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Photo: Alicia Solsman

Who’s the Man?

As Bill Dunne and the Democrats maintain overwhelming control in Troy, the budget battle heats up

By Chet Hardin

In 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.

“I 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.

“Two 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.”

First 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.

“The 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 the city.”

Tutunjian sees the budget amendments, written by Dunne, as a power grab. These changes, however, says Dunne, are to reign Tutunjian in.

“We 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 council’s purview.

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 mayor’s authorities.

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.”

An 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.”

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