Albany’s future looks grim unless it gets more state aid, Mayor Jerry Jennings said in his 2011 State of the City address. Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled New York State’s budget on Feb. 1, and the city will not recieve the lost state aid that the mayor has been lobbying for.
The payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) that Albany gets for hosting the Empire State Plaza will decrease by $7.85 million if the state Legislature passes Cuomo’s plan unaltered.
The executive budget reduced Aid and Incentives for Municipalities (AIM) by 2 percent outside of New York City, and Albany was no exception. In 2010-2011, Albany received $12,865,120. In 2011-12, the city will get $12,607,823.
Next year, all the things that Jennings warned about in his speech could come true. Albany residents might see fewer cops on the streets and shuttered firehouses. Free trash pick-up, park maintenance and youth and recreational programs also could become casualties.
“The reality is that without additional state aid, there is no way to provide a balanced budget without dramatic cuts in programs and services and city personnel or without raising real property taxes significantly,” the 18-year incumbent said in a Jan. 20 address that quoted everyone from Bono to President Obama.
To cope with hard times, the mayor said, he will “reach out to residents to get their recommendations,” both during a series of forums and the equivalent of an electronic suggestion box. The city also will also look for ways to economize and explore cost-effective collaborations with Albany County and local colleges, Jennings said.
“Maybe it’s time we hire a professional lobbyist instead of depending on the mayor,” said Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), who expects the city coffers to run dry before the year is out.
“I don’t think we’re going to have enough money left to make it through the whole year,” he said. “The mayor tends to overspend the budget every year. I’m very concerned about that, especially with all the snow we’ve had.”
The mayor should have tightened the municipal belt years earlier, knowing that state aid cuts were on the way, Calsolaro said. Jennings’ State of the City speech lacked specifics about how Albany will address its 2012 fiscal crunch, especially now that its reserves are all but depleted, he said.
“We actually increased spending by a couple million dollars over 2010, even though we were $23 million in the hole,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to fill that gap next year. If we come up with the exact same budget next year without putting a penny in it, the same $23 million deficit, would equate to a 40-percent tax increase. That really wasn’t addressed. What firehouse are we going to close if we do have to close one?”
Former Councilman Corey Ellis—who plans to make his second bid for the mayor’s seat in 2013—voted against the city’s budget for three consecutive years when he was on the Albany Common Council, claiming it wasn’t fiscally responsible. He also watched the State of the City address.
“It’s the first time that the mayor has uttered, ‘We’re in trouble,’ ” Ellis said. “Council members have told him, and people have come to hearings. They were all ignored. Now we’re in a crisis, he wants to see what people have to say.”
Ellis has repeatedly approached the council with suggestions for economizing, including a citywide audit, scaling down the city’s fleet of vehicles, slashing the mayor’s and commissioners’ salaries, reducing overtime and pensions and stopping subsidies to the municipal golf course. But they fell on deaf ears, he said.
“There was no plan on how to deal with the budget deficit that we saw coming four years ago,” he said. “We continued to spend more without scaling back. They kept kicking the can down the street.”
Not everybody who heard the mayor’s speech was critical. Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin said she appreciated Jennings’ announcement that the city is actively soliciting input from citizens.
She praised “this whole idea of asking residents what they think,” saying, “There are some smart people out there. We’re supposed to be here to listen to what people have to say.”
Regarding the city’s finances, she said, “It’s going to get worse before it get’s better. Albany’s not lost. Times are tough. Yes they are. It’s not just us. You’re going to find it no matter what city you go to.”