Plans to bring in a private company to maintain the Putnam Trailway and to install signs with advertising has divided the Putnam County Legislature. At a meeting Wednesday, June 12, of the legislature’s Physical Services Committee, Legislator Sam Oliverio exploded at County Executive MaryEllen Odell over the proposal and a process some legislators feel has left them frozen out.
The proposal would put Bikeway Country in charge of maintaining the bike path; it would install marker signs every half mile, with the signs featuring paid ads. If the program turned a profit, the county would receive 50 percent.
“We’re going to create a revenue stream for Putnam County at absolutely zero cost to the county or the taxpayer,” Bikepath Country Vice President Rich O’Keefe, a Mahopac resident, told legislators Wednesday night. “As long as we’re contracted with the county, it will not cost you one cent.”
Oliverio then jumped in to question why a mailer, containing the county’s seal, had been sent out to residents with information on the proposed program.
“How can we proceed when this type of thing is going on behind our back?” he asked angrily. “The county executive is not a dictatorship. We also have our hand in government. We also need to be involved in stuff like this.”
Odell responded she had not approved the use of the county seal and had been out of the country when the mailer was sent out.
“I’m asking you to be respectful to my word when I tell you that we are not trying to exclude anyone from the decision making process at all,” she told Oliverio. “I’m giving you my word on this.”
Oliverio also took issue with Bikepath Country holding a meeting with the community to discuss the program before it was approved by the legislature.
Odell left the meeting shortly after their exchange.
O’Keefe said in addition to providing revenue and paying for upkeep, the signs would be a boon for local business.
“There are a lot of companies out there, small companies, mom and pop companies, that want to be a part of the community, that want to be a part of recreation and want to be part of fighting obesity and healthy living style,” O’Keefe said. “If we could promote Putnam County, that would be fabulous.”
Having mile markers, he added, would help in the case of an emergency.
Legislators were split on the proposal. At least four legislators – Ginny Nacerino, Carl Albano, Joseph Castellano and Legislative Chair Rich Othmer – were optimistic regarding the proposed program.
“We have an opportunity to partner with something that is aesthetically pleasing, that makes sense, that is informative, that emergency services can use if someone gets hurt,” Othmer said at the meeting. “We have a great opportunity here.”
Oliverio was adamantly opposed to adding any kind of advertising to the trailway.
“I personally do not want to see billboards on our bikeway, and I don’t care what kind of signage it is. I like the pristine nature of it,” said Oliverio. “Are we worried about adding 50,000 [or] 75,000 [dollars] for maintenance? That is chicken feed in a $136 million budget.”
LoBue said she was less concerned with the aesthetics than the economics of the proposal.
“I don’t understand how you’re going to make money and how we’re going to make money,” she said. “I just don’t see it.”
While the plan is before the legislature and Odell believes it will pass, the county executive said her office has the authority to sign the contract without the legislature’s approval. Several legislators – Legislators Anthony DiCarlo, Roger Gross, Oliverio and LoBue – expressed concern about this stance (see related story, page 1).
Bikepath Country was the only company to respond to a request for proposals earlier this year, and on April 8 Putnam Director of Purchasing Alessandro Mazzotta wrote the company’s president, Ivan Bellotto, saying the county intended to award Bikepath Country the contract. Concerns about statements made in the company’s bid, however, have since surfaced. In its references, Bikepath Country states they “implemented their revenue-generating program via stewardship signage opportunities” in two Florida municipalities, the City of Tallahassee and Pinellas County. Last month, The Journal News reported the company doesn’t hold a contract in either county and has not installed a single sign.
Odell said Mazzotta had called the references while vetting the proposal and had been told both municipalities were negotiating the contracts at the time.
“This whole initiative is a very positive initiative,” said Odell. “I’ll stand by any initiative that helps us maintain these bikeways.”
She criticized Oliverio for his confrontational tone.
“His whole behavior was embarrassing,” she said. “I truly believe he embarrassed not only himself but county government that night.”
Oliverio, though, said he was protesting not just the plan to install signs but the process.
Gross seemed on the fence over the proposal; he said he’d prefer not having signs but liked the idea of the company paying for upkeep. He said he had concerns over the company.
“I’ve talked to about 20 residents,” Gross added. “It seems like the folks that use the bike trail don’t want any advertising and those folks who do not use the bike trail have no issue with the advertising.”
Albano, though, said the proposal carried little risk since it wouldn’t involve spending county money.
“They’re going to perform a service with the potential of us making some money,” he said. “All the risk is on their end.”
Nacerino touted the potential for the mile markers to help law enforcement officials.
“Should something occur and we could not get to someone” who is hurt, she said. “Then shame on us if we were not prepared to deal with this emergency.”
Castellano also pointed to safety benefits and said he was comfortable with the company.
“They did present themselves last week as a startup. They said this was their first major project,” he said. “They did meet the specs that were presented and they are the only bid on the offer.”
Legislators also heard from the public at last Wednesday’s meeting. While the majority of speakers were opposed to adding paid advertisements, some spoke out in support of the plan.