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Depriving the Deprived

Albany budget cuts would shortchange low-income youth, citizens say

Concerned community members had a strong message for the Albany Common Council this week: Albany’s proposed 2011 budget will hurt inner-city youths.

As cost-saving measures, Mayor Jerry Jennings’ office has proposed eliminating summer jobs for teens and closing down Public Bath No. 2 on Fourth Street.

During an Oct.18 public hearing on the proposed budget, people who work with kids in some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods asked the council to reconsider. Council President Carolyn McLaughlin encouraged affected youngsters to speak before the council.

Those affected can attend the council’s finance committee meeting—when the parks and recreation budget will be discussed—at 5:30 PM on Oct. 26, said Tom McPheeters, development director for Grand Street Community Arts. If they wait until the city’s second public budget hearing at 7 PM on Nov. 1, it may be too late, he said.

McPheeters told the council that for the past seven years, the summer youth employment program has provided valuable resources for the city and its youth. “There are a number of organizations that benefit and use the program effectively,” McPheeters said, and that more than 1,000 kids usually sign up.

Activities include the Youth Organics Program, which, program director Rana Morris explained, employs 15 to 20 teens in organic gardening and sustainable agriculture projects. Young workers till the soil in a quarter-acre garden on the grounds of the Creighton Storey Housing Project. They use the vegetables they’ve raised in weekly cooking classes at the Governor’s Mansion, Morris said. And the young farmers donate many of the veggies to the Trinity United Methodist Church Food Pantry. Neighborhood children who stop by take home tomatoes and other produce for their own tables, she said.

Youth FX, a summer film program whose enrollment, according to program director Bhawin Suchack, has more than doubled since its start three years ago, is also at risk of elimination. The program uses older, more experienced teens to help tutor newcomers in making short and documentary films. The teens handle everything from scouting for locations on the phone to getting release forms signed. Workers are paid for only four hours, but often they stay for six, Suchack said.

Kids are “really, really interested in working on a meaningful project,” he said. “They take it very seriously. It’s an opportunity for them to not only earn some money, but to get real-life experience that is really valuable. For a lot of them, it actually opens up a whole opportunity that they never envisioned for themselves before.”

Losing Bath House No. 2 would mean no more summer swimming for 56 children at the Free School in Albany’s South End, director Deirdre Kelley said. “For some kids, it’s where they learn how to swim,” she said. “We’re small. We don’t have a gym; we don’t have a pool. We use neighborhood facilities to give kids exposure to swimming and basketball. They love that place. They’re really passionate about it.”

Two councilwomen spoke in support of saving the public pool and the summer youth programs. Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) said, “Having that kind of opportunity helps to level the playing field.”

Calling Youth FX a “cool program,” Councilwoman Catherine Fahey (Ward 7) said that Youth Organics and the bath house “should be some of the last things that we think of cutting.”

“I encourage you to take a close look and consider making cuts elsewhere,” she told her colleagues.

You could almost see the steam coming out of Councilman Dominick Calsolaro’s (Ward 1) ears when he offered his take on the proposed budget as a whole. He claimed that the city was lowballing the bottom line by millions of dollars.

The mayor’s office has skewed the figures to make it look as though spending has been reduced, when really, it went up, Calsolaro suggested. “The general-fund budget is leaving out $5 million in debt-service payments,” he said. “It’s really a $165 million budget, not a $159 million budget. It’s $2 million more than last year.”

“To me, it’s outrageous,” he said. “People should be screaming about the budget. It’s not truthful. Why are we doing that to the taxpayers and citizens of Albany?”

Tom Ellis of Albany said the city could help its balance sheet and increase safety by enforcing traffic violations. “I’d like to see the city make more of an effort toward convicting people charged with running red lights, not stopping at stop signs and speeding,” he said. “They can plead it down to a parking ticket. It’s unsafe for the city’s children, the disabled and the elderly. The city could probably collect more revenue. It might even be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.”

Altogether, the preliminary budget would eliminate 155 jobs from the city workforce, including 34 layoffs. As it stands, the budget would drive a 7.5 percent increase in residential property taxes, while commercial property taxes would fall 2 percent.

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

Bring Me No Flowers

Budget cuts could leave the city with significantly fewer gardens come spring

Budgetary issues are plaguing government at every level. Services, programs and projects are being shed like so much autumn foliage, and public departments have been fighting tooth and nail for every dollar.

Among those feeling the budget squeeze is Judy Stacey, Albany’s city gardener. Funding for flowers looks as though it will be cut significantly for next year, a reduction that will result in fewer blossoms in the 483 flowerbeds and 880 hanging baskets that Albany residents are used to seeing around town. The cuts will also affect the import of bulbs for the Tulip Festival (200,000 this year) and the number of summer and fall bulbs the city is able to purchase and maintain (250,000 this year).

Numbers have not yet been finalized. Tentatively, Stacey says that they will be getting $70,000 in 2011, down from $110,000 this year, which was already a reduction from the usual budget, due to ongoing construction projects on Delaware Avenue. That amounts to $35,000 for tulips and $35,000 for annuals in the summer and fall. Once the budget has been finalized, Stacey says they will have no choice but to decide which flowerbeds to give up and which parts of the city will not be getting tulips in the spring.

“You can only do so much with the funds that you have,” she said.

“Washington Park will remain intact,” said Stacey. “There will be tulips next spring for the park and along State Street. Once the budget has been finalized, there will be a meeting to decide how the rest is to be allocated.”

“We realize that flowers are really important,” said Nick D’Antonio, commissioner for the Department of General Services. “But we also have to have the funds for trash pick-up and snow removal. My goal is to save as many jobs as possible and still manage to keep the city beautiful.”

One possible solution, he mentioned, could be to plant more permanent flowerbeds that will not require the money or manpower that it takes to replant them several times a year. Stacey agrees that this is an option and has begun planting giant hostas, lily-like perennials, in some of the beds, but that won’t work everywhere. Another possibility is to turn to the public for help. D’Antonio says that the Downtown BID spent $30,000 of its own dollars this year to plant and keep flowers around Albany and he’s hoping that they will continue to help next year as well.

The Women’s Club of Albany also receives substantial donations of tulips and annual flowers from the city every year, which are used to plant flowerbeds such as the ones in front of Equinox Safe House for Women. “Last year the city donated 600 tulips for us to plant, this year it was 500. I doubt they’ll cut that in half,” said Charlotte Prior, co-chair of the gardening committee. “Would we like more? Yeah, but it is the way it is. If we do only get 250 next year, they’ll still be beautiful.” Prior commented that The Women’s Club is trying to help Albany limit costs by providing its own gardeners to plant flowers and maintain planters along 787 by the Hudson River.

Bill Petit, president of the Washington Park neighborhood association, commented that the flowers are “indicative of the entire budget problem” and that he has faith in Stacey, who he called “a wizard with a green thumb.”

“All neighborhood input helps,” she said.

—Ali Hibbs

Everyone Was Heard

Gubernatorial debate allows minor-party candidates—all five of them—a chance to speak

Since it was announced weeks ago that a debate would be held between all seven New York state gubernatorial hopefuls, media focus has been primarily on the idiosyncrasies of some of the more colorful candidates, rather than the messages they were hoping to share.

In late September, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich held a joint press conference in Albany demanding to be included in any debates that might be held. Both supported the notion that any and all candidates for the office should be allowed to take part. “If we’re not in the debates, there is no real democracy,” said Hawkins. “Our voices should be heard.”

When the debate was announced a week later, the two men were immediately overshadowed by the spectacle of an erstwhile madam and an apoplectic renter sharing equal time with the attorney general and the Buffalo billionaire. An article in The New York Times called the event a farce, and MSNBC spent all Tuesday morning declaring its tongue-in-cheek support for Jimmy McMillan, a candidate who, the show said, has a clear message (“The rent is too damn high”) and whom they referred to as a “smarter” debater than Sharon Angle or Sarah Palin.

But the third-party candidates did have a chance to make their cases, and they worked hard to do so—most notably, Redlich. The Libertarian Party candidate from Guilderland, a relative unknown to most of the state, seized the chance to portray himself as a better option for moderate Republican voters who feel that Palladino’s temperament and bigoted comments have shown him to be less than suited for public office. Clearly taking advantage of the brief opportunity for statewide exposure, he touted his education, work experience and ethic, as well as his desire for small government. Reduced spending, not tax caps, said Redlich, will save New York state.

On the left, Hawkins made a passionate case for his “prosperity plan,” a proposal to create a $25 billion budget surplus by discontinuing a trade tax rebate to Wall Street and reinstating a progressive tax structure. His hope, he has said, is to garner enough votes (50,000) to put the Green Party on the ballot and give the people an option that they can agree with. He and Freedom Party candidate Charles Barron both advocated for a more progressive tax structure, a reform many lower-income New Yorkers favor, but which has received little attention from Cuomo or Paladino.

At the heart of their desire to be heard, according to Hawkins and Redlich, is their perception that neither major party candidate truly represents the will of their constituents. By providing other options, they hope to weaken the control of government by corporate interests.

—Ali Hibbs

Eric Schneiderman recieves Rev. Al Sharpton’s endorsement in the race for attorney general.

Becoming Attorney General

As the election draws near, attorney general candidates look to define themselves with upstate voters

Last week, Democrat Eric Schneiderman spoke in Albany to a crowd of about 30 supporters and union representatives as part of his bid to become New York’s next attorney general. Schneiderman, a progressive who helped reform the Rockefeller drug laws while in the Senate, received the endorsement of three union representatives and is endorsed by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Schneiderman’s opponent, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who has the Republican nomination and the endorsement of both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Ed Koch, has attacked Schneiderman for being close to unions. Both Cuomo and Carl Paladino have said they will take an ax to the budget and that they will likely look for hefty concessions from unions. At the rally, Schneiderman said he didn’t think union workers were looking for special treatment, but that they wanted to be part of a practical solution.

While some see Schneiderman’s agenda as a little more progressive than Cuomo’s, Schneiderman said that their relationship, should both be elected, would be one of cooperation. “My positions are nearly identical to those taken by Attorney General Cuomo,” said Schneiderman in an e-mail. “I look forward to working with the new governor to reform our state government, protect a woman’s right to choose, and get illegal guns off our streets.”

Meanwhile, Donovan has come under attack for his relationship with Wall Street. The New York Times recently reported that one in every four dollars in Donovan’s campaign coffers came from a single multibillion dollar hedge fund, headed by a man who is a leading and influential defender of Wall Street’s status quo. Donovan has said that he does not want to be the “sherriff of Wall Street,” and Schneiderman attacked him for that.

In an interview, Donovan told Reuters that addressing Wall Street will take caution and that many cases brought against alleged wrongdoing on Wall Street had been overturned.

Donovan’s campaign is painting Schneiderman as an Albany insider who will do nothing to change Albany’s dysfunction.

Donovan has outlined a three-pronged approach to cleaning up Albany. First, he plans on securing unilateral jurisdiction of corruption cases for the attorney general’s office. He also wants to increase the transparency of member items, through which legislators dole out money to nonprofits and other constituents. Lastly, he said he would require legislators to disclose their outside income from any work not related to their legislative duties. “Our public has no confidence when a legislator is voting on a bill, or debating a bill on the floor, whether or not they are representing the interests of the people who elected them, or the interests of their employer or client,” Donovan said in an interview with WMHT.

Schneiderman’s stance on ethics reform revolves around launching public corruption initiatives and being an advocate for public financing of campaigns. Schneiderman has the endorsement of nonpartisan citizen’s groups such as Citizen Action of New York, of which he is a member. Schneiderman also plans to build on initiatives started by Andrew Cuomo, such as “Project Sunlight,” that seek to shed more light on member items in the legislature.

Schneiderman has also announced his intention to go after corporations who conduct hydrofracking in New York state—a procedure that involves injecting a cocktail of chemicals into the earth to break up and release natural gas for collection.

However, the attorney general’s office is also tasked with defending New York state in the inevitable lawsuits that environmental groups will bring once the Department of Environmental Conservation releases its long-awaited environmental impact statement on the practice and the moratorium on hydrofracking is lifted or relaxed. A considerable amount of bureaucratic flexibility will be required of Schneiderman, should he be elected, to defend the state from environmental litigation related to hydrofracking while opposing it himself.

Donovan’s spokesperson released a statement that characterized hydrofracking as an “opportunity” for New York, but one that needs to be undertaken “safely and properly.”

Schneiderman has recently come out in favor of a controversial gun-control strategy known as “microstamping,” which involves marking every firearm manufactured with a microscopic imprint, enabling law enforcement to track any bullet fired back to the weapon. Schneiderman also has the endorsement of Albany’s first ward councilman and gun-control activist Dominick Calsolaro.

Before the race for attorney general, Donovan supported a microstamping bill sponsored by Schneiderman, who he knew could be a potential opponent in the future. Donovan also touts his experience prosecuting gun crimes as the district attorney in Staten Island.

There is concern amongst both parties that their candidates are well-known only in small circles in New York City and do not have much presence upstate. Some fear the election may well be decided by downstate voters.

—Daniel Fitzsimmons

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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