I thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts, experiences and expectations for the City of Amsterdam. Given my position as Mayor, my seat provides a uniquely kaleidoscopic view of happenings around the City. I welcome your company as I review this recent past, present and our future.
Certainly, when we look at the State and National financial crises, we all share concerns about what is to come. We must acknowledge that these trials will require careful management of our resources, governmentally as well as personally. That said, we in the City of Amsterdam have reason to remain guardedly optimistic about our own prospects in this time of difficulty.
My first year in office has been quite busy, to say the least, and I have been fortunate to have a tremendously talented team of employees to ensure that our City is safe, our monies and investments are protected, and that City residents receive the services we expect for the taxes we pay. Several individuals are nearly as new as I am to this endeavor. In addition to our new Corporation Council and City Clerk, we have a new City Engineer to head up our Department of Public Works, a new Chief Operator at our Wastewater Treatment Plant, a new City Historian, and a new City Assessor. These significant changes at the department head level have made a noticeable impact within the walls of City Hall, as these individuals bring varied knowledge, ability and great energy to their positions. They compliment the seasoned professionalism that is readily notable at all levels in all City departments, including the Amsterdam Police Department, Fire Department, Water Treatment Plant, Wastewater Treatment Plant, Departments of Public Works, Code Enforcement, Transportation, Recreation, the Golf Course and the Controller’s Office. I have said it many times, and I say it now again, our employees are truly some of the finest, hardest working individuals that I have ever met and I am very proud to call them my colleagues.
Talent does not end with staff. This year has gifted us with members, new and old, of boards and commissions – volunteers that give generously of their time to advise, plan, and partner in the revitalization of our community. We had a great cross section of people – individuals from their 20’s to retirement, small and large business leaders, AIDA and Chamber members, County Supervisors, folks that work in Albany but live here, people of varied ethnic backgrounds and more. These volunteers deserve our deepest appreciation. Solutions to Amsterdam’s problems are being suggested by these committed individuals and we in government must do all we can to make them a reality.
A newly reconfigured AIDA is working closely with my office, exploring avenues to partner in attracting developers and to support existing businesses. We are defining the mission of the organization and goals, which include the inventorying and marketing of available properties. We will be providing developers guidance in permitting, zoning, bond financing or tax benefits to acquire or create capital assets, such as purchasing real estate, constructing or renovating facilities, and acquiring new equipment.
The newly formed Downtown Development, Waterfront and Via Ponte Committees have come together with real purpose to reinvigorate and preserve the historic character of the downtown and enhance our City’s quality of life. They are recommending changes to parking, vehicular & pedestrian traffic, legislation and zoning that will inspire multi-purpose usage of existing buildings. It is their goal to increase the diversity of goods and services available to residents and visitors. They are researching grants, loans, and financial incentives to encourage investment in this area, because they recognize the contributions that small businesses make to our City.
The City has applied for the Small Cities Main Street Grant for the revitalization of this area, which will include a concerted effort to undertake streetscape improvements and recruit developers to renovate the many historic buildings in the area. As this area is the northern terminus of the pedestrian bridge to be constructed across the Mohawk River by the New York State Canal Corporation, it is thus an important link between the City’s north and south sides. I am very pleased to announce tonight that, today, we have been awarded the Main Street Grant to the tune of $500K, and have also recently received notification from the Department of Transportation that they will allocate over $1M to rehabilitate traffic patterns along Routes 5 and 30, in order to reroute traffic, the life-blood of economic development, downtown. This is extraordinarily good news for our City and demonstrates the value of allocating funds for grant administration. In concert with Industries for Amsterdam and the Empire Zone, we will continue to pursue redevelopment of the City’s waterfront, expand the walkway along the Mohawk River, and possibly relocate the Amtrak train station back to downtown Amsterdam, as funding opportunities become available.
We have championed collaboration between the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, hosting the first joint meeting between these boards in memory. Again, this interaction inspires energetic problem solving, and because of this meeting, all members have been provided with materials necessary to make informed decisions, including contact information of board members, aldermen & staff, existing municipal law & local ordinances, the comprehensive plan, zoning maps, training opportunities, meeting minutes, pertinent resolutions, and sample applications. It was at this meeting that first mention was made of the critical need to update our zoning ordinances and maps, an issue I hope the Council will move forward on in the near future. We will facilitate a second meeting of these boards in early spring to further this synergy. We must ensure that these entities continue to work in tandem to incorporate our vision for community development articulated in the comprehensive plan.
The need for committee involvement in planning and implementation of our actions cannot be underestimated. It gives our constituents ownership in these positive developments and the resulting work product often garners large sums of money from the public and private sectors. Thanks to our Urban Renewal Agency and especially grant administrator Nick Zabawsky, the City has received over $800,000 in Community Development Block Grants from HUD for this year’s infrastructure improvements to eliminate cross connections between storm and sanitary sewer lines at 13 locations around the City, upgrades to the West End Pump Station, and installation of an emergency generator system on the West End. An additional $400,000 Small Cities grant for neighborhood revitalization is targeted for Division Street and will rehabilitate 22 housing units. This success is bolstered by the rehabilitation of 26 rental units across the City through our HOME program, representing $628,000 in public and private investment. This agency also plays a major role in planning and development of a wide range of projects, including the Bridge Street Reconstruction, environmental cleanup and redevelopment of the Chalmers property, redevelopment of the Mohasco site, upgrading City parks, and steering our Via Ponte venture.
Collaboration is a key component in the upcoming demolition of derelict buildings we expect in the coming weeks and months. Fifty properties are being surveyed and we will be working closely with the County to see that this project comes to fruition. Joint interests have also led to active negotiations with the Towns of Amsterdam and Florida, as well as with our County Supervisors. We will establish a fair sales tax distribution arrangement and extend water and sewer services into the towns to promote economic growth and increase the area’s tax base.
We are embracing physical change at City Hall as well, as our building directly reflects what we think about our City and our prospects. After years of neglect, we are painting and organizing public areas to present elegant and professional surroundings, to increase accountability and accessibility, and to make better use of space. We have created a new conference room that is used on a daily basis, are reorganizing archival materials and storage space, and have established several new offices on our third floor, including a suite for Congressman Tonko’s district offices. We will have the exterior of the building assessed by an engineering firm to prioritize costly capital improvements that need to be made to the roof, windows and parapets.
We hope to see this revitalization spread to neighborhoods that surround industrial redevelopment projects we have been working hard on for the past year. I am delighted to report that the Chalmers project, facilitated by a $2.5M Restore NY grant, remains on target, with developer Uri Kaufman meeting all benchmarks laid out in the option agreement signed last May. These benchmarks include an appraisal, survey, market study, architectural renderings, planning approvals, evidence of strong interest from permanent lenders and the completion of a HUD 221(d)(4) mortgage application. Concurrently, investigative engineering work has been completed in advance of the demolition, remediation and abatement that will be done to leave us an environmentally clean site.
Bridge Street Reconstruction is on track as well. Saratoga Associates has completed the engineering specifications, storm water pollution prevention plan and updated drawings to reflect current conditions. Federal and state permitting requirements are being completed and the project will be put out to bid in the very near future. Having completed a recent survey of the area, we are pursuing funding to bury utility lines at the same time we rehab the street, sidewalks, curbs and lighting. We expect construction to start this spring. In concert with the Via Ponte Committee, Saratoga Associates is also completing tasks funded through the Brownfield Opportunity Act, also known as the BOA program, to expertly guide us through the processes of environmental and economic analyses and site assessment for strategic redevelopment of this area. They will also be facilitating the BOA process on the North and East ends of the City.
On the North Shore, the Mohasco site has attracted the interest of Port City Preservation, an extraordinary group specializing in the adaptive reuse, restoration and rehabilitation of historic properties. This project was made possible through a Restore NY grant of $2.4 million to inspire private investment. Port City CEO Murray Gould has been especially generous to our community, offering not only an undaunted enthusiasm for this project, but extensive knowledge of economic development through historic preservation. We look forward to working with Mr. Gould on the Esquire project and anticipate a relationship that is mutually beneficial for all of us over time.
Because of the diligent enterprise of many on a City, County and State level, the new Beechnut premises are taking shape on Route 5S. This will prove an exceptional boon to our economy in additional water revenues and we will realize $3 million in upgrades to the Waste Water Treatment Plant and $1.5 million in water distribution improvements funded through grants from NYS. In anticipation of this project, we are making $8 million in upgrades to our Water Filtration Plant through a 0% interest loan. Thanks to the efforts of outstanding staff at both of our current facilities, we have been able to remain operational long past the life expectancy of certain equipment. We predict that we will be completely operational when Beechnut goes online in the fall of 2009. The improvements we make to these systems will favorably impact generations to come.
We continue to look for ways to make infrastructure improvements that will benefit our residents directly and in the way of economic development. The City of Amsterdam has assembled a $49M project summary list of capital projects that are critical for the proper and essential operations of the City. All of these projects are advanced to the point that they can be completed in the 2009 construction season if funding becomes available in the proposed Obama Stimulus Package. Our requests have been forward to Governor Patterson, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, Congressman Tonko, Senator Farley, Assemblyman Amedore and any agency that may be of assistance in procuring these grants.
Administratively, this year has been very much about setting organizational goals and collaboration. We have reestablished monthly department head meetings and discuss concerns or difficulties experienced in any department as a group to find solutions. This allows for better ideas and lets everyone know where we stand as a whole. We have instituted procedures to systematically track tasks, projects and grants. Lack of this oversight in the past has cost the city time and money, as was the case with the TeePee grant or reconstruction of Church Street. Happily, I may report that our 2008 roads program and Church Street have been completed, including the relocation of fire hydrants from out of the middle of the sidewalks all of the way up Church Street hill.
The City has been working with a representative of the Local Government Assistance Project, funded through the Office of the State Controller (OSC), to establish a multi-year financial plan that is manageable, easier to understand than the state document, and will allow us negotiate with labor and plan for future expenditures with greater confidence. We are in the last phases of a policy and procedures audit by the OSC to determine any inherent weaknesses in our methods that may in turn be addressed. At the same time, the Controller has been working closely with the County to improve efficiencies in her department. We have installed over twenty-five new computers in City Hall and are looking at new software to enhance accountability and productivity. The Controller will soon have the technological tools to easily produce cash flow and budget analyses, as well as handle payroll, invoicing and foreclosures proficiently.
In the spirit of accountability, airing of concerns at the Golf Course this year has inspired the Commission to revisit long-range strategic planning. As we all have come to know, there are expensive capital improvements that need to be made to the drainage system, cart paths and clubhouse. The Commission will be working with graduate students from Union College to produce an integrated business plan that encompasses strategy, marketing, operations, and finance plans, along with the risks in running a Municipal Course.
We’ve tackled organization, planning and economic development, all the while trying to keep up with the daily business of securing derelict properties, picking up garbage, cutting down overgrown vegetation, attending to water breaks, filling potholes and clearing streets of snow. Again, City employees, especially our code enforcement staff, police and fire departments, and laborers from DPW are working very hard to address these perpetual problems. Code enforcement requires knowledge of municipal and state codes, on-site assessment of properties, hours of background research and processing of paperwork, planning and zoning reviews, attendance at meetings, court preparation and appearances, and extraordinary patience with people. Our DPW workers are the front line in emergencies and beyond, addressing issues on and under our streets, in any and all weather. We must be grateful to these individuals for their fierce devotion to their jobs in the face of constant criticism.
The City of Amsterdam continues to be one of the safest cities in the Capital District, and we must also be tremendously proud of our Public Safety Departments. The Amsterdam Police Department is a multi-faceted task force that has kept crime low and streets safe. They have an exceptionally high clearance rate for serious crime – which, in itself, contributes to the low crime rate. They have taken advantage of several state and federal grant opportunities, as well as numerous property drug seizures, all resulting in over $162,000 toward department operating expenses, which do not negatively impact property taxes. In addition, the department continues to reach-out to the community in order to maintain the joint coalition that allows the department, and the citizens they serve, to work together to keep Amsterdam safe. The Fire Department has made great advances on the technology front, having written and received a Department of Homeland Security grant of $118,414 to purchase computer hardware and software that will deliver essential information on the way to an incident. The system includes street mapping, occupancy particulars, building construction, inspection information, hazardous materials storage location and hydrant orientation. The system will allow an immediate electronic means to share information with the Police Department, City Assessor, City Clerk, Code Enforcement and Montgomery County Emergency 911 dispatch. Additional modules will provide EMS data entry and storage, personnel records and scheduling, as well as vehicle and equipment inventory and maintenance data. Lastly, our Engineering Department will piggyback on this purchase to secure a module to better our code enforcement efforts. All of these improvements are to furnish our residents the very best in response times and service.
Responding to customer need is also a priority in the Assessor’s office. Our New York State Certified Assessor was able, in six short weeks, to catch up on the six months of accumulated work necessary to produce an assessment roll: one that was printed ahead of time, published and posted within the legally required timeframes, and has very successfully met the challenges of the administrative review process we commonly know as “grievance.” We have restructured and modernized the Assessor’s offices and embraced the notion of “exemplary public service” in the way we make the office and its public servants readily available to our taxpayers.
Serving constituents is a priority for our City of Amsterdam Transit System, which has experienced growth in both ridership & revenues in 2008. Ridership on our Albany coach has increased by 18% and the street routes have seen a steady rise, especially up the Route 30 corridor. Our recently obtained Medicaid certification will allow us to transport day treatment and County Department of Social Service clients, which will generate a significant increase in revenue. Despite constant maintenance difficulties, our system closed out last year’s budget $18,000 up in revenue. In the near future, we are ordering two new buses and look forward to expanding our services.
We are equally proud of the job our Recreation Department is doing. Over the past year, they have maintained 25 of our City’s parks, Veterans monuments, traffic islands, bridges, athletic fields and pool. We now have a new softball field and renovated bathrooms at Shuttleworth Park (which hosted over 50,000 visitors in 2008), a new baseball field at Veterans Park and will enjoy new soccer fields and a concession stand there this fall. A new three-tier fountain and six flags now fittingly mark the West End Veterans Park, a tribute to those that had served proudly in the World War I.
In light of the many amenities and services we enjoy, it is our responsibility to recognize what is best about the community and nurture it. We have lovely neighborhoods, a perfect location on road, rail and river for relocating businesses and families, emergent revitalization projects, and an amazingly talented and close community. I chose this community to live in and am proud of our many positives, which dominate the negative. I believe our marketing will pay off handsomely in the end, both regionally and within the boundaries of our own City. We’ve made significant strides in this respect, having developed a positioning statement, marketing strategy and have identified target audiences. Tonight, I’d like to announce the winning tag line for the City of Amsterdam: “Small City. Big Heart.” and would like to introduce you to the new seal and marketing logo. I am pushing for printed materials, including a customizable folder and inserts intended for specific audiences, and the website to be up and running by the end of March.
The truth is that the solution to our problems must be as comprehensive and multifaceted as these circumstances. Certainly, our staff will work to increase efficiency and accountability though better time management and reporting, but we must develop an attack to address the broad spectrum of symptoms that are inherently part of an aging municipality. We have begun to make progress along these lines.
I applaud the City Council for fine-tuning the property disposition process and enacting legislation that enables code enforcement officers to “nail & mail” notices of violation (NOV) for overgrown vegetation and garbage -generating at least 20 NOVs on site each week of the summer season. This allowed for City crews to clean up properties after only seven days notice and charge back to the owners for this service. The two-man seasonal maintenance crew was able to clean and spray over 220 properties, collecting 210 truckloads of debris in one season. The Council has also recently passed a Property Owner Registration Law, which requires out-of-town landlords to register a local agent to be responsible for their multi-family unit and commercial properties. Thanks to the diligence of Corporation Council, the Controller and especially our Assessor, the application forms and letters have been mailed and the City Clerk will ably administer the registry.
The Council and I must continue in these efforts. We must revamp our legislation to simplify, as well as accelerate, the citation process and increase fines for scofflaws, be it a code violation or nuisance complaint. We must streamline our permitting process for development and offer creative incentives for home ownership and neighborhood beautification. We must provide the funding to replace aging equipment and assets needed to function effectively. We must continue to advocate for resources and financial aid from State and Federal officials. Finally, we must all focus on working together because the City of Amsterdam must be poised for change that is imminent and swift.
We have all heard of the AMD nanotechnology project locating to Luther Forest, a $4.6 billion venture just 35 minutes from our City. This is exciting news for the region and for our community, as we sport many of the characteristics that the 20-30 ancillary businesses associated with the chip fabrication industry find attractive and essential. Our location geographically offers a water/sewer infrastructure that, thankfully, is currently being improved; copious amounts of water for a water-dependent industry; transportation lines along the thruway, railway and river; regional proximity to airports, colleges, cultural centers and major metropolitan areas; and, again, a community that is rich in historic architecture and charm. Our unique characteristics have attracted the interest of several very large, national and international construction and engineering firms in the past two weeks alone. They are telling us in no uncertain terms that we must be ready for what may come to pass now, not six months or a year from now. We must make working with the City easy, from responding to inquiries with marked professionalism to facilitating the permitting approval process. Again, I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that we rehabilitate our zoning ordinances and maps to enable future success.
It has been easy for some of us to cast our fortunes in a negative light. This must stop. Please be assured that City Hall and all employees are working very hard to meet your needs. I have no other agenda but the best interests of the people that live in this City and I appreciate the help this Common Council gives me. I am grateful that each of one of us has made great effort to maintain public relationships that are professional, respectful and cooperative. It’s the only thing that will truly facilitate rapid change. We must ensure that we move forward toward our common goals for this community, as we most assuredly want the same things.
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