Good evening and welcome. To each and every one of you in this room and to those of you watching at home or online, thank you for caring about our City. It is a privilege to serve as Mayor of the City of Amsterdam, and to once again deliver this annual message.
This exercise makes me realize the wisdom of those that put the practice of the annual speech into place. While my experience may be one of studying city operations through a microscope, I remember that most constituents are gazing down from the window of an airplane.
The annual speech is a necessary discipline and an honor, but I must admit that it is a daunting task, as its content is so vast. While pondering this undertaking, I’ve been drawn to one theme that resonates with recent events and our shared fortunes. The phrase “tough times” comes to mind in relation to the difficult economy, crazy weather, infrastructure problems and at-risk neighborhoods.
Yes, times are certainly tough.
But just because times are tough, we do not give up. Adversity is something we are familiar with and despite the difficulties we face as a community, we meet our challenges with forceful determination. We are fighting through one of our most challenging periods in our City’s history and are holding our own. We are small, but we are tough.
2011 was a year that tested our resolve and spirit, and our community has risen to the occasion. We have reason to be proud on so many levels. Despite the financial stress felt by municipal budgets on all levels, we have weathered economic turmoil better than surrounding municipalities. Unlike the County and the School District, we have held to a self-imposed 3% tax cap. We managed this feat through creative measures that have added hundreds of thousands of dollars to our annual budget and cut spending to a bare minimum. In this past year:
• We’ve secured nearly $500,000 in additional sales tax revenue from the county.
• We’ve negotiated a new revenue sharing agreement with GAVAC that brings in $200,000 a year.
• We’ve taken recycling in-house, saving over $100,000 a year in expense.
• We are controlling discretionary overtime in all departments and have realized significant overtime savings with the addition of three patrol officers to the Amsterdam Police Department.
These initiatives have helped to shelter us from major tax increases or deeper cuts to essential services.
Our drive to succeed in tough times has resulted in the completion of key capital projects in our city that serve to enhance the quality of life of our residents. The completed projects are as diverse as they are numerous, rounding out one of our busiest construction periods ever. They include:
• Reconstruction of the Bridge Street corridor.
• Upgrades to infrastructure, including water, sewer and road systems on the South-side.
• Asbestos removal from City Hall, rewrapping of pipes, and new window inserts have resulted in tens-of-thousands of dollars in energy savings.
• $13 million dollars worth of improvements at the wastewater treatment and water filtration plants, paid for in part through stimulus funding and our agreements with Hero Beechnut.
• Removal of the fire-damaged Eddy Brush Company building and site remediation of brown-field issues.
• Demolition of 45 dilapidated and dangerous structures with some participation from Montgomery County.
• Repairs to Amsterdam’s Transportation facility including a new furnace, flooring, portable lifts, energy efficient lighting, as well as new buses, also funded through the federal stimulus program.
• Resurfacing of streets in each ward in the 2011 Road Program.
• Remediation and replacement of asbestos-covered water lines beneath Grieme Avenue Bridge.
• Construction of Riverlink Park Phase II includes new walkways, lighting and the new sculpture entitled, The Painted Rocks of Amsterdam by world-renown artist Alice Manzi.
• Additional improvements to the park include a new band shell, café deck and landscaping.
We have managed to complete these phenomenal projects in a year that we were challenged by a flood of dramatic proportions not seen in recent memory.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, we triumphed over a tumultuous set of circumstances which enabled us to see city operations at their finest. Staff mobilized to appropriately and effectively respond to the safety of the public, coordinating a comprehensive evacuation strategy, rescue efforts, temporary shelter, and traffic management protocols, all in a matter of hours.
Throughout the emergency, we were able to disseminate information in real-time through our facebook page and in partnership with WCSS and the Recorder. Because of this achievement, we now understand social networking to be more than a pastime. It is an essential tool of effective communication.
Volunteers displayed incredible compassion and selflessness, showing up in droves to assist their neighbors in recovery from tragedy in the weeks after the storms. We witnessed community partners cleaning homes and businesses, organizing donation drop-off sites and distributing supplies, all of which lent support in a time of great strife.
We are tough. We pull together.
Our strength is in numbers and our commitment to one another demonstrates the true character of the people of Amsterdam. 2011 was a banner year for volunteerism in our city. Not only did we host several successful events including National Night Out and the Main Street Winter Mixer, but we also geared our efforts towards community beautification with litter clean-ups, graffiti paint-outs, murals, plantings and gardens, all of which have had a positive effect in reshaping our image. We offered free concerts over the summer at Riverlink Park and Hero-Beechnut sponsored swimming lessons for 125 young children at Veteran’s Field swimming pool. Additionally, Spring Fling sought to highlight the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Induction ceremonies while promoting commercial space in our Downtown area. This much-celebrated occasion brought 3000 people to Main Street. All of these initiatives were provided at no cost to our taxpayers.
While community-initiated efforts have begun to transform our image, we have also taken a more direct and professional approach to marketing our community. This year, those efforts were recognized by Empire State Development as “best in class” for website design and collateral printed materials. We were able to augment our presence with videos produced by Amsterdam High School students that are broadcast over the Internet and continue to garner attention.
In these tough times we have decided who we are and who we choose to be. We must embrace change and understand the opportunities it presents. We are a community of many cultures, and must be welcoming to those that wish to make Amsterdam their new home. Recently, Chinese immigrants have purchased 40 properties. They have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in materials, taxes, fees and labor, with the intention of bringing many more friends and families to our community. The investment made by these individuals will be transformative.
The coming year invites a host of exciting prospects, even those that will be difficult to surmount. We are faced with the imposition of a 2% cap on property taxes that will force us to be both brave and creative. Upon entering into the new budget season, we must have a complete and accurate accounting from our new Controller of all revenues, expenditures, departmental budgets, fund balance and debt.
These difficult economic times demand that we break new ground and create new relationships. We must meet our challenges with civility and measured thought as we reach out to our partners at the county, regional and state levels to find solutions. We must function as a regional participant to share funding sources, labor and equipment to adequately provide for the future.
Traditionally we have only thought to reach out to the County Board of Supervisors as partners. While we may certainly engage with the County in a number of cost saving initiatives, including records management, energy conservation, joint purchasing and cross-agency transportation options, we must establish new relationships with surrounding municipalities in the Capital District and Greater Mohawk Valley. We’ve seen evidence of this successful approach with the recent awards to the Regional Economic Development Councils. By establishing a commitment to collaboration we will increase the likelihood of securing necessary resources to realize economic growth.
This commitment must extend to the political parties that have traditionally been drawn to stances that are dramatically polarized. Our problems are universal. It is time to put political agendas aside, to identify commonalities in our positions, to rally people and resources, and solve the problems that we are charged to overcome. To this end, I have invited the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic City and County Committees, as well as the members of the Common Council, to assist me in this pursuit. This may be tough to do, but it’s time for the factions to move past their differences.
Tough times dictate that we create a network of like-minded communities. We have established a dialogue using the State’s regional model to explore avenues such as land banking, the continued expansion of water and sewer infrastructure for residential and commercial development, as well as long-range planning and investment in waterfront development and downtown revitalization. This dialogue also includes a proposal to relocate state offices to our city, which identifies us as a community worthy of investment. We are creating a new dynamic and have pride in the fact that several industries in our city have seen significant growth over the past year. Breton Industries, NTI Global, FGI and Mohawk Fabrics have all undergone expansion of their facilities resulting in more jobs and investment in our community.
We are going to continue to succeed in tough times. Over the coming construction season we will progress water distribution improvements on Market Street Hill. We will identify and remediate storm and sewer cross-connections around the city and we will implement the new traffic patterns to route visitors back to our downtown. We will install a new memorial at Riverlink Park to honor those lost on 9/11, roads will be resurfaced, valves and hydrants will be strategically replaced and we will complete the demolition of the Chalmers property.
We must also turn our attention to the Esquire property at the Mohasco site. On account of its advanced state of deterioration, the building has been found unsafe and requires demolition. The site must serve as a key driver for revitalization of that district. This coincides with other active projects targeting neighborhood revitalization on the East End, Reid Hill, waterfront heritage area and along the Chuctanunda Creek. As well, we are partnering with the Amsterdam Urban Renewal Agency, Montgomery County Habitat for Humanity and the Amsterdam Homeless Project to provide opportunities to those most in need during tough economic times.
We continue our fight to keep our residents safe despite economic stressors. Our neighborhood watch groups have been instrumental in bridging a relationship between the community and law enforcement. Awareness within the neighborhoods has netted arrests for drug and other non-violent offenses as officers utilize the information provided by the watch groups to enhance public safety. Thanks to these efforts, Amsterdam remains one of the safest communities in the Capital District.
It is during tough times that we need to be the most optimistic and hopeful. I am reminded each day that I am surrounded by a highly qualified and talented team who come to work each day impacted by limited resources and staffing, yet together we find the resolve to shoulder our responsibilities to those of you who pay our salaries. I want to thank these good people, our employees, on behalf of the residents of this community for the fine job that they do. When times are hard, they work harder.
These tough economic times cannot be used as an excuse to pull back or avoid progress. It’s a mistake we have made too frequently in the past. In this regard, we must address inadequacies in staffing that negatively impact city operations. These shortcomings limit our opportunities to generate revenue and address issues of great concern to our citizens. The condition of blighted properties is perhaps the most often-cited complaint heard in my office, on the radio, or on the Internet. We must strengthen our codes department by adding an additional inspector, even if the position is part-time, to manage health and safety matters. As well, we need additional seasonal help to cut grass and pick up garbage when property maintenance is an issue. In 2010, the year before the flood, we cleaned 210 properties, generating 351 full dump trucks of debris. Of course this past year, much of the efforts of these four men went to cleaning up after the disaster.
If we are to grow our tax base, we should again look to refunding the Community and Economic Development Department. While several development agencies exist, there is no organization that can fill the void created by the absence of this entity. We need this department to muscle comprehensive planning which includes revamping the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, Brownfield programs, the zoning rewrite, neighborhood and downtown revitalization; to coordinate community events and activities; to oversee property disposition and grants in a coordinated fashion; to coordinate activity between departments, state, county and development organizations; to assist struggling not-for-profits; to update the website; and to proactively research and propose new incentives for development and growth.
We cannot let naysayers and negativism determine our fate. We’ve been through floods, a hurricane and a global economic downturn and we are still here. We are small, tough and determined. I am reminded of a short quote by Thomas Buxton, “With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.“ In every sense of the word, our community has been heroic in its perseverance. To those of you in our community that taken up the load when times are tough, that have reached out to your friends and neighbors with the offer of help, that love this community for what it has been, for what it is and for what it will be, I thank you for your commitment.
We are going to make it. We will be galvanized by our experiences; we will be better; we will be stronger.