“If this UDC closes its doors, it’s an irreversible change.”- Chairman Aaron Robinson

NARROWSBURG, NY - Upper Delaware Council (UDC) has made its wish before blowing out the candles on its 30th anniversary cake in 2018. That wish is for release of its long delayed federal funding, so that the proverbial birthday candles may light again.

When they met at the UDC offices in Narrowsburg for the monthly meeting February 2nd, newly elected chairman Aaron Robinson of Shohola referred to an agenda item that night as time to discuss “the funeral plan.”  Perhaps it was a sign, however, that hope was not lost, in that following the session, they kept their annual tradition of desert and coffee, welcoming a new slate of officers, and managing smiles for their yearly group council picture.

The crisis, however, is real.

The UDC was established in 1988 under federal legislation that set aside the 73.4 mile corridor, subsequently named the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, as a unit of the National Park Service (NPC). The UDC was created as a counterweight to the federal interests in the region, serving as a voice to protect private landowner rights while coordinating and implementing the River Management Plan that governs the Upper Delaware unit. The Council is a partnership of member townships and towns, the states of PA and NY and the Delaware River Basin Commission (which is a non-voting member). The UDC operates under a long-term cooperative agreement with the NPS.

A non-profit organization, the UDC has functioned these 30 years with an annual federal allocation of $300,000 that has never been increased. The two states were also meant to provide 40% of the funding, but have never included the UDC as a budgetary line item despite efforts to encourage the states to fulfill their obligation.

Funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) for the council is funneled through the NPS Upper Delaware.

The $300,000 appropriation for Fiscal Year 2018 (which started October 1, 2017) has been sitting in the NPS Upper Delaware’s bank account but the NPS lacks the authority from the DOI to release it via the Awarding Officer at the NPS Northeast Regional Office.

Investigating the delay, the UDC contacted ordeal legislators and learned from U.S. Senator Pat Toomey’s aide Steve Meredith that the DOI was still reviewing all Cooperative Agreements over $50,000. Meredith reported that there is no timetable for the completion of the review, and there is no recourse to expedite it.

Set a date of March 30

Since then, the UDC has expended $83,439.07 on federal tasks with no reimbursement and as of the start of February, the council had approximately $56,000 left in the bank from which to operate. In order to avoid completely running out of these non-federal dollars, the UDC has set a date of March 30, 2018 to close the office if no funding is received by then. A closure action plan decided at the Feb. 1st council meeting leaves $15,000 to continue past March 30th, while full time staff is laid off. Council could call in part time staff as needed to check on the office.

An estimated $1,650 would be needed a month to pay the bills, “at a bare minimum.” Phone calls could be directed to the Park Service office during the prospective closure.
Legal action is being contemplated against the Department of the Interior.

Secretary resigned

Meanwhile their three person staff will be losing their secretary, Cindy Odell. Ramie told the Council that this is a direct casualty of their fiscal crisis, given the job uncertainty. Odell has been with the UDC since 2011; her last day at the UDC is February 16. She has secured another position. The council agreed to advertise the position, realizing they can also fall back on a temporary employment service to fill the necessary office functions until such time the office may have to close.

Along with Ramie, the Executive Director, Pete Golod serves as Resource Specialist.

Happened last year

In a letter from the UDC dated Dec. 29, 2017 to Secretary Ryan Zinke, DOI, Ramie pointed out that an entire financial quarter has gone by without finding, despite the UDC being in the midst of its executed five year Cooperative Agreement term.

Financial hardship anxieties were faced earlier in 2017 when the UDC’s federal account was depleted while awaiting finalization of a Department-wide review of all Cooperative Agreements valid at $100,000+ that Secretary Zinke ordered in mid-April.

The subsequent funding freeze promoted the UDC to proactively plan to lay off its three employees and shut down until access to the balance of FY 2017 funds were finally restored on July 20.

Audit of 30 years

An inquiry from the DOI which he UDC was told was unrelated to their FY 2018 funding allocation, the council was instructed by the NPS Northeast Regional Office on Oct. 30, 2017 to compile and analyze 30 years of financial records by a Dec. 1, 2017 deadline to verify the source of an independently audited “Unrestricted Fund” that represents the UDC’s non-federal working capital. It is the only source allowing the UDC to keep its doors open during the lag in federal funding.

Three decades’ worth of document-stuffed cartons, kept in the attic, had to be examined.
“This arbitrarily-timed probe cost the UDC over $7,800 to contract for professional accounting services necessary to respond,” Ramie stated in the letter to the DOI. “The unexpected costs to assemble documentation that was routinely provided to the NPS through our transparent reporting procedures have added to our burden during this time of uncertainty over when federal funding will be made available.”

She included in the letter that the UDC acknowledges that the impact of three Continuing Resolutions pending passage of a federal budget creates operational issues for the Department of the Interior’s agencies as well.

Congressman Toomey’s aide also informed Ramie that because the UDC had an audit done of the use of their funds, the Park Service would likely want to scrutinize the UDC’s agreement even further. Ramie stated at the Operations Committee, Jan. 23,  this was upsetting because it implies that the audit was related to the request for the FY 2018 allocation- despite being told otherwise.

Chairman: “We’re on critical.”

After being sworn in as the new chairman, Aaron Robinson, UDC’s Shohola Township representative, offered remarks about the crisis. “I take this position with a sense of anger, frustration and regret. I say this because the UDC is facing a very fire situation… out fuel is running out fast. Little by little, the consequences of our money situation [are] showing. We happen to have three of the most competent, dedicated employees I have seen…As a result of this finding issue or the lack of, the balance of our staff is changing, and not for the better…

“I’m very frustrated because throughout this period of our funding being suspended, we couldn’t get any help. We reached out to …our representatives, to our senators, and although they were receptive to our inquiry, they offer no solution… The regret is, we had a deal in this valley and over the 30 years that the UDC has operated, a sense of trust has been developed. We overcame a lot of things. Everybody knows how controversial this model was in the beginning… but it persevered. My take was it reached a balance, and we developed some working relationships with the governmental agencies involved and we were able to develop a trust. I really feel that the trust is at risk.

“… An organization like this to lose its funding, and to possibly close its doors, is almost unthinkable. Because it’s nothing that we did. It’s nothing that we didn’t do. We are a casualty of a larger-scale policy of fiscal review which maybe has its own merits being $20 trillion in debt, but it was kind of done haphazardly and we are suffering the consequences of this.

“And when we reached out to the Department of the Interior, there was nobody on the other end of the line to talk to. So I’m starting my chairmanship out on a tough note, but we’re a durable organization and composed of persevering people.

“If this UDC closes its doors, it’s an irreversible change. Everyone eon their own probably could develop an idea of their own of what the risk is… Get the word out. We’re on critical. We are going to do our best to get the money loose, but we don’t have much leverage in this situation. We are at the bottom of the food chain.”

NPS Supt. optimistic

Superintendent Kris Heister, NPS Upper Delaware, expressed her sense that everything will work out.

“I’ve been here almost four years. I have been working with most of the people around this table for that period of time. I like and respect you as individuals. I think the Park Service as a whole recognizes and respects the work that the Upper Delaware Council does. We are fully aware of the concerns you have. We share those concerns about the delay in federal funding and we as an agency and I personally, are doing everything we can do to get the Upper Delaware Council’s funding package through the DOI process as fast we can.

“I personally feel confident that we are going to see a resolution to this very soon.
“We’re in this with you. I also want to say that the loss of one of the staff members here really saddens us as the Upper Delaware team… I also want to say that while the people at this table know who the heart, the core of this team is… the Upper Delaware Council is more than a group of people. It’s an idea. It’s something that is not going to perish.

“We can’t function the way Congress intended us to function without a group like this. And it is the board of supervisors, it is the planning board, it is the communities up and down both sides of this river that are the heart of the River Management Plan. And that is not going to go away.”

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Full UDC meetings are held on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at their offices, 211 Bridge St., Narrowsburg, NY. For more information call 845-252-3022 or visit www.upperdelawarecouncil.org.

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Editor’s Note: A follow-up story is planned with more comments from UDC members as well as others. Any individual or anyone representing an organization that would like to add their thoughts about the UDC and the dilemma at hand is encouraged to send them to pbecker@neagle.com or contact Editor Peter Becker at 570-226-4547.