STATE OF THE CITY
Mayor Ann M. Thane • February 4, 2014
In drafting this State of the City address, I am reminded that anything we want that is good and strong and worthwhile is hard to attain, especially if it entails change. It is slow in coming and resisted by the fearful and the deceptive. It must be hard-fought for and requires every ounce of determination. I am here to report that we are making steady strides in this battle and we cannot let up the fight.
To be healthy, an individual must exercise and eat well, make good choices when it comes to work or savings, and support one’s spirit with rewarding friendships and activities that nourish the soul.
As a community, we must be equally mindful of our health. Our measures are many, and though we struggle, we may gauge our resilience in the successes we’ve made to address the problems faced by this aging, upstate city. I am proud to again cite the action we’ve taken to allay the injury time has wrought on the City of Amsterdam.
PRIORITY ONE: FINANCIAL HEALTH
No one can deny that the city is grappling with the results of years of poor management in the Controller’s Office. At the urging of past Controller Ron Wierzbicki, the state was invited in to review the city’s financial condition that ended in a scathing report, deriding the record keeping practices of the department. For years, bank accounts and the general ledger had not been properly reconciled, entries were made incorrectly, and capital projects had not been properly tracked. Though this finding is damning, it came as no surprise to this administration or the prior council that had already begun to take steps toward managing this crisis.
Early in 2013, the prior Council added the position of Deputy Controller to strengthen the department and ensure that there will be continuity and expertise outside of the election cycle. Mr. David Mitchell was hired for his lengthy experience in dealing with troubled institutions and his ability to bring organization to floundering accounting systems. We have been well served by this appointment. He has deftly begun the laborious task of untangling the mess he found and has instituted new procedures to alleviate years of questionable practices. He was able to close out the books for 2011/12, submitted a long-overdue Annual Update Document (AUD) and completed a single audit, which in turn protected several hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants.
The prior Council contracted with two accounting firms to go back through our records, correct errors and reconcile all operational and capital accounts. This will ensure that our numbers are firm going forward. New Controller Matthew Agresta will revise and resubmit the Annual Update Document once more solid numbers are presented in an attempt to protect our favorable S&P and Moody’s ratings.
As recommended by the State, the prior Council and I drafted an initial corrective action plan that will be finalized and submitted to the Office of the State Comptroller showing our plans to protect the city from problems of this nature in the future. Staff and the new Council will be given training in municipal finance and utilization of our new accounting software. Written policies and procedures will be developed and implemented, and the Council will receive the accurate data it needs to make informed decisions about city operations.
The current Council will be responsible for developing a long-range financial plan, an action that is both prudent and timely. Though this entire process has been arduous, the resulting certainty will be well worth the pain. I remain optimistic that we are in better stead financially than has been predicted on some fronts.
As the budget season approaches, a keen focus on performance and accountability will serve us well. The Governor’s proposed freeze on revenues will apply tremendous pressure on our community, which already labors to provide necessary services to our residents. This will require us to be quite creative in finding new ways to sustain our city. Strict fiscal oversight in every aspect of city government is demanded in this time of stress; no facility or contract will escape this scrutiny. Nor can we pretend to address our fiscal constraints by questioning small expenditures that are inconsequential to our tax burden. We must look to departments that are underperforming with the realization that hard choices may have to be made. We cannot put special interests before those of our taxpayers. We must fastidiously re-examine the workings of each department and enterprise fund without prejudice, as well as target areas of spending that have historically saved us money for additional cost cutting or revenues, as in health insurance costs or pensions. We will engage the surrounding municipalities to increase efficiencies and craft new avenues for the profit of all.
PRIORITY TWO: REGIONAL HEALTH
Our growing partnership with the City of Schenectady is one that offers substantial reward. Our cities have both suffered the post-industrial decline encountered by all communities in the rust belt. Neighborhoods that surrounded bustling factories now circle crumbling behemoths of another era. Working family homes have slipped into disrepair and associated misfortunes have taken root: crime, litter, vandalism and fire have become realities that drain our coffers and esteem. So, it has been with great pride and enthusiasm that we have begun to work together to solve some of these long-standing problems.
A single distressed property will consume $109,000 in direct and indirect costs in a cycle that runs from deterioration to demolition. Multiply this cost by the number of affected properties in each city and the total is staggering. If all 735 properties now identified in various stages of decline in the city of Amsterdam progress fully to demolition, the cost to our taxpayers is $80,115,000. Schenectady’s 2,420 now distressed properties amount to a mind numbing $263,780,000. When we think of this cost infecting every aging city, town and village in the State, as we know it does, we see a situation that cries out for immediate remedy.
The key to reducing these losses to the tax base is to divert properties away from or out of the system as soon as possible. We are addressing this in two ways:
First, our cities and the County of Schenectady have formed one of five state designated “land banks” to proactively mitigate the costs of blighted properties through neighborhood planning, rehabilitation or demolition, and investment. The goal is to improve property values within the land bank area. The resulting decreases in delinquent taxes and emergency response costs will benefit our cities financially as well as improve quality of life for residents in those areas where abandonment is successfully reversed.
Second, the two cities have banded together with the Center for Technology and Growth (CTG) to develop a uniform code enforcement software module that will digitally track code enforcement violations. Currently, every municipality in the State uses its own forms, manual procedures and unique policies for code enforcement and the state legislature is blind to the impact this problem has on the bottom line.
No one can dispute that sharing information on arson, domestic violence, DWI, and other fire and police concerns is beneficial. Improved code enforcement reporting and information sharing will reduce the incidence of distressed properties and associated costs. Standard forms and procedures will facilitate sharing of data across municipal boundaries to protect banks from mortgage fraud, neighborhoods from the assault that blight delivers, and taxpayers from carrying the burden of lost prospects.
State legislators will be able to plainly see the astronomical costs associated with blight and act accordingly. The collected information will allow us to establish a basis for state code enforcement action and uniform urban policy making. For example, we may develop a state property owner ID system that will help identify absentee landlords shielded from prosecution through LLC’s.
This is exactly the kind innovative approach to fiscal stress that our Governor has called for. Our initiative will provide substantial and quantifiable taxpayer relief through shared service, government efficiency and economic development. I am very grateful to Mayor Gary McCarthy for allowing us to partner in this effort.
This administration has an unambiguous record of collaborating with several municipal counterparts to benefit city residents. From water and revenue sharing agreements with the Towns of Amsterdam and Florida to sharing the costs of workman’s comp, energy purchasing, demolition and solid waste disposal with the County, the city has capitalized on its available resources and has been able to leverage them for the good of our people. We’ve realized millions of dollars in new revenues over the past few years and more fairly distributed the cost of our water and sewer distribution systems.
Times of crisis often call out necessary qualities of ingenuity and devotion. Because of this, we should understand the significance of this time for our state and city and treasure its gifts.
Through the Governor’s NY Rising and Hazard Mitigation programs, we’ve worked with surrounding municipalities for a full recovery from the devastating storms of 2011 and 2013. We are forging plans to alleviate the risk of flood that are linked to our economic development efforts. One of the greatest achievements in this process will be the consolidation of all city, school and county strategic plans into one comprehensive document that will allow for even greater cooperation between the various governments.
Our partnering efforts have also played out in a regional sense. Amsterdam is a member of the six-county Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council (MVREDC). This year, our region was chosen as a top performer and awarded over $82M in grants and incentives to spur development. Our city scored well in this round, as we had in the past outside of the council’s activity, securing $12,219,000 in grants over six years for growing industries, waterfront revitalization, economic development, marketing, public works and infrastructure improvements.
In anticipation of this year’s round of competitive funding through the regional economic development council, I have called on representatives from the Counties of Fulton and Montgomery, Fulton Montgomery Community College, and various economic development agencies to identify projects in the public and private sectors that will create jobs and foster renewal for our constituencies.
The City will continue to establish and grow these valuable relationships, locally and abroad. There are marvelous people and organizations engaged in transformative work across the state, in community colleges and universities, Chambers of Commerce, not-for-profits and in business. My involvement with the New York Conference of Mayors and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission allows me access me to ideas, best practices and networks that I am anxious to bring to our city.
PRIORITY THREE: TANGIBLE HEALTH
The improvements we’ve made to the infrastructure in our community is of particular pride to this administration. We may point to the close of another year of intense construction bringing us a new traffic pattern downtown and marked rehabilitation of our water and sewer systems.
Through steady effort, we have replaced water lines and valves, and are now down to a mere six out-of-order hydrants out of over a thousand, a stark contrast to the dozens we inherited with lines that ran dry during tragic fires on Market Street Hill in 2008. We have been systematically identifying areas where storm water and sewer lines connect and have been able to avoid hefty fines from the Department of Environmental Conservation because of our systematic method in dealing with these problems.
The traffic-repatterning project was a long time in the making, having been identified as a goal in our comprehensive plan of 2004. Though many decried this initiative as doomed to monstrous accidents and confusion, the change has been pleasantly accepted and incorporated into our daily lives. The ability to travel east on RT5 has been good for our police and fire departments and easy for those wishing to circumnavigate the Riverfront Center and downtown.
This is yet another phase in the redevelopment strategy for our urban core, which will greatly benefit from this year’s start in construction of the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook. Demolitions of dilapidated properties on the south shore will take place in March, materials brought in for the footings and substructures by May, and by October we will begin to see our vision for this pedestrian bridge made real. Plans for a walkway along the north shore to Guy Park Avenue and the relocation of the train station will be laid concurrently to this activity.
We must continue the demolition of buildings that are beyond repair in order to stay the creep of blight in our older neighborhoods while doing all in our power to save those structures that carry the blue print of our unique heritage as a post-industrial community. There is a delicate balance that must be struck in order to preserve that which speaks to this interesting and beautiful past. We must approach each property with sensitivity to our history and do all that we may to safeguard the characteristics of this legacy while protecting our residents from safety hazards. Therefore, I ask that the Council bond not only for demolition but also the stabilization of decaying properties, and that they invest the seed money necessary to successfully launch our land banking efforts in partnership with the City and County of Schenectady.
As I have said many times in the past, combating blight in older cities requires multiple methods of attack. We increased the number of code enforcement officers this year to three, which has been an immense advantage in this battle. We are able to more deftly answer complaints and proactively stave off violations, often stopping unpermitted work and may target particular streets or neighborhoods for obvious disregard of our building codes.
We had selected a section of the Reid Hill area for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to help property owners with the cost of rehabbing homes and coupled that program with street reconstruction and demolitions. This assistance has been well received, with fifteen property owners engaged in this process. We will continue this endeavor in the coming year with a second grouping of properties that are contiguous to the first phase of work. We will also devote our attentions to East Main Street with a similar CDBG grant request for work along this visibly distressed corridor through the city.
It will be a significant year for construction in our City. We may expect to see the recently demolished Esquire site rebuilt with a new industry and a $4.4M building. A $20M assisted living facility will be built next to River Ridge on the South Side. Colonial Gardens at the northern entrance to our City will finish its $9.1M over haul, Roosevelt Apartments will be revamped for $3.4M and the Woodrow Wilson Complex with get a $12M make-over. The failing bank of Dove Creek will be shored up, the sanitary sewer system on Grieme Avenue will be updated and water-ravaged Henrietta Boulevard will get much-needed reconstruction.
Of course, our city has many other needs in the way of capital improvements that will have to be prioritized and funded by this council. They have been given an extensive list of projects and equipment from all departments that must be culled through and immediate action taken in areas that will impact the safety of our community. We will be undertaking this duty in the coming weeks.
In so many ways, we have our city workforce to thank for the services that are provided through your tax dollars. We have an exceptional police force and fire department and we are safe. We enjoy clean water and an efficient sewer system. Our parks are lovely, our streets are maintained and plowed, and we are readily cared for in emergency situations. I extend our shared appreciation for the men and women that keep our municipal services functioning to the best of their abilities when the weather is unbearable and budgets are tight. This is a never-ending task that demands unrivaled commitment in the face of adversity.
I cannot discuss the great effort is has taken to battle the decline age brings to a city without acknowledging the magnificent efforts of our volunteers that have come out twice a year for the past five years and helped with our Spring and Fall Citywide Litter Pick-ups. This year saw our greatest turnout to date, with hundreds of men, women and children stooped along roadsides disposing of plastic bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, aluminum cans, paper bags and Styrofoam cups. To date, we’ve picked up an incredible twenty tons of debris! We cannot underestimate the very real impact this has on our city. Certainly, we are cleaner, but more importantly we show that we are willing as a community to actively right the wrongs exacted upon us because of a modern disregard for our environment. We show that committed individuals are the deciding factor in creating a vibrant place to live.
The fact is that the essence of this community is not found in its physical attributes – it is not found in its wonderful neighborhoods of which, and this bears repeating until everyone starts paying attention, MOST are attractive and great places to raise a family. The essence of our community is not in our industrial sites, small shops, many parks, memorials or churches – it is found in the hearts of our people.
This community again and again shows no matter how negative the airwaves, facebook or the blogs get, no matter what the circumstance or need, our people step up with love and strength in times of celebration or trouble. This past year is no different in that regard except that there have been so many instances where that spirit is evident.
Volunteers have been instrumental to the success of City-sponsored events, such as Spring Fling, National Night Out, or Homecoming (all of which were banner years in terms of the thousands that participated and attended.) Volunteers built a community garden with 40 children on the east end, painted murals across the city and created the most beautiful piece of public art in this city’s recent past, the mosaic at the Creative Connections Arts Center. Volunteers hauled stones from the river to build a labyrinth at City Hall for mediation purposes, planted 3,500 daffodil bulbs, and lit up thousands of colored decorations at Light Up the Sky, the Kristy Pollock Memorial Light Display and the new Bracchi Family Christmas Tree on the South Side. Volunteers brought us summer concerts all season long at Riverlink Park, hosted a historic tour of the West end, and a haunted tour of City Hall and Green Hill Cemetery. They connected in Neighborhood Watch groups to protect their friends and properties and hosted sporting events to fund programming for at-risk youth. They championed the interests of students, families in-need, the domestically abused, the grieving, the elderly, the homeless, and of course, this generosity extended to feral and abandoned animals.
Volunteers were critical to the success of the Bacon Recreation and Creative Connections Arts Centers. Though the City Recreation Department coordinated activities at both sites, the involvement of caring men and women acting in concert with our staff, especially the W1shhfu1 Th1nk1ng group and our Amsterdam Community Gardens Committee, have made a critical and lasting impression on hundreds of children that have passed through their doors. Families were confidently able to send their children safely to summer camp, tournaments, and a whole year of cultural activities and classes. For many of these young people, these facilities are a home away from a home that does not exist. This outpouring of love and support had been in response to the tragic murders of Jonathan DeJesus and Paul Damphier. We cannot forget the reasons for our rallying or the gifts that these angels have delivered to us. We must continue to fully support these facilities and organizations for the good of future generations.
These individuals fight on for the health of this city and it is the health of this city that will ultimately decide our destiny. It is with that thought in mind that several agencies, the City, GASD, St. Mary’s Healthcare and our business and faith-based communities, will roll out a “Reinvent Yourself Amsterdam” program this Spring focused on the mind, body and spirit of each individual, as the well-being of our residents directly correlates to the well-being of our community. We will offer opportunities for folks to exercise together, discover nutritional alternatives to processed and “fast” food, expand access to locally produced vegetables and meats, and explore new creative or spiritual outlets. We are fleshing this strategy out now, but it is one that has had great success elsewhere and will be a tremendous chance for each of us to embrace a new, more fully realized experience of life (or just loose a little weight!)
Each year that I am afforded this time to share my perceptions of last year and plans for the upcoming months, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the job you have blessed me with as Mayor. I thank each and every one of you for the challenge this presents me (my life is never boring) and for the support that so many of you have shown me personally. I am inspired by those of you that have given so much of your hearts to our Amsterdam and look forward to marching bravely with you through our difficulties. Together, we will triumph over hardship.
I must take this moment to also caution that party affiliations and personal agendas have no place in working as one for the good of this city. This council should be mindful that voting as a block to stop the advancement of responsible pursuit is tantamount to acting as a wall against progress instead of a bridge to our future. I respectfully ask that each of you act in an informed and independent fashion when making decisions on behalf of our residents. Cooperation is an action, not a word. I, again, sincerely extend my hand in welcome in this regard.
Lastly, to the general public and those of you that had taken part in the most important of civil liberties, the election: do not consider your job done once your vote was cast. Pay attention. Watch where your money is going and make sure your interests are being served, not the interests of one or a few.
I end now with a quote from one of the greatest men to ever have lived, whose simple life and deep commitment to his people serves as an inspiration to all of us:
“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Let’s be patient, but let’s make our dreams a reality.
Thank you so much.
Mayor Ann M. Thane