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Less Than Zero?

Rensselaer County Republicans are touting their “0-percent” tax-rate increase; Democrats say it’s just smoke and mirrors

Kathy Jimino, the Republican executive of Rensselaer County, released her budget last month with a proud boast: In a year of institutional financial ruin and generally crummy economic news, Jimino delivered to the Legislature a budget that proposes no increase in the county’s property-tax rate.

“Our efforts toward continued residential and business growth, combined with strict fiscal controls I have demanded of County Departments,” Jimino stated in a press release, “to ensure that our taxpayer’s dollars are spent in the most frugal way possible allows us . . . to hold the line on taxes.”

The proposed budget was well-received by the Republican majority. Yet for the Democratic minority, as Legislator Kevin Harrington (D-District 2) has argued, the devil is in the details. While it is true that the average tax rate will remain at $10.46 per $1,000, the property-tax levy for individual municipalities did not remain unchanged; some municipalities saw a property-tax decrease, and some, like Troy, saw an increase.

“True, with the revaluation, there is no tax-rate increase,” Harrington said. “But the rate is meaningless.” It is the actual tax burden that hits taxpayers’ wallets.

A homeowner with a house at $100,000 market value in Troy paid $470 in 2008, and, according to this proposed budget, will pay $531.35 in 2009. East Greenbush, Sandlake, and others will actually see a reduction. The city of Rensselaer’s tax on a $100,000 house will go down by $25.25, to $503.74.

“As you can see, there are ups and downs, depending on the municipality’s equalization rate, what they say there taxable value is,” said Chris Meyer, Rensselaer County spokesman. “The only thing we can control is: We set the rate, we know how much money we need to come up with at the end of the year to pay our bills. We take the total taxable value at the end, multiply times the rate that we need to charge, and we are good to go.”

Last year, real property tax for Rensselaer County amounted to $47.8 million, while this year the tax burden increased to nearly $50 million, a roughly $2.1 million increase.

This is due, Jimino pointed out—as she does every year—to the increasing pressure of state and federal mandates, which consume 90 percent of every tax dollar.

Why, asked Democratic legislators Harrington and Peter Grimm (D-District 1), would the county increase real property tax by $2.1 million when there is money available? In the budget, as it has been for years, the Chamber Renovation Fund sits, collecting wealth. Currently, it amounts to $675,000, and operates essentially as a slush fund.

The minority is suggesting that the county transfer $635,000 of the money budgeted for the renovation fund into the general fund. It is something that the county has done in the past, when put in a similar situation.

Harrington is also proposing moving $1.5 million from the general fund cash balance, which is currently proposed at $4 million, into the general fund interfund line, which would free the money to be used to offset the tax-levy increase.

Harrington pointed out that reducing the cash balance by $1.5 million would simply be reducing that line to what it was in 2008’s budget. “We would be in the same fiscal position that we were last year,” Harrington said. “And get rid of the tax levy.”

He is awaiting word from the comptroller’s office as to whether or not this would be legal. “But we would be down to $2.5 million in that general fund, cash on hand, just like we were in 2008,” Harrington said.

“Thanks to careful management by the Legislature,” said Legislator Martin Reid (R-District 4), “we have compiled a modest fund balance, set aside in the chamber renovations fund. In the past, we have used those funds to make improvements to the legislative chamber, including a motorized lift, and have also used the funds to protect county services for seniors, veterans and youths when costs for state mandates rose sharply. Given the problems facing Albany, it would make sense for us to hang on to our reserves, because the state may shift even more expenses our way.”

Further, critics of the Democrats’ plan ask, if in 2009 there is a transfer of money from one part of the budget to another part, to mask a necessary tax increase, doesn’t that just mean that the 2010 budget will require an even more painful tax burden?

“If the economy is as bad as we think it’s going to be, then next year, no matter what, it is going to be horrible. I would like cuts, but if they [the Republicans] don’t even want to lower the levy any, they surely don’t want cuts, and we [the minority] only have six votes,” Harrington said. “But if you take $2.1 million more out of the pockets of homeowners this year, it is going to hurt them. It is going to hurt their spending. It is going to hurt sales-tax revenue, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Republicans are fond of saying that taxes should never be raised for any reason, said Harrington. “But taking $2.1 million more in property tax—call it whatever you want, but Troy homeowners’ tax bill is going up 13 percent. To say that it is not a tax increase is a bogus argument. The bottom line is that they are taking $2.1 million more in levy than they did last year. And I say, let’s not.”

—Chet Hardin

What a Week

Out-of-State Protest

Californian voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which wrote into that state’s constitution the one-man-one-woman definition of marriage, was the target of protests in Albany last weekend. It was reported that between 300 to 500 protesters gathered in front of City Hall in conjunction with a nationwide show of solidarity that drew similar rallies in Providence, Houston, Phoenix, and a dozen other cities. And while we understand the importance of this concerted show of disapproval and disgust for that backward referendum, we here at Metroland wonder when people are going to launch the rallies in front of the Bronx office of this state’s most adamant, and currently effective, opponent of marriage equality, the Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.

Pricey Neglect

This week an ordinance sponsored by Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) that increased building-code fines for landlords of abandoned buildings was passed unanimously by the council. Landlords who violate codes would face up to $1,600 in fines a day. Ellis noted that there are issues with code enforcement in the city and that the council has had problems getting information from the city about how many abandoned buildings there are and who owns them. “If enforced, this would generate income for city,” said Ellis, “if not also take a direct inventory of the landlords who have given up on those homes.”

Bike Friendly?

A proposed ordinance put forward by Albany Common Councilman James Scalzo (Ward 10) that would require bikes to be registered in Albany was met by protest at the meeting on Monday. Local bicyclists decried having to pay to register their bikes—saying they would feel better about registering their bikes if the city worked on making it easier for bicyclists to share the roads with bike lanes. Bicyclists also worried that the ordinance would give the Albany Police Department more reason to stop them during their commute. The ordinance originally was proposed to help prevent bike theft, and would have nonregistered bikes impounded until the bikes were properly registered to their owners. The ordinance was referred to committee.

Shopping for Your Community

Altweeklies ask readers to shop local this holiday season

To some people, $100 is a pittance: easily earned, easily spent, and easily forgotten. But what many consumers don’t realize is that where they choose to spend their money is an investment with potentially huge consequences. If spent in the right place, that $100 will re-enter the local economy and strengthen the community.

A hundred dollars is all Jody Colley is asking the readers of about 80 alternative weekly papers nationwide to spend this holiday season in local, independent stores. The publisher of the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., believes that if she can get her readers to spend that much of their holiday budget in an independent store or on an independently provided service, they will see a monumental improvement to their local economy. Just how monumental? The average net impact is estimated to be about $6 million per community. And with all the weeklies combined, the impact nationally could mean $482.5 million staying in the communities where it was spent. If all of Metroland’s readers were to commit to the $100 buy-local pledge, the net positive economic impact on the region would be about $5 million.

“It’s more than just shopping for people who turn their nose up a little bit, either because they just don’t want to support the commercialism of the holiday or because they can’t afford it,” said Colley. “It’s definitely more than the just the shopping angle.”

It is an idea, she said, that “lives on beyond this holiday season. . . . To make the point that your choices matter.”

She said that while this is an issue that has always been important to her, she thought of making it an initiative only about a month ago. She sent a mass e-mail to all the publishers of the 130-papers-strong Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. One enthusiastic supporter of the initiative is Metroland’s own editor and publisher, Stephen Leon.

“I think one of the reasons the timing was good this year,” said Leon, “is the economy being the way it is has made people think, ‘OK, the national economy and the world economy are tanking. We’ve got a big problem here, so where do we start solving this problem?’ Many people have come to the conclusion that if we strengthen our own local business community, that’s the only thing we really have control over.”

He cited research showing that only 43 percent of the money spent in big-box chain stores is put back into the local economy. If the store is locally owned, however, that percentage is more like 73 percent.

“A hundred dollars is not a lot of money in the big scheme of things,” he said, “but a lot of people making sure to spend at least hundred dollars in the local community as opposed to a Barnes and Noble or a Wal-Mart or whatever—it’s surprising how big the impact is.”

Just ask Karisa Centanni of Honest Weight Food Co-Op in Albany. Her co-op’s fresh, local produce is challenged by the big corporations’ visibility and convenience. “It’s not feasible to always drive 20 miles to support a local independent business,” she admits. But Centanni believes that “the added benefits of reinstating local-living economy is knowing who you’re doing business with, and having a higher quality of life.”

“It’s a really simple action that has the potential to transform communities,” Centanni said.

—Allie Garcia

What Can Albany Afford?

Common Council members clash over priorities in the city’s 2009 budget

On Monday night at the caucus of the Albany Common Council, Councilman James Sano (Ward 9) called for a show of hands to see how many members would support a 2-percent raise for nonunion city employees making between $35,001 and $70,000 a year. There had been discussion beforehand. Councilwoman Catherine Fahey (Ward 7) voiced reservations, noting that she thought the council had agreed to give 4-percent raises to nonunion city employees who made $35,000 or less because the mayor had cut out all raises for nonunion employees in his proposed budget and there had been “public outcry.” Fahey wondered why the council was adding more cost to the budget to give well-paid employees a raise they hadn’t asked for. Other members told Fahey they had received e-mail from other employees making more than $35,000 a year complaining that they also deserved a raise. So Sano called for a show of hands, and eight members agreed.

Sano, frustrated with the budget process, said, “We’ve been beating this thing up for weeks,” and asked who would vote for the budget that very night. Sano wondered aloud if the same eight who supported the 2-percent-raise proposal would support his budget.

A number of council people objected, saying they had not received information they had requested about the city’s gasoline expenditures and still had concerns that were not addressed. But Sano pressed forward until Councilman Glen Casey (Ward 11) pointed out that the public had not been told there would be a vote on the budget that night.

At the meeting, Common Council President Pro Tem Richard Conti (Ward 6) distributed a memo detailing his concerns with the proposed 2009 budget. Among those concerns were worries that the projected sales-tax revenue in the budget would not actually be realized, the reality that state-aid projections in the budget might be too generous in light of the state’s financial trouble, and that the proposed 4.9-percent property-tax increase is likely too great of a burden for homeowners in Albany to bear.

Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) said he plans to vote against the budget because of those concerns and others. “I think the public is already disappointed in this year’s budget,” he said. “The council is not doing itself a favor trying to push it through. The thing I see that is the most important part is it does not contain direction for the city.” Ellis said the property-tax increase would drive more people from Albany.

Meanwhile, as a larger matter, Ellis said the budget does not address any of the issues the city is facing, including youth violence and abandoned buildings. “I don’t know how any council person can vote yes on the budget when it has nothing to do with policy issues,” said Ellis. “Property-tax relief is a policy issue; how we are going to deal with youth violence is a policy issue. How do we deal with the infrastructure in our city? Policy issue. The only thing [the mayor’s budget] says is, ‘We don’t get a fair share of state aid’—that’s not a policy. We continue to hear council members say hopefully next year these things will be addressed. This is the third budget I have been here for and it is time for the council leadership to take a stand. We have to force the administration to do what is best for city.”

Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) said prior to Monday’s meeting that he was “50-50” on voting for the mayor’s budget, telling Metroland, “I thought it was probably one of the best budgets the mayor put in since I’ve been on the council,” while noting concerns about bonding issues. Afterwards, he said he is “80-20” for voting against it.

Calsolaro said he is concerned that the city’s debt load has not been addressed. And he stands against the proposal to give a 2-percent raise to nonunion city workers making $35,001 to $70,000. “I don’t think people making $70,000 should get a raise this year. I don’t think that is the message we should be sending in tough financial times,” he said. Calsolaro said that he brought up the issue of giving a 4-percent raise to nonunion city workers who make less than $35,000 and was glad the mayor supported it, but sees no reason to extend it to those making more.

Ellis said that this year the council needs to take time to ensure that long-term issues are addressed in the budget despite the difficulties they face having no budget director, and if they can’t, the budget needs to be voted down and left in the hands of the mayor. “When I vote ‘no’ I am going to ask, ‘How can you say this is a budget the citizens of Albany can live with?’ They can’t. If the council wants to send a message that the city is heading in the wrong direction and has no policy on youth violence, they should vote ‘no’ and allow the mayor to veto and say this is the mayor’s budget.”

As of press time, the council was scheduled to meet Wednesday night to further discuss the budget. The council is expected to vote on it next Monday.

—David King

Pay Nothing

Secret system protecting friends and family of Albany Police from parking fines prompts the Common Council to ask for answers

A recent story in the Times Union seemed to have lit a fire under a number of Albany Common Council council members on Monday. The story highlighted a system that has existed in Albany for at least 15 years in which “bull’s-eye” decals have been issued by an Albany Police union to friends and family of Albany police officers allowing them to park their cars illegally without penalty.

The decals, which are affixed to cars’ windshields, prompt parking-enforcement officers to issue a ticket without writing in a fine, which means that no fine is ever recorded with the city, and so the violators know they can simply throw away the ticket.

Common Council President Shawn Morris sent out a memo to members calling for an investigation into the system to find out how public-service officers knew to issue no-fine tickets to vehicles bearing the decals, whether it is possible to track all the tickets that have been issued, and to determine the origins of the practice, Morris told Metroland.

Common Council President Pro Tem Richard Conti (Ward 6) wrote a letter requesting detailed information about the practice from the city treasurer, Betty Barnett, and Police Chief James Tuffey.

Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) told Metroland that he hoped it might be possible to track the tickets, but was discouraged by comments made by Tuffey last week to the Times Union that tickets could only be tracked on a “day-by-day basis.” This week, APD spokesman James Miller told the Times Union that records of the ghost tickets were not catalogued in City Hall, “because they were not subject to monetary collections.”

Barnett has declined to speak about the story publicly, while Tuffey has claimed ignorance of the parking decals.

Mayor Jerry Jennings issued a citywide directive this week bringing an end to issuing no-fine tickets.

During the Monday caucus, some members of the council were motivated to push through some legislation. Councilman James Sano (Ward 9) even called to see a vote of hands on the city budget. He continued to push for the vote despite protests from other members who were concerned they had not received information about usage of city vehicles and other budget-related information.

The council also faced the issue of approving a supplement to the environmental impact statement for the Marriott Hotel proposed to be built in the Pine Bush. Although a number of council people were hesitant to vote on the issue because of a letter from Chris Hawver, executive director of the Pine Bush Commission, asking that the council delay the vote because he had not had a chance to review the supplement, other council members furiously pushed for the supplement to come to a vote. It did, and it passed 10 to 5.

There was not nearly as much zeal on the part of most council members when it came to addressing the issue of the parking decals. No ad hoc committee was formed, as had been suggested by Morris. Instead, a number of members advocated waiting to get a response to Conti’s letter that requested information from Barnett and Tuffey.

Some on the council noted that the chief and the treasurer had both claimed not to know anything about the practice and wondered what good it would do to ask for information from them.

Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) seemed to laugh off the idea that the head of the police did not have knowledge of the ticketing practice and said, “We have a rogue in the department?”

Ellis noted the council is waiting to hear from the chief about his investigation into the sale of automatic weapons in the APD.

“We couldn’t get info from the police chief about guns that were sold under his watch,” said Ellis. “Do you think we are going to get accurate information about what the stickers were about unless the council subpoenas people to come in front of them?”

Ellis said he doubted the council would take the steps necessary to get to the bottom of the issue. “I don’t think the council is going to subpoena someone, and unless the council stands up and exerts its power, nothing is going to happen. My point is: I don’t want to put energy into something that isn’t going to bear any fruit.”

As of press time, the council was scheduled to meet on Wednesday this week to bring the parking issue up again. The issue of the parking decals comes during a time when the city has been stepping up efforts to collect overdue parking fines.

“Ironies abound, don’t they?” asked Morris. “How widespread is it? Are we talking about three tickets a day, or is it 25, 30 or 40 that park for free? We need to understand the scope for parking-fine revenue as well as the turning over of parking spaces downtown.”

—David King

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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