Bill Dunne and the Democrats maintain overwhelming control
in Troy, the budget battle heats up
2004, Harry Tutunjian, the outspoken Troy City Council president,
had just won a mayoral victory against Democrat Frank LaPosta.
Both men had vied to replace outgoing Democratic Mayor Mark
Pattison, who had been term-limited out of office. Term-limited
out, in fact, largely due to an aggressive campaign led by
Tutunjian to reinstate the term limits that Pattison had abolished
in his second term. It was this power grab by Pattison that
had energized the Republicans and incensed the voters in Troy,
who went to the polls en masse and punished the Democrats
by kicking them out of office.
The Republicans enjoyed a forceful mandate from the electorate.
All six of the city’s county legislator seats were filled
by Republicans, and the Republicans controlled a veto-proof
majority on the city council. It was in this climate that
Councilman Bill Dunne first took office, representing the
city’s 4th District.
was the lone dissenting voice for those years,” says Dunne.
Jump ahead two years to the next election cycle. The Republicans
still held onto their majority on the council, but the Democrats
had begun to make some inroads. They got Peter Grimm elected
to represent the city on the county legislature and increased
their number on the council from two to three. Still in the
minority, Dunne continued to lead the Democratic opposition
to Tutunjian and his compliant council majority, challenging
the mayor’s agenda at every opportunity. Since his votes usually
had little effect on the outcome of legislation, Dunne had
to rely on rants in the press and at council meetings to wage
his battle against the mayor.
Dunne’s favorite line—then and now—has been to compare the
Tutunjian administration in Troy to the Bush administration
in Washington: same insular ignorance, same bullish arrogance.
In 2008, Tutunjian won an unsurprising victory in his reelection
bid, but for his fellow Republicans, his coattails were nonexistent.
The Democrats secured a veto-proof majority on the council,
and Bill Dunne, the new president pro tem, eagerly began to
outline an agenda that the new majority would undertake. Part
of this agenda, it appeared to Tutunjian, was to steer the
majority into a collision course with his office every chance
they could get.
years ago, they got their majority and they decided to bring
the city to a screeching halt,” Tutunjian says. “More time
has been wasted defending ourselves against their wild accusations
and trying to do their work for them then actually moving
the city forward. And I am embarrassed of it.”
But as Dunne points out, the Democrats were able to move forward
on issues that had been languishing for years: collecting
money owed the city from Rensselaer’s delinquent water bill;
moving forward legislation to “de-densify” the hill neighborhood
abutting Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and passing a landlord
registry that aims to curb the abuses of out-of-town slumlords.
And now this year, even as a voter-fraud investigation implicated
four of the Democratic candidates in Troy, the party was able
to win a sweeping victory in both the council and legislature
races, winning seven of the nine seats on the council and
all six of the county seats. They won all three at-large races—won
them, in fact, with candidates each implicated in the voter-fraud
scandal—and bounced Chairman Neil Kelleher and Majority Leader
Bob Mirch out of the legislature. It’s an overwhelming victory
for the Democrats. It has emboldened Dunne and his colleagues.
And it ought to have been a clear message to Harry Tutunjian,
said Dunne, who is rumored to already be eying a run against
Assemblyman Tim Gordon. “Even with this voter-fraud thing,
Harry got stomped. And I don’t know if he really gets it or
not. He either reinvents himself, or he is going to go down
in the history of Troy as just a footnote, and there won’t
be another elected office in his future.”
up for Dunne and his fellow Democrats: a battle with Tutunjian
over the mayor’s proposed budget. The mayor first proposed
his $63.7 million budget with a tax increase of 4.25 percent.
It’s the first budget in three years that will raise taxes,
the mayor says, thanks to the loss of $1.4 million of state
money from the pension system. “It’s all because of that loss,
and we have to get that money somewhere. We have to turn to
the taxpayers of Troy.”
In return, Dunne and the council presented amendments to the
mayor’s budget that would cut $426,000 more out of the spending
bill, bringing that tax increase down into the 2-percent range.
These cuts include doing away with the mayor’s director of
public information and the department head for Public Works.
While both of these changes aggravate Tutunjian, who sees
them as probable political retribution, it’s the council’s
attempt to move $270,000 of temporary salaries from the city
services and Parks and Recreation that most incenses the mayor.
council is once again making changes to the budget in areas
that they are not authorized to make changes in,” Tutunjian
says. “Those salaries pay for people to work at the pool,
all the parks, field maintenance, staff our summer youth program,
which I started four years ago, pays for the staff at the
golf course, and most of the staff at the special events that
the city hosts—Chowder Fest, Troy Pig Out, Rockin’ on the
River. Those are a lot of those salaries. What they are doing
is eliminating our opportunity to hire people to work for
Tutunjian sees the budget amendments, written by Dunne, as
a power grab. These changes, however, says Dunne, are to reign
have got to maintain strong fiscal oversight into what is
happening here in the city. We cannot see money wasted,” Dunne
says, pointing to the botched City Hall real-estate deal.
“They had all these claims about City Hall. ‘Oh my God, we’ve
got to get out. It’s going to fall down.’ First of all, we
debunked a lot of those claims. Ryan Biggs, the preeminent
structural engineering firm in this region, came out and said
that, no the building is safe. Then we agreed to the lease,
even though I voted against it, and now eight months later,
we still haven’t moved. The lease was a mess. It put the city
in the hole from the start, and it’s a mess. It’s just a mess.
We now have a building that we have spent over a million dollars
on, and we can’t occupy. It’s killing us.”
Financial control over the city, Dunne says, is simply not
something that the mayor should be trusted to handle without
strict oversight. “When a department head tells us the money
has been wasted due to a lack of supervision of summer help,
it is our fiduciary responsibility to exercise oversight.
This is not Harry’s money; it is the taxpayers’ money. We
are sick and tired of it being used to reward the kids of
contributors and loyalists. We need a plan of where and how
this will be spent. We will exercise what power we need to
if it means protecting the taxpayer from wasteful spending.”
Plus, he adds, the mayor has to come to the council anytime
he needs to move money around anyway.
Regardless of how Dunne feels about it, Tutunjian argues,
by moving this money, and cutting jobs—such as a department
head designated by the city charter—the council is proposing
policy changes. And policy decisions do not fall under the
Forcing the mayor to go to the council every time he needs
to hire employees for the Action Team, or the golf course,
or the swimming pool, Tutunjian complains, “is not how government
is supposed to work. They are part-time legislators, and they
are meant to legislate. They are not there to run the city.
They are treading on a very fine line. If it’s control over
these spending things that they want, they better be ready
to run the city.”
Last year, the Democrats pushed through a budget that attempted
to move $500,000 from multiple budget lines into a contingency
fund over which they would have oversight. Tutunjian fought
back with a lawsuit, arguing that the council had wreaked
havoc on legally inalterable budget lines and usurped the
If the council pushes forward with this year’s budget, Republican
Councilman Mark McGrath predicted, the city should be prepared
for yet another lawsuit.
McGrath adds that he can’t support the budget, as it is clearly
a hypocritical attack on the mayor. While the Democrats are
cutting the mayor’s public- information officer, they are
budgeting for themselves a full-time assistant.
Tutunjian agrees. He says that when he was president of the
council, they also had a full-time assistant. However, this
council abolished that position a few years ago and replaced
it with multiple, part-time employees at lesser salaries.
“So I think they have two or three people working as assistants,”
Tutunjian says. By reinstituting a full-time confidential
assistant, he adds, the council will now have more staff than
when he was on that body. “An all-time record. And they are
doing that when they are trying to cut another position out
of the mayor’s office. Right now, I have one secretary and
one deputy of public information, that’s it. I dare you to
go into any mayor’s office, whether it’s a large or small
city, and see two staffers in the mayor’s office. We’ve cut
and cut and cut, and now the council wants to leave me with
one secretary in a full-time office that receives a couple
dozen phone calls a day, not to mention FOIL requests?”
Dunne is unimpressed with Tutunjian’s complaints, and, he
says, he is prepared for a lawsuit.
He points out that the money spent on the current council
staff is basically the same as it was before the Democrats
took power, and that the money to pay for the full-time assistant
will come from eliminating benefits for the council.
As for the spokesman position, he is unsympathetic. “He’ll
just have to update Twitter and Facebook all by himself. When
times are tough, people want to hear from the mayor, not a
spokesman.” Jeff Pirro, the current spokesman for the mayor,
he adds, “is a political hack who does nothing but promote
Harry’s personal political ambition.”
upbeat Bill Dunne is cheerfully outlining some of the goals
for the council over the next two years: “We got to address
the issue of the Fire Department, and the staffing up at the
Baton Road fire station.” That station has served as both
ambulance and fire responder, he says, and there are only
three guys who work there. If the ambulance goes out, there
is nobody left to respond to a fire. “They figure that it
would be eight hires to staff that place full time. And it’s
a huge number right now.”
He sees a possible solution to the staffing issue tied to
beefing up the current landlord registry. “We could do annual
inspections of properties. The firefighters’ union has expressed
interest in doing that. We might be able to take some of the
revenue generated by the code inspections to fund positions
in the Fire Department.”
He would also like to reach out to the city’s economic development
coordinator, and agencies in the city, and work to help make
it easier for people to rehabilitate property in the city,
and find innovative ways to attract new business.
The key for Dunne and the rest of the council Democrats, however,
in moving their agenda forward will be to maintain a cohesive
unit—which might be easier said than done. As multiple sources
point out, Council President Clem Campana, at-large Councilman
John Brown and at-large Councilman-elect Mike LoPorto are
each beginning to angle for possible runs for the mayor’s
seat in 2011. Over the next year, observers note, these three
men will likely be busy positioning themselves as the leader
of the party, which could derail the council and fracture
the party. And of course, there is the possibility that the
special prosecutor might win convictions that send some of
the Democrats to prison.
Regardless, Dunne is optimistic. He wasn’t named in the voter-fraud
investigation, and he seems, now at least, content with the
political heights he has achieved and positive about the future
of his party. “Maybe Troy has finally ended its flirtation
with the Republican Party.”