State of the City of Amsterdam: 2011
Three years ago, I was given the gift to serve as Mayor of the City of Amsterdam because of my promise to be creatively proactive and responsive to the needs of this small, struggling city. At the time, I had laid out an ambitious agenda targeting financial stability, organization and innovative economic development efforts. I promised to keep the priorities established in our Comprehensive Plan squarely in my sites. By so many measures, we are able to mark three years of steady progress toward our goals. I am very proud of the many successes we have had in protecting and advancing the interests of the taxpayers of our city.
I have likened the condition of the city that I inherited to receiving a bag of yarn, tangled and tightly bound, each strand a necessary element of city government. It has been necessary to systematically draw out each thread, department by department, looking at issues of accountability, public safety, fiscal responsibility and community strength, that will serve as the richly-textured fabric of Amsterdam’s future.
• We’ve renegotiated a twenty-year sales tax distribution agreement with the county. This ensures the City hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenues each year, well above that provided by previous agreements.
• We’ve negotiated long-term water distribution agreements with the Towns of Amsterdam and Florida that will generate additional shared revenues once this difficult economy improves.
• We’ve negotiated and received over $3 million dollars from Beechnut for upgrades to our Waste Water Treatment Plant in exchange for extension of our water and sewer lines, and anticipate over half a million dollars in both water and sewer fees per year.
• We’ve entered into an agreement with GAVAC that will garner approximately $50,000 in its first year. This is a revenue source new to my administration.
In just three short years, we’ve secured millions of dollars in grants for projects as varied as the following:
• $10.2 million dollars in stimulus funding for upgrades to our water filtration plant. Completion of this project is expected in just about a month and will provide improved water quality exceeding all state and federals standards;
• Over a million dollars in stimulus and grant funding for bus purchases and critical improvements to our transportation facility;
• Over a million dollars in stimulus funding to rebuild Guy Park Avenue and several other key arteries in the city;
• $2.5 million dollars from Restore NY for redevelopment of the Mohasco property;
• Just under one million dollars in Small Cities funding to inspire revitalization of parts of Division Street and our Downtown Main Street;
• Close to $2 million dollars in Community Development Block Grants that have gone toward infrastructure improvements across the city, including storm/sewer separations, repairs to the west end pump station, installation of a new emergency generator on the west end, and restoration of parts of the water distribution system on Market Street Hill and the South Side; and
• Over one million dollars from HUD’s HOME Investments Partnership Program, allowing for the rehabilitation of over sixty residential units.
The grants listed above are by no means exhaustive. We’ve received smaller grants for planning, marketing, recreation and public safety.
Administratively, we’ve undergone a policies and procedures audit by the State Comptrollers Office and have made changes in the way we manage cash transactions in the Controller’s Office and at the Golf Course. We’ve undertaken a rigorous analysis of our contracts, debt management and departmental budgets in preparation for this year’s budget process to protect our upgraded A3 bond rating. This vitally important statistic allows the city to borrow money for capital projects and equipment at a very favorable interest rate.
In keeping with that thought, we’ve successfully bonded for capital projects and equipment that have needed attention for years. This bonding is in the form of a consolidated issue that has substantially reduced borrowing costs and is a major change from past practices. This has allowed us to take advantage of record low interest rates, improve our quality of life, and save thousands of taxpayer’s dollars.
In order to better track and forecast our expenditures and revenues, we have purchased new financial management software that will give us precise control over our municipality’s funds. The system will generate the detailed, accurate and timely reports we need to make decisions regarding staff productivity, purchasing, health insurance, retirement costs, and multi-year planning. Our governance and management strength is crucial, as we will need to act in response to the budgetary crises of the State and Federal governments.
Because of the fine work of our new Assessor, the City’s assessment equalization rate increased in 2010 and will probably hold for 2011, meaning that our assessments more accurately reflect the value of taxable property in the City. This year, the City’s accuracy in relation to other municipalities had the effect of reducing the City’s portion of tax burden at the County and School levels. For example, while the 2011 Montgomery County tax rate increased at an average of 10%, the City’s portion only increased 1.4%. Likewise, when school taxes went up by 4%, the City’s portion only increased by 2.4%. We are grateful to our assessment department staff for their professionalism, attention to detail and strong stewardship in this process
Foreclosure proceedings conducted within this past year have enabled residents to take control of revitalizing their own city. Of the 131 parcels sold at auction, more than $1.4 million of property went back on the assessment roll and produced over $325,000 in sales proceeds at auction. The City is now positioned to actively manage any new additions to its portfolio through orderly disposition. As dozens of properties begin rehabilitation and additional revenue is generated from the increased tax roll, our city is once again reminded that we can and are recovering from the voids left by vanishing industrial giants.
Though challenges remain ahead of us, we will drive forward with the necessary progressive reforms by which we will be a model city of transformation.
Accordingly, the golden thread running through this colorful governmental fabric is accountability. We are responsible to the many taxpayers we protect for the dollars we spend on their behalf. Certainly, this is inherent in our approach to financial management, but extends to ensuring that our staff is accountable for their time and that equipment is put to best use.
Over the past three years, all permanent positions have been advertised and open to the best qualified of candidates. This is in distinct contrast to the practices of past administrations, when employment was doled out to family and friends or as political favors. We have new employees and energy in the Office of the Assessor, the Clerk’s Office, the Controller’s Department, Engineering, Code Enforcement, the Department of Public Works, the Amsterdam Fire Department and the Amsterdam Police Department.
During the previous administration, the absence of executive oversight for four years had created a working environment at all levels that lacked order and control. We’ve now directed that supervisory staff closely monitor time sheets, vehicle usage, mid-morning breaks and time off for lunch to halt abuses. We’ve taken action when performance of individual employees has been deficient, disciplining and/or parting ways with those that cannot or will not adequately fulfill the duties that they had been hired to perform. Apathy, dishonesty and violence are not tolerated. This dynamic has improved the quality and effectiveness of our workforce.
We’ve taken measures to rein in overtime costs. Earlier in the year, the Controller changed the way overtime had been reported to the Council, which brought long-standing overages into light. Transparency in this process is essential. We’ve been working closely with our departments to analyze where and when overspending is occurring and made a detailed report so that our elected officials and constituents would better understand our obligations and needs. I recently issued an executive order that prohibits unbudgeted overtime unless life or property is threatened. Department heads must now plan and petition the Council for anticipated overtime needs, bringing all branches of municipal government together to master this difficult problem.
Great emphasis has been placed on tracking and reporting of operational activities, as new documentation methods have been developed for code enforcement, property maintenance, grants management, absentee landlord registration, and fire hydrant monitoring.
Departments that had previously been acting in isolation now work as a team by communicating regularly to problem-solve and collaboratively address needs. This was evident in our approach to the fires of 2009 on Market Street Hill, which brought into hard focus the deficiencies in our water distribution and fire prevention system.
In very short order, an action plan was developed between the Department of Public Works, the Amsterdam Fire Department, Engineering, AFSCME and my office to delineate a strategic approach that would overcome our deficiencies. Resultant remedies include: the production of new inter-departmental forms for immediate sharing of information, entering GPS coordinates of all hydrants into the Amsterdam Fire Department’s computerized emergency response system, the physical color-coding of hydrants to indicate operability, and systematic water flow testing in the area. A prioritized list of repairs and replacements will be prepared from gathered data.
Because of our work, we have received funding to pay for implementation of this project. Since the ill-fated occurrences of 2009, well over fifty hydrants around the city have been replaced and repairs have been made to damaged valves, water mains and laterals. Residents are safer and our work carries on.
Department personnel have also collaborated to strategically tackle the complexities of code enforcement, property disposition and the demolition of dangerously dilapidated residential properties (to date, over 30 structures have come down and we are in the process of carrying out 40 more demolitions).
This group concept has extended to the many helpful public and private organizations, agencies, and committees that assist us in our continuous endeavors to provide for our taxpayers. Our joint ventures regularly include assistance from the Amsterdam Urban Renewal Agency (URA), the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency (AIDA), the Amsterdam Waterfront Foundation (AWF), Rivercrest Development, the Montgomery County Department of Public Works, the Montgomery County Business Development Center, and the Greater Amsterdam School District (GASD).
These healthy relationships have resulted in the re-scripting of our zoning ordinances (an important goal identified in the City’s master plan which will be completed in early Spring), neighborhood revitalization funding and activities, increased notice from state agencies, the legislature and the private business sector, and growing opportunities for promotion, cultural exchange and curriculum development.
Some activities are of particular note:
• A number of health care entities, social service organizations and the City are joining forces to start a temporary shelter for the homeless here in Amsterdam. Doors will open in February to care for those that cannot provide for themselves. This is at no cost to taxpayers.
• A variety of committed individuals, agencies, churches and the City have combined their resources to launch Montgomery County’s first Habitat for Humanity, again at no cost to taxpayers. Acceptance into the national organization is imminent.
• The property at 208 Guy Park Avenue has been given a new lease on life through a complete gutting and rehabilitation thanks to Rivercrest Development, the not-for-profit arm of the Amsterdam Housing Authority. This has saved a keystone property in that vicinity and drastically improved the look of a major intersection in our City.
• Rivercrest will rehabilitate a second property just around the corner, where targeted demolition combined with rehabilitation efforts have revitalized a residential section of Division and Clinton Streets that had been steadily falling into decline.
• Over the coming construction season, Centro Civico will build a new public park on East Main Street. This road serves as a main pass-thru for thousands of vehicles every year. Green, recreational enhancements along this corridor (yet another master plan priority) offer great benefits to the neighborhood and city-at-large.
• Through our cooperative relationship with the Amsterdam Mohawks, New York Collegiate Baseball attendance records were shattered in 2010 as we hosted over 34,000 visitors to our recently refurbished facility. This marks an unbroken increase in attendance since the club first established itself in Shuttleworth Park in 2003.
• Lastly, in a small but very grand gesture, Beechnut generously enabled the City to offer swimming lessons to over 100 underprivileged children last summer by paying for equipment, training of staff, and lifeguards at our Veterans Field Swimming Pool.
Over the past three years, our talented staff has labored in tandem to bring long stagnant capital projects to fruition. Church Street was finally completed under-budget, despite our having to relocate eleven hydrants from out of the middle of sidewalks due to lack of oversight by the previous administration.
The upcoming construction season will see the completion of Bridge Street reconstruction (begun in 2002), the Chalmers building demolition (feasibility studies and redevelopment plans for the site go back over a decade and a half), Riverlink Park Phase II (begun in 2001), and we will begin a two-year program to improve the course, drainage and cart paths at the Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course (identified a decade ago, and never acted upon by prior administrations).
We will be stripping the flaking asbestos from the underside of the Grieme Avenue Bridge, replacing its damaged water lines and rewrapping the pipes. We will be repairing several bridges that had been flagged as unsafe years ago by the Department of Transportation. We will resurface roads around the city, clear what remains of the fire-ravaged Edy Brush Company on Brookside Avenue, and will continue to steadfastly respond to constant water and sewer problems around the City to the best of our abilities. Please be patient with our Department of Public Works. In all weather, hot, cold, wet or unbearably dry, this band of 40 men maintain over 80 miles of street, 80 miles of water and sewer lines, over 1200 hydrants, and hundreds of valves, storm drains, and manhole structures. They do all of our snow plowing and removal to boot. We should appreciate and respect their daily toil every time we turn on a sink or flush the bowl.
Asbestos contamination in the basement of City Hall, identified in 2001, was finally remediated. This is a glaring example of ignoring pressing needs, which in turn escalates cost down the line. This project had originally been estimated to cost $70,000. The project cost over $150,000 in 2010 when the situation was finally remedied.
This discussion calls to light the improvements we have made to City Hall over the past three years. With a very limited budget, we have painted the interior, refurbished an outbuilding, offices and closets, repaired drainage, refinished stairways, carpeted, and continue to make cosmetic improvements to the building and grounds. I have repeatedly asked for funding to repair the roof, gutters, porticos, windows and the back patio, but as we have seen, larger projects are often put off until there is an emergency, much like the boiler failure during the prior administration. That project had also been identified well before it became a high cost repair. As a significant icon of our shared heritage, this invaluable building is a city treasure that demands preservation.
Our numerous triumphs show that even in the face of a crushing recession, impressive progress can be made at a reasonable cost.
Talk of these joint ventures leads naturally to initiatives we have taken to beautify and make our city safer, key elements identified in our comprehensive plan. Hundreds of city residents have assisted in our annual Spring and Fall clean ups. In devoting just a few hours each season to stoop and gather discarded trash along our roadways, in parks and along the waterfront, volunteers have had a huge impact on the cleanliness of our community. We’ve tackled East Main Street, again, the main corridor through our City, picking up trash, cutting down weeds and brush, and painting structures that had long been in decline. We’ve sponsored graffiti paint outs, begun community mural projects and started a paint bank at City Hall so that residents may donate left over paint to facilitate these activities. We’ve started a “Windows on Main Street” program to clean and decorate the storefront windows in empty commercial buildings. We’ve hosted neighborhood meet & greets, National Night Out parties, and a tremendously successful Main Street Winter Mixer to reintroduce residents to our lovely downtown. More events are planned for the coming year.
We are incrementally sprucing up the entrances to our city. We’ve replaced weathered “Welcome to the City of Amsterdam” signage on the northern, western and eastern entrances to the city. We’ve cut down trees and brush at our eastern entrance, and planted arborvitaes to hide equipment at the DPW facility. We’ve built a new fountain at our Veterans Memorial Park on the West End and planted over 5000 thousand tulip and daffodil bulbs all over the city.
Our recreation department continually makes enhancements to our amenities every year. Riverlink Park is tended by a park attendant to keep gardens watered and the elevators and bathrooms clean. We greet hundreds of boaters traveling the Erie Canal, host summer concerts every weekend and feature one of the finest seasonal cafes along that passageway. Veterans Park sports a new softball field, there’s additional parking and a new walkway along the creek at Shuttleworth Park and we’re planning to bring back the dam there for fishing and skating. We’ve erected skating rinks at City Hall and the Arnold Avenue Playground. We can be proud of the most gorgeous flower baskets in the Capital Region over the summer season and of our new decorative lighting for the winter holidays.
So many of our accomplishments come about with the help of committed volunteers. The network of newly formed neighborhood associations that assist in our beautification efforts also work with our police department to reduce crime, solve problems, and improve the quality of life in our city. Several areas with higher incidences of crime have regular watch meetings to exchange information, have established phone trees and written procedures, and have taken part in our Police Academies to maximize the effectiveness of their efforts. Neighbors have learned how to recognize and report crime and are the eyes and ears of our APD. Because of their assistance, we’ve been able to swiftly respond to suspicious activity and solve many investigations within a matter of hours.
We hope residents will continue to support the efforts of our friends and neighbors to make Amsterdam cleaner, safer and united. If you’d like to become involved in the neighborhood watch and/or beautification activities in your part of the City, please call my office and we will put you in touch with the representative in your area.
Our neighborhood activities have fostered community stewardship and solidarity in a city of close friends and neighbors. This love and commitment demonstrates the true character of the people of Amsterdam. I am reminded each day why I chose to raise my family in this city and why I continue to stay and fight for its future.
Having touched on the successes of our police department and neighborhood watch, I am lead to discuss other advancements made to keep our community safe:
• Our drinking water will be of the finest quality in our state upon completion of upgrades to our Water Filtration Plant.
• Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements will be completed as well.
• Inflow and infiltration of storm and ground water into our sewer lines can overwhelm the wastewater treatment system, and at times, raw waste spills into the Mohawk River. This is not unique to Amsterdam. We’ve made several separations to lines around the city and will continue to seek long-term solutions and funding to remedy this problem.
• Fire hydrants and water lines will be repaired and replaced in a systematic overhaul of these structures. Again, this requires long-term planning and funding.
• We’ve activated Red Alert software, a premier records management and Computer Aided Dispatching (CAD) module for fire and emergency response services. This application interfaces with our Code Enforcement Department to track a property’s history, as well as environmental or hazardous safety issues that may be crucial in an emergency situation.
• Fire Department personnel are being trained in confined space rescue to protect both residents and employees of other departments from lethal gas or entrapment in an enclosure.
• We’ve added a state-of-the-art pumper and 75-foot aerial truck to our fire fighting arsenal and hired three additional officers to man the department.
• We’ve hired three new police officers to strengthen the department and alleviate short shifts.
• We’ve offered training in workplace violence prevention to all city employees and continue to develop policies and procedures that keep our laborers safe.
Everyday, your taxes pay for vital services we all depend upon. The Police and Fire Departments respond to emergency calls within minutes, clean water is dispatched to your house instantly, and streets are plowed through a snowstorm and beyond until passage has been cleared. We monitor and mend fire hydrants, water mains, sewer mains, manholes and catch basins. We shore up collapsing hillsides and repair bridges that are compromised. We offer recreational opportunities at our parks, pool and golf course. We ensure that the structures you live in are safe and must manage those that have been abandoned or damaged in fire. We house your birth and death certificates, licenses, contracts and permits. We do this all with the checks you submit on a quarterly basis. We do this with real awareness of our responsibility to our taxpayers.
The challenges faced by our city seem perpetually unchanging, but with thoughtful action and dedication, we may alter our fortunes for the good. I believe these times demand invention, innovation, imagination, and decision. We must focus on short-term and long-term solutions to give our citizens confidence that priorities are being addressed in a timely manner.
As many of you know, I place a high priority on the marketing of our many attributes in order to hold competitive positioning in the 21st century. In the highly competitive global arena, we must tout our beauty, location, close community, success stories, and amenities to promote economic growth in Amsterdam. This message is as important to get across to our own residents as it is to the surrounding region and targeted audiences in other venues.
To that end, we had developed our tag line, “small city. big heart.” and produced an array of beautiful, printed materials to properly communicate our chosen identity. We’ve created a new logo, letterhead, business cards, presentation folder, brochure, and customizable inserts, as well as pens, pins, magnets, and advertisements that all sport the same familial look.
We were fortunate to capture the interest of WMHT this past year, as the City celebrated its 125th year of incorporation. The regional public television giant facilitated an “Our Town” segment, written and filmed by our own residents at no cost to our taxpayers. This personal representation of our community features spots about the St. Stanislaus Pierogi Angels, the Amsterdam Sea Rams, the Amsterdam Singing Seniors, the Amsterdam Free Library, and the AHS Marching Band (to mention only a few) and readily speaks to the warmth and charm of our City.
We’ve entered into the world of social networking as well, hosting a City of Amsterdam facebook page and Neighborhood Association facebook page to take advantage of this exciting new media. Our efforts have also spanned the oceans, now that we have entered into a sister-city relationship with Roccastrada, Italy. The two cities are joining together as global partners along the 43° parallel to promote cultural, educational and economic opportunities to our respective communities. We are excited to share yet another facebook page, roccastrada43amsterdam, to communicate with our new friends in a spirit of respect and goodwill. We look forward to spirited discussion, online events, and curriculum development, and to growing a relationship that is enjoyable and fruitful.
Our flagship-marketing tool can be found online at http://www.amsterdamny.gov. This carefully crafted website is the product of many hours of research and continues to evolve as we are able to provide new content. It has been augmented by the addition of collateral videos that visitors may view at will, featuring information on our quality of life, real estate, educational system, health care, senior services and business opportunities. These videos were produced at no cost to our taxpayers through our membership in the New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM). I am pleased to sit on the executive committee of that conference, which offers additional prospects for promotion, guidance, advocacy and partnering.
As we eagerly wait for a decision to come from the state, my efforts to engage our state leaders have been tireless and unrelenting. I work each day so that we may call a consolidated state data center located in Amsterdam one of many achievements in our transformative endeavors.
So much of what has been accomplished over the past three years must continue into our future. In these times of economic uncertainty, the City of Amsterdam has remained relatively strong and progressive. We’ve made accountability a priority for all sectors of local government. We’ve worked to establish and communicate a positive and contemporary image for our community. We’ve put programs in place to build an ethical, skilled workforce in which employees are empowered to use their initiative, creativity and expertise in responsible ways.
We must further refine our management of finances and attack the upcoming budget process with the courage needed to make difficult decisions, or face the prospect of reducing our workforce or services.
• We must reassess the organizational structures and staffing of our departments to ensure that we are providing our services in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
• We must assess our municipal buildings and implement energy-related cost saving measures.
• City workers deserve a safe and secure retirement, but we must find a way to balance the needs of our employees and retirees with the economic stability of the city.
• We must persist in identifying additional sources of income other than property taxes to protect our taxpayers. For example, the Municipal Golf Course must become a profitable enterprise for the betterment of all city residents, not just the few that play golf.
• We must push the Governor and state representatives for relief from unfunded legislative mandates that force local governments to shoulder the cost of additional programs and services.
This is a very important moment in our course of transformation. We must come together once again to plan our future as we revisit our Comprehensive Plan to map out a course for the coming decade.
We must believe that our city will be at the heart of a vibrant and emerging economic region. Nanotechnology, biomedical research and clean energy initiatives will change the face of Upstate New York. That said, we MUST open our arms to investors from outside of our community to make buying property and relocating businesses to the City viable. We MUST open our hearts to people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. We must create a city that we are proud to pass on to future generations.
Once again, we must recall that all that I have mentioned to this point, the successes as well as pain, are opportunities that are woven into our collective heritage. We must understand that it is our persistence, our ability to labor on day after day in the face of adversity, that is the most important aspect of what we pass on to those that will follow us. This sentiment is echoed in the following quote by Jacob A. Riis: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” We must persistently hold to our vision of a prosperous city.
In closing, I remind you that the ebb and flow we experience, as a small, upstate municipality, is as natural as the changing seasons. We should ground our expectations for the future in faith. The cycle of life goes on in our community. People pass from our lives and babies are born. We feed our pets and attend mass on Sunday. Birthdays and summers and winters come and go. And we go on. This is true for our City. Neighborhoods spring up around factory buildings, businesses move, employees change careers, and we worry about our children. Yet we still go to church, to Homecoming, to the doctor, and to the grocery store. We stand together. We muddle through, knowing that the difficulties of today will not always be so. We will endure and we will once again prosper. Please have faith.
Thank you so much and God Bless.