County Executive George Latimer refuted claims from Standard Amusements last week that the county has failed to uphold a 30-year agreement with the company to manage Playland and that the park is unsafe.
In a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the Board of Legislators on May 1, Latimer and County Attorney John Nonna reiterated their reasons why they should scuttle the deal.
Other county officials vigorously defended the park’s safety and the processes that are followed.
Latimer announced on Apr. 28 that he was canceling the deal because Standard Amusements was in breach of the agreement. A county audit revealed that $7.7 million – about one-quarter of Standard Amusement’s $27.5 million investment – was spent on salaries, meals, travel, advertisements, marketing, consulting and legal fees, in breach of the agreement, County Attorney John Nonna pointed out to lawmakers.
“We are looking at something that we have a continuing concern about and if this relationship isn’t going to work, then we need to end it,” Latimer said.
Nonna said that under the agreement, Standard Amusements was to spend the money on capital improvements and tangible enhancements to the facility. He said the audit from 2017 and into last year showed the resources weren’t being spent properly, including about $1.5 million in legal fees associated with helping the company secure the necessary funding.
“We couldn’t understand how they were allocating funds to new rides on this list, painting, historic ride preservation and other tangible improvements when none of that seemed to be happening at the park,” Nonna said.
Latimer said the park is a viable asset but the county needs help in managing and marketing the facility. The escalating dispute comes as opening day for the 2019 season approaches this Saturday. The county plans to operate Playland this season; the agreement was to have begun on Nov. 1.
In order for Playland to be successful, Latimer said, attendance needs to rise from last year’s 450,000 visitors to at least 700,000 to 800,000, Latimer said. A modern marketing plan using 21st century tools, including social media, is what is required for Playland to again realize its potential along with the capital improvements.
“We do need external expertise to run this park and manage it properly,” Latimer said. “The question is do we get that from this arrangement, and if we don’t get that from this arrangement, what are our obligations to try and find that answer?”
Standard Amusements’ representatives contend that it’s the county that has been looking to extricate itself from the agreement since the start of the Latimer Administration. Last week, the company indicated it was willing to raise its investment to $50 million.
Nonna said that before last week that offer was never made to the administration.
Standard Amusements issued a statement saying it has “always complied with both the letter and spirit of the Playland Management Agreement,” including requests that were outside the scope of the contract. The agreement, the company states, allows for the inclusion of overhead.
Standard Amusements also pointed out that there have been serious health and safety issues at Playland. Its statement added that the debate over how its funds were being spent obscures the county’s “complete mishandling of food safety, failure to secure the wooden Dragon Coaster and lack of proper fire suppression technology at Playland.”
On Monday, a letter from Nicholas Singer, founder of Standard Amusements, to the Board of Legislators requested a meeting with county lawmakers “to address any business inaccuracies articulated by the Administration and to discuss the numerous challenges facing the Park and how they might be solved. There are many existing issues at Playland,” Singer’s letter read. “The Park has been starved of capital investment since the 1980s, while the infrastructure has continued to deteriorate to dangerous levels. While this fact reflects poorly on previous administrations, it would be a greater injustice to continue to ignore these problems.”
Joan McDonald, the county’s director of operations, said before each season, certified state inspectors visit the park and every ride is inspected. A certificate of safety must be given before the park opens. Furthermore, the rides are evaluated on a daily basis by local inspectors before the grounds open.
Safety concerns expressed by Standard Amusements were from 2017 and have been addressed, she said.
“Each day before the park opens, the operator of that ride does an inspection again to make sure the ride is safe to operate,” McDonald said. “Every day that park is open we have a mechanic and an electrician on site to deal with any issues that come up during the course of the day. If a ride is not safe, we do not open it.”
During last Wednesday’s meeting, county legislators raised questions and concerns. Legislator Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) said that without new rides a significant portion of potential visitors will not show up.
McDonald said the county is planning to spend $125 million through 2025, including $42 million that has already been committed toward improving the park.
Majority Leader Catherine Parker (D-Rye) said she was angered over Standard Amusements’ public claims of safety issues.
“How dare Standard try to insinuate that I would risk my own child’s safety with what they’re claiming?” Parker said. “I just find that extremely disturbing.”
She also questioned whether the company has the assets it claims to have since the audit revealed it spent $1.5 million in legal fees trying to secure the necessary funding.
However, Legislator Gordon Burrows (R-Yonkers) urged the administration to look for an opportunity to repair the relationship with Standard Amusements because the likelihood of costly litigation makes for “a potential nightmare.”
“We are a county that self-insures,” Burrows said. “We have tremendous exposure here. I believe this park should be run in a public-private cooperation. I don’t believe we should try to look for litigation. We should try to resolve this matter.”
Latimer said that he was not looking for a fight but is looking out for the interests of the county and the taxpayers. He said it would have been easier to go along with the 30-year agreement, knowing that he won’t be county executive for most of that time.
“It’s the harder path to say, this might not be the right deal,” Latimer said.