former Gov. Mario Cuomo, legislation passed tightening landfill rules and regulations to protect water quality. Pataki said it made no sense economically and small communities were struggling to comply. The governor decided to close all the landfills in the Adirondack Park.

“We should not be trucking solid waste into one of America’s most treasured parks,” Pataki said at the time.

Clean air, brownfields and environmental restoration

New York City benefited from two categories of the bond act that did little for the Adirondacks but were still considered crucial. Air quality was designated $230 million and funded programs that mostly impacted metropolitan residents.

Dozens of schools were still burning coal in the 1990s. As of the 2001 DEC report, the conversion to natural gas was slated for 74 schools, mostly in New York City but some in western New York. The program was expected to reduce 31,000 tons of carbon emissions.

Pataki’s personal pet project was funding clean-fuel vehicles. The state purchased more than 400 compressed natural gas buses and more than 150 hybrid buses.

A program for environmental restoration projects and fixing brownfields received $200 million. No brownfield projects in the Adirondacks were funded, according to available records.

Looking to November

Gerard Kassar, chairman of New York’s Conservative Party, personally supported Pataki’s 1996 bond act, though the party took no position. He thought Pataki’s spending plan showed voters “the very obvious and needed issues’ that would be financed. Kassar is dubious of Hochul’s bond act proposal and called it “another form to buy votes.”

Those that helped get Pataki’s debt package passed in 1996 are skeptical that Hochul can convince the public to vote for the 2022 bond act. With inflation, the coronavirus pandemic, international wars and other concerns, some don’t think it’s the right time.

Others describe a climate change crisis and argue the $4.2 billion is needed now more than ever.

Cahill thinks the Hochul administration needs to get more specific to win voters.

“It’s one thing to have great concepts like wetlands and climate, renewable resources, but voters are going to want to know, how is it going to benefit me,” Cahill said.

Mahar, of The Nature Conservancy, said there are items proposed in the bond act she thinks will resonate with New Yorkers. Funding for flood mitigation, like culverts, can help both downstate and upstate communities hit by severe storms in recent years.

Pataki put a team together led by his top aides. Hochul has been relying on surrogates, such as environmental groups, to promote the latest bond act proposal.

In recent weeks, her aides have met with state units, including the Adirondack Park Agency, to discuss what the bond act could provide local communities.

A version of this story was first published by AdirondackExplorer.org.

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