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Dominick Calsolaro with Jerry Jennings in 2007

Photo: Chris Shields

A Necessary Evil?

Albany Common Council approves budget after heated, and baffling, discussion

“Am I happy about it?” asked Albany Common Councilman Michael O’Brien (Ward 12), addressing the special session of the council called to vote on the mayor’s proposed budget. “No. But as a necessary evil, I will vote for it.”

Having heard from a stream of residents during the public-comment period, some who demanded, some who pleaded, and some who begged for the council to consider adding a line of funding in the budget to address poverty and youth violence, a number of council people felt it necessary to explain their vote for a budget that contains a 4.9-percent property-tax increase for city residents and by most accounts does not directly address the most pressing policy matters facing the city of Albany.

Yet, for five council people, there was little conflict in voting against what they called a flawed document that the council had little say in creating. The lines of communication between the council and the mayor on the budget, they said, are basically nonexistent.

“I’m not conflicted with this budget that shows no vision for our city,” said Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3), who voted against it.

Ellis noted that the 2009 budget was the first budget that did not contain a raise for Mayor Jerry Jennings. “This is the first year the mayor has not taken a raise, and the city has been struggling since I got in this seat,” said Ellis, who called for the council to vote the budget down to signify that it was the mayor’s creation. “As an administrator, he is out of touch.”

Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) said that she believed the budget was created by a flawed process.

“This is not a policy document,” she said. “Because social policy in Albany is so elusive.”

Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) detailed his stand against the budget point by point while citing “a lack of transparency,” and criticized the lack of policy in the budget.

“There is nothing in here but numbers,” Calsolaro said, while holding up the document. He continued that the only way to make a statement on the budget and the mayor’s unwillingness to work with the council on it would be to vote against it.

Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2), who followed Ellis, seemed to take umbrage at Ellis’ remarks stating that she was conflicted about her vote. She criticized the way the budget was undertaken, sympathized with the residents who had asked for city funding to combat youth violence, and remarked that she sometimes did not feel safe walking from one side of Albany to another during daytime, let alone at night. Despite her criticism, McLaughlin voted for the budget.

Richard Conti (Ward 6), who released a memo criticizing the budget, began his comments by telling the council, “This is not a pleasant document. It cuts services, it decreases public-safety positions, and it raises taxes.” Conti then said he would vote for the budget in the hopes that it would be a “bridge to reform” in regard to the budget process next year.

James Sano (Ward 9), chairman of the Finance and Budget Committee, ended the council comments, outdoing Calsolaro’s lengthy admonition of the budget, first by scolding the state for not giving Albany its fair share of aid, and then reciting a list of recent headlines regarding the national economy, including speculation about Obama’s economic team. Sano’s lecture drew curious looks from some crowd members.

One anonymous member of the council said of Sano’s lecture: “I have no clue what he was doing. He didn’t make a point. I could have read a magazine about the economy in those 20 minutes.”

Sano did not address worries about public safety. He concluded his statements by accusing those who vote against the budget of hurting the working class because they would be voting against raises for city employees making $30,000 or less a year.

Ironically, the mayor himself had removed those raises from the budget, but the council moved to put them back in. Calsolaro, who was involved in pushing for the raises for those workers, said Sano’s comments were wrong and pointed out that the raises are contained in a separate council resolution. The budget passed 10-5 with negative votes coming from Calsolaro, Glen Casey (Ward 11), Ellis, Catherine Fahey (Ward 7), and Smith.

—David King

dking@metroland.net


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.




Learning the expensive way

As the state struggles with a budget crunch, SUNY students prepare to take a hit

On Nov. 18, Gov. David Paterson met with the leaders of the state Legislature in a failed attempt to close the state’s nearly $2 billion deficit. One of Paterson’s proposals was to reduce funding for the 64-campus State University of New York system, totaling $210 million in cuts for the nation’s largest higher-education system. In practical terms, that means a hiring freeze for teachers and researchers, fewer classes offered—which means students may take longer to graduate—and fewer services, among other things.

On the same day, several SUNY campus presidents came together for a board of trustees meeting to advocate a tuition hike of $310 this spring. By next fall, the hike will be doubled to $620, and will continue to rise with inflation-adjusted “predictable increases” as decided by the Higher Education Price Index.

University at Albany President George Phillip said that while this hike may be sudden, once the program structuring tuition is comfortably in place, students and their families can plan their payments better. “We’re very sympathetic to the students and how difficult it will be for some of them to be able to afford this increase. We’re also hoping that there will be adjustments in TAP to accommodate that.”

The Higher Education Services Corporation, which administrates the Tuition Assistance Program, TAP, said on its Web site that the program will continue to be available for students, but also points students to federal or private loans for further financial aid.

The only student trustee, Jake Crawford, is a 22-year-old graduate student at UAlbany getting his masters in public administration. He pays for his own schooling with his parents’ help, and receives almost nothing in grants. “The student assembly feels that the tuition policy put forward by the governor is an irrational increase,” he said. “It shouldn’t be any more than between 2 and 4 percent per year. This is about 14 percent, so it’s much higher than what we’re talking about: seven times higher than what we’re looking for.” He also said that if the trustees had to raise tuition, they should not have done it midyear. “We’ve already registered for something we’re going to, in effect, have to pay more for.”

This issue especially affects the students who pay their own way through school.

Karina Ramirez is a junior and aspiring Spanish teacher. She’s double minoring in sociology and education, along with her major in Spanish. She works part-time at L.L. Bean in Colonie Center, has three credit cards, TAP and Stafford loans, and a Toyota Celica, which she drives back and forth from work, school and her midtown Albany apartment. Her parents cannot support her, except for paying her car insurance and the Wal-Mart credit card that Ramirez uses to pay for groceries.

Basically, she is borrowing her life from the government, which she will have to start paying off six months after she graduates. “I technically won’t understand until I have to pay the bills,” she said. “I know what I’m getting myself into, but right now, these are just numbers to me. I just accept loans, and hopefully in the end, I’ll be fine. The only way you can make it in America is if you go to college. And if you don’t have the money for it, you have to get it somehow.”

She considers herself lucky that she was able to get her mother to cosign her loans, which slashed the interest rate from 18 percent to just 6 percent. “It’s another thing for students who need to take out loans and don’t have a cosigner,” she said. “The interest rate is tremendous. You’re only 18, 20 years old—you have no experience in credit.”

She may not be panicking over this increase, but she does realize the consequences. “It means I’m going to have to work a little harder in the end,” she said. “I’m going to have to take more time out of my studying and go get another job or something.”

For Johnson, the extra $310 is not a deal breaker, just another brick in the wall. “Should I be walking out of a state school system owing $60,000 in loans? How long is that going to take me to pay back? Who knows; my life, right? That’s a down payment for a house!”

—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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