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Happy Jerry: Mayor Jennings gets some more cash to play with.

Photo: Will Waldron

Capital Financing

Albany gets a bailout just in time to save a certain someone’s tanned behind

Jerry Jennings has been making it clear for weeks that Albany is strapped for cash. There is an unofficial hiring freeze in the city, and even Jennings’ pet project, the proposed Albany Convention Center, may be in trouble because of the worsening economy and the state’s tight budget. But Jennings, with help from local legislators, pushed to have the state pay his city $11 million annually for the next 30 years.

Critics say Jennings knew that the specter of a financially deteriorating capital city—one that could possibly make negative headlines for the state’s legislators and executive—would likely be enough to get him a few million every year in payments in lieu of taxes. Thanks to one last slap on the back from Sen. Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick), Jennings’ gamble paid off, and a bill designed to give Albany payment in lieu of taxes for the Harriman Campus passed through the Senate.

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) said the bill miraculously came back from the brink of oblivion, thanks to Bruno: “It was absolutely dead till he took control. I guess he was giving us one more gift for Albany, and it was needed. But again we had to go to the state and ask for money. But it probably is something we should have been getting anyway.”

Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), who worked to get the bill through the Assembly, said the PILOT funding will help dig the city out of a deficit. “This picks up next year’s deficit, which I hear is around 5 or 6 million dollars. There are rumors for higher amounts, but whatever the deficit for next year is, it makes it go away. As with all cities, we have a lot of problems with crime, abandoned buildings, deteriorating streets, just to name a few. And hopefully this money can help.”

Although Jennings’ public complaining about hiring freezes and department cutbacks was potentially self-damaging in light of the fact that Jennings is in charge of presenting the Common Council with the city’s budget, it turns out to have given Jennings the financial wiggle room he needed to avoid disaster for a few more years.

If the bill is signed by Gov. David Paterson, the city will receive payments for 30 years, and the payments will decrease only if taxpaying businesses take up space on the Harriman Campus. But critics say Jennings has displayed his ability to squander financial windfalls time and time again.

Calsolaro, who has been a constant critic of Jennings and his spending policies, said that although he sees this as another bailout for Jennings, it is a financial boost the city deserves. “What they are paying us is 2 percent of its assessed value, and that is a deal for them. And it is great for us. We get 5.5 this year and then 11 million annually for the next 30 years. So that’s nice, and it’s kind of good timing, too. The city needs money.”

Calsolaro pointed out that the city’s PILOT funding for the proposed Convention Center drops from $22.5 to 15 million a year starting in 2011.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” said Calsolaro of the Harriman PILOT payments. “We provide services for the campus: EMT, fire and police.”

On the other hand, Calsolaro said he is concerned that the city has to rely yet again on the state for a bailout. “It does bother me a little bit that we had to ask the state for money. I don’t think we can keep doing that. It doesn’t show that we are running our budget how it should be run.”

Calsolaro’s message to City Hall is that with Bruno’s departure, this is probably the last bit of money Albany will be handed by the state for the foreseeable future.

“We can’t keep hoping the state is going to bail us out. This is probably the last one . . . for a long time. We have to look long-range and better manage the city’s finances and reduce our debt service. Our city has a shrinking population, and we need to figure out how to keep services up without breaking the back of our remaining taxpayers.”

The buzz in political circles before the Harriman PILOT payments came through was that Jennings, faced with financial shortfalls, an escalating gun violence problem and an unpopular police chief, might not run again.

Calsolaro said he expects this Harriman deal will boost the prospect that Jennings will run again in 2009.

“I think anything that is good government is good politics,” said McEneny. “If the government has major problems that are not being addressed and then some of the problems go away, it puts the mayor in a stronger position. But as I told the speaker, I really wanted it for my people, not necessarily for Jerry or the council or anybody else.”

Calsolaro said he suspects that the initial PILOT payment might not be used to directly address any of the city’s more pressing problems.

“I expect he may actually cut taxes next year,” said Calsolaro. “We may see that 11 million used to have no tax increase or a slight cut in taxes, because 2009 is an election year, and you know us ‘electeds’ like to show no tax increase or a reduction in taxes during election years!”

Calls to Jennings’ office for this story were not returned.

—David King

What a Week


A Time to Fight

Congress stabs the constitutional right to privacy in the back—and Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand helps

On June 20, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to give amnesty to telecommunications companies that, allegedly, illegally helped the U.S. government wiretap calls—calls sometimes made by U.S. citizens. Along with that provision, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the bill “permits the government to conduct mass, untargeted surveillance of all communications coming into and out of the United States, without any individualized review, and without any finding of wrongdoing. And it permits only minimal court oversight. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) only reviews general procedures for targeting and minimizing the use of information that is collected. The court may not know who, what or where will actually be tapped.”

Paul Tonko, who is running for the seat being vacated in the 21st District by U.S. Rep Mike McNulty (D-Green Island), said the bill is damaging to American’s civil rights: “Violating constitutional rights is a serious matter. The system of checks and balances should be maintained to prevent any of that sort of violation and to have now provided immunity is a serious step. Certainly I think the work done in Washington should ensure civil liberties for all Americans and our liberties should not be constrained, and certainly not by our own government.”

Although the bill faced strong resistance from a great number of Democrats including McNulty, a group of Blue Dog Democrats—Democrats whose districts lean conservative—came out in full support of the bill. U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Greenport), of the 20th District, was one of those Blue Dog Democrats. Rachel McEneny, spokeswoman for Gillibrand, said the congresswoman would not be available for comment this week, but would be having a press conference on the bill in the future.

Gillibrand had faced a number of TV attack ads funded by “Defense of Democracies,” a Republican PAC criticizing her for allowing Congress to go on vacation in February rather than vote on FISA legislation. The ad features images of Osama bin Laden and insists that “new surveillance against terrorists is crippled!”

Statements made on Gillibrand’s Web site indicate that the congresswoman is proud of her vote for the FISA bill. “This bipartisan FISA bill provides the intelligence community with the modern tools they need to effectively combat terrorism,” read her statement. “Providing for Americans’ security at home and abroad is the government’s highest priority. We can protect America and protect our civil liberties at the same time.”

While her statements suggest that Gillibrand bought into the Republican propaganda surrounding the bill, Darrius Shahinfar, who is running for Congress in the 20th District and who spent time working for Gillibrand, clearly did not. Shahinfar told the Times Union: “The critical problem of this compromise is that it contains a free pass for the Bush administration’s and telecommunication companies’ past actions. The administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps cannot be reviewed, and the process to review the telecommunications companies’ participation in the wiretapping program leads inevitably to immunity for those companies. . . . This will not make Americans any safer from threats at home or abroad; rather it will put us at the mercy of secret agreements between corporations and our government.”

Gillibrand added in her written online statement that her support of the bill had a lot to do with her membership in the Armed Services Committee: “As a member of the Armed Services Committee and Terrorism subcommittee, this bill strongly supports the intelligence needs of our troops. Every day, our young men and women in the field are in harm’s way and depend on surveillance to accomplish their missions safely and effectively. It was essential that we give them the tools they need. The bill also draws the fine line of protecting our Constitutional Rights.”

Although Gillibrand’s vote was troubling to a number of local liberals, her vote may actually reflect the Democratic party’s developing approach towards FISA law.

Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, indicated that he would likely vote for the 2008 FISA legislation, even though he would prefer to see immunity for the telecom companies stripped from the bill. At a press conference on June 26, Obama told the press, “My view on FISA has always been that the issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security interests of the American people.”

A number of pro-Obama groups have organized to lobby the senator to change his position on the matter. Meanwhile, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) ensured that a vote on the legislation would be delayed until later in July, as he is vehemently opposed to telecom immunity and is working to strip it from the bill.

Tonko said, however, that he does not believe the Democratic Party will end up embracing telecom immunity or parts of the FISA legislation that make warantless wiretapping of American citizens any easier. Tonko said because of the “serious nature” of the issue he hopes to sit down and speak to McNulty personally about it. And he said he does not believe the American people will stand for it.

“I think as more and more public opinion is expressed on the latest version of the bill, we will see more pressure placed on the people who are involved in the process,” said Tonko. “It is a very serious step providing telecom companies with immunity that may have violated constitutional rights no matter who may have directed it. The insurance of civil liberties is an important, fundamental, foundation of our democracy.”

—David King

Loose Ends

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