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Archive for March, 2015

March Madness has more meanings than one, especially for our folk, mayors and municipal leaders that have gone through one of the most brutal winters in a decade or more. Our streets are heaving. Water and sewer lines are snapping with regularity. Abandoned properties have collapsed with the weight of snow and time. Our plowing, salt and overtime lines are long depleted. Let’s face it; we’ve never seen so many potholes. This past season has been disastrous for the City of Amsterdam and others like it across the state. March was mad all right. Warmer weather can’t come soon enough.
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For my small city, March also marks the start of the budget process. Our Controller has assembled an un-doctored draft document of departmental requests, debt calculations and costs that we have no control over. It exceeds our cap by $1.5M. This includes the cost of pensions that went up this year by $400,000 and a bump in our health insurance bill of $900,000.

I take my place at the conference table with my most trusted staff and the balancing act begins. We identify wiggle room in some of the revenue estimates and begin going through the lines of each department, as though the myth that operating expenses are driving these astronomical increases is a reality. We all know they are not. We cannot cut pencils to get to a workable number.

I am very fortunate to have an extraordinarily talented team. We assesses the intricacies of the document with finesse and creativity. We play with the sales tax figures and increase the transfer from water to the general fund. We discover a discrepancy in the health insurance entry and remediate. We review the impact of PILOT payments and debt retirement. We propose new scenarios to produce much-needed revenues, such as providing garbage and recycling services to surrounding villages.

Over my tenure, we’ve adjusted our water and sewer rates to favor inside users. We’ve renegotiated the distribution of our sales tax allocations from the county and have arranged to receive a share of those allocations from surrounding towns by coupling them with the sale of water. We’ve restructured labor contracts and health insurance deals. We’ve taken recycling in-house, sell effluent from our wastewater plant to Madison County for a better rate, brokered an new solar energy contract, and get a cut of the action from our local “volunteer” ambulance provider, all to benefit our taxpayers.

Every year for the eight years of my term, we’ve worked to be more resourceful, more efficient, more transparent and less costly. In great measure, we’ve succeeded but as time ensues, there are less and less areas of benefit to visit. Our departments barely function with skeletal crews and aging equipment while costs soar to all-time highs. Our constituents demand more in the way of services and response, seemingly unaware of the tight constraints of our budget.

Even more worrisome, the state is deaf to our needs. The entire local juggling act is on the verge of collapse, yet every season brings a parade of sketchy programs that have us bounding over new hurdles and competing for space at the trough. This tact is neither innovative nor effective and we deserve better. We deserve MORE.

Still… March is not all madness. It’s also a time of new beginnings.

It’s time for the state to put down the whip and to pick up the olive branch. We, the members of NYCOM, come with outstretched hands bearing gifts. We bring experience, strength, ingenuity and most importantly, solutions. We are more than willing to work with the state toward our common goals.

You, dear reader, play an integral role in garnering the attention of our state representatives. Just as this month came in like a lion and looks likely to go out the same, we should lead our Pride. Use your voices to bring awareness to the plight of local municipalities. Use your contacts in the Senate, Assembly, state agencies and the media to send a message to Albany that ROARS.

After all, no one should ever ignore a hungry lion.

Mayor Ann M. Thane
NYCOM President
for the NYCOM Municipal Bulletin, 2015 Spring Edition

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I was recently fortunate enough to greet NYCOM members, state representatives and staff at our Legislative Priorities Meeting in Albany. It’s always a thrill for me to be with my compatriots. I am inspired by their resilience, fortified by their ingenuity, and buttressed by our combined numbers. We represent of 12 million souls. We are STRONG.
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This is important because we, at the local government level, are under siege.

Local governments are being blamed for the skyrocketing tax burden in NYS. This leaves most of us incredulous. We skimp, we save, we slash and we’ve shared for decades to bring our budgets in at the bare minimum and yet, the finger of adversity points at us, the leaders at the local level, and demands that we do more, that we some how wring more out of our already depleted departments and smile as we do so. March in step! Tow the line! Chant the rhetoric that plays so easily to the masses.

Well, that’s not our job.

Our job, as mayors and elected officials, is to provide services and opportunities to our residents as effectively and mindfully as we can. We may have been elected into the political sphere but our jobs are grounded in the daily operations of our municipalities. We are intimately familiar with each potholed street, water main break, sewage overflow, rusty swing set, graffitied wall, abandoned home, lumbering shell of factory, and neighborhood of need. Our everyday existence is one of problem solving, hand holding and sometimes even baby sitting. And we do this all at very little cost.

So, we feel a real sting when these accusations are made. We are proud of our prudent spending and constant self-assessments. That “shared service” is being presented to us as a “new” concept is ludicrous. We invented it.

We must counter the narrative that local governments are spendthrifts with the truth.

The facts show that local governments are the most effective and responsive governments in the world. In NYS, most manage to stay within the recently levied tax cap/freeze and still provide much needed services to our constituents. Unfortunately, this structure is not sustainable. We cannot freeze revenues when our costs go up, sometimes by double-digit percentages.

The inherent financial dysfunction in this state cannot be addressed by squeezing the life out the hearts of cities, town, and villages. We cannot cut our way to prosperity.

Unless we cut our costs.

This is where we must speak with one voice, the voice of 12 million of the 19 million voices in NYS. We have “needs”, not “wants.”

We NEED the quick response of our state representatives to provide the tangible mandate relief promised to us. NYCOM has presented real analysis and workable relief solutions for years, shedding light on answers that skirt controversy while being thoughtful and innovative.

As the most neglected entities in state budgets, local governments NEED meaningful investment in municipal infrastructure so that our communities can sustain safe and heathy environments and support future growth. We NEED a long-awaited increase to our AIM and CHIPS allocations.

We have behaved so well for years, waiting with our empty bowls, but it is time to insistently and in unison voice our needs for “more, sir.”

Finally, this is the message that the state needs to hear: don’t make us the enemy. Be our heroes! Working collaboratively should be a readily attainable goal for all of us, not just for those of us with local zip codes. We must set aside political alliances and work together across the state to overcome the adversity we face. We must work together with urgency and creativity so that local communities thrive.

Ultimately, local governments are not the problem, we are the solution. Rebirth of this state will happen along our beautiful main streets and waterfronts, in our schools and in our historic neighborhoods.

I am certain that the future of this state is one that will be prosperous. The question is, how long will it take? I believe, like the Governor, that it can be sooner than later if we ALL pull together in one direction.

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Dear Rick:

It seems to me that you asked Mr. Villa and me to list our priorities, not to debate.

My priorities are as follows:

1. Financial stability/accountability, 2. Economic Development, and 3. Quality of Life.

Much of the success of this administration falls under these broad themes and our work in the coming years will continue along these lines. The following list is not all-inclusive but I hope the readers get a sense of the scope of work I propose.

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FINANCIAL STABILITY
and ACCOUNTABILITY:

• Craft a fiscally conservative budget that sustains operations and invests in improved performance. Make sure every dollar spent is necessary and effectively allocated.
• Continue the implementation of the 2014 Corrective Action Plan scripted by the Controller, Corporation Counsel, the former Council and I. Ensure that resources are allocated to the Department of Finance to adequately track, reconcile and report all financial transactions.
• Pursue grants to augment the $27M in funding for capital improvements, equipment and transformative projects that we have received over the past seven years.
• Share services creatively: I offered a list of 34 initiatives to the County that can benefit us by cutting costs, increasing efficiencies and, sometimes, produce much-needed revenue.
• Explore new services that will generate revenue to offset property taxes.

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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:
• Expand water distribution to surrounding municipalities.
• Expand the Edson Street Industrial Park.
• Continue the redevelopment of our waterfront and downtown areas. Relocate trains station to urban core: create multi-modal transportation hub with commercial and banquet space.
• Repurpose industrial sites into multi-use commercial spaces, low tech incubators, or residential units.
• Continue to nurture partnerships with economic development entities (MCBDC, AIDA, CEDD, URA, CEG), our regional development partners on the MVREDC (I serve on the executive committee), state agencies and surrounding municipalities (our relationship with Schenectady is flourishing.)
• Capitalize on our location along the Thruway, Rail and River. The year 2017 will mark the 200th Anniversary of the Erie Canalway which will be an ideal time to showcase the new Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook.
• Build the Recreation Center to attract visitors from across the Northeast.
• Revamp our promotional materials and website to publicize opportunities in our community.

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QUALITY OF LIFE:
• Continue strategic infrastructure improvements (roads, water/sewer/storm distribution systems). Allocate necessary resources to our newly created Landbank.
• Fight blight through code enforcement, demolition, and targeted neighborhood revitalization strategies. Share code enforcement information and best practices with surrounding municipalities via the new software module we are creating with CTG and neighboring cities.
• Grow citizen engagement programs, e.g. neighborhood watch/beautification efforts, community gardens, citywide clean ups, etc.
• Support public safety departments adequately.
• Continue to offer recreational opportunities to youth and families at the Bacon Recreation Center and Creative Connections Arts Center, e.g. summer camps, free swimming lessons and transportation to city pool, after-school tutoring, sports tournaments, 4H club memberships, public arts projects, etc.
• Grow citywide celebratory events such as Spring Fling, National Night Out and Homecoming.
• Provide continued support for the downtown merchants, Amsterdam Waterfront Foundation, Library, Inman Center and the new Farmers’ Market.
• Continue to foster partnerships with the GASD, FMCC, SMH, W1shfu1Th1nk1ng, Centro Civico, churches and other not-for-profits to nurture body, mind and spirit.
• Continue to improve our municipal golf course, parks, playgrounds and monuments.
• Continue to promote historic preservation of our heritage properties.
• Re-engage community in master planning.

Again, there’s much more to this than I have listed here, but carving out a vibrant future for our city demands great thought, budgeting, planning and many, many hands.

One would think that, given the complexity of this job and extreme needs of this city, any candidate would have given considerable thought to priorities before announcing a run for office.

It’s been four and a half months since Mr. Villa announced. He hasn’t come up with any priorities in all of this time? THAT fact speaks for itself.

My motto:
“Be content to act, and leave the talking to others.”
~ Baltasar Gracián, translated from Spanish

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