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It’s their fault: Mayor Jerry Jennings assigns blame.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

What Now, Albany?

Mayor Jennings’ words came back to haunt the capital city this week when the state failed to restore lost aid

Albany’s future looks grim unless it gets more state aid, Mayor Jerry Jennings said in his 2011 State of the City address. Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled New York State’s budget on Feb. 1, and the city will not recieve the lost state aid that the mayor has been lobbying for.

The payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) that Albany gets for hosting the Empire State Plaza will decrease by $7.85 million if the state Legislature passes Cuomo’s plan unaltered.

The executive budget reduced Aid and Incentives for Municipalities (AIM) by 2 percent outside of New York City, and Albany was no exception. In 2010-2011, Albany received $12,865,120. In 2011-12, the city will get $12,607,823.

Next year, all the things that Jennings warned about in his speech could come true. Albany residents might see fewer cops on the streets and shuttered firehouses. Free trash pick-up, park maintenance and youth and recreational programs also could become casualties.

“The reality is that without additional state aid, there is no way to provide a balanced budget without dramatic cuts in programs and services and city personnel or without raising real property taxes significantly,” the 18-year incumbent said in a Jan. 20 address that quoted everyone from Bono to President Obama.

To cope with hard times, the mayor said, he will “reach out to residents to get their recommendations,” both during a series of forums and the equivalent of an electronic suggestion box. The city also will also look for ways to economize and explore cost-effective collaborations with Albany County and local colleges, Jennings said.

“Maybe it’s time we hire a professional lobbyist instead of depending on the mayor,” said Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), who expects the city coffers to run dry before the year is out.

“I don’t think we’re going to have enough money left to make it through the whole year,” he said. “The mayor tends to overspend the budget every year. I’m very concerned about that, especially with all the snow we’ve had.”

The mayor should have tightened the municipal belt years earlier, knowing that state aid cuts were on the way, Calsolaro said. Jennings’ State of the City speech lacked specifics about how Albany will address its 2012 fiscal crunch, especially now that its reserves are all but depleted, he said.

“We actually increased spending by a couple million dollars over 2010, even though we were $23 million in the hole,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to fill that gap next year. If we come up with the exact same budget next year without putting a penny in it, the same $23 million deficit, would equate to a 40-percent tax increase. That really wasn’t addressed. What firehouse are we going to close if we do have to close one?”

Former Councilman Corey Ellis—who plans to make his second bid for the mayor’s seat in 2013—voted against the city’s budget for three consecutive years when he was on the Albany Common Council, claiming it wasn’t fiscally responsible. He also watched the State of the City address.

“It’s the first time that the mayor has uttered, ‘We’re in trouble,’ ” Ellis said. “Council members have told him, and people have come to hearings. They were all ignored. Now we’re in a crisis, he wants to see what people have to say.”

Ellis has repeatedly approached the council with suggestions for economizing, including a citywide audit, scaling down the city’s fleet of vehicles, slashing the mayor’s and commissioners’ salaries, reducing overtime and pensions and stopping subsidies to the municipal golf course. But they fell on deaf ears, he said.

“There was no plan on how to deal with the budget deficit that we saw coming four years ago,” he said. “We continued to spend more without scaling back. They kept kicking the can down the street.”

Not everybody who heard the mayor’s speech was critical. Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin said she appreciated Jennings’ announcement that the city is actively soliciting input from citizens.

She praised “this whole idea of asking residents what they think,” saying, “There are some smart people out there. We’re supposed to be here to listen to what people have to say.”

Regarding the city’s finances, she said, “It’s going to get worse before it get’s better. Albany’s not lost. Times are tough. Yes they are. It’s not just us. You’re going to find it no matter what city you go to.”

—Laurie Lynn Fischer


Here Comes the Pain

One thing is for sure about Gov. Cuomo’s first budget—it’s going to hurt

For much of the past month, there has been an air of somber resignation as state government braced for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget. With Cuomo’s popularity soaring in the 70-percent range, most seemed prepared to brace themselves for anticipated harsh cuts. But with a budget that proposes a $2.85 billion reduction in school aid across the state and $2.85 billion in cuts to Medicaid, along with millions of dollars worth of proposed labor concessions, people are beginning to speak up—and loudly.

In a presentation chock-full of such ominous phrases as “functionally bankrupt” and “death spiral,” Cuomo laid out his 2011-12 budget proposal Tuesday. Just as promised, it was a proposal crafted out of difficult decisions that made apparent that “pain” would be the uncomfortable, but appropriate buzzword for many New York State agencies this year and perhaps for years to come.

“It was a very sobering speech, and one that wasn’t very surprising,” said Sen. Hugh Farley (R-District 44). “I think it was drastic action and I think he did what he had to do. And now it’s the Legislature’s turn to see if we can’t improve it.”

State operations funding sustained the biggest wound, with cuts totaling around 10 percent. According to the press realease that accompanied the budget proposal, this was a strategy intended to “lead by example” and “spare local governments the worst of the cuts.” Despite these measures, local government aid was reduced by 2 percent, but the cuts were accompanied by promises of assistance for municipalities through the reevaluation and reduction of state mandates.

“Everybody is going to have to tighten their belts,” said Farley.

It is hoped that most of the state’s budget woes will be eased by restructuring, reducing, and consolidating state agencies. However, the proposed budget could result in the loss of up to 9,800 state jobs. Though this figure is not as high as the 15,000 jobs rumored to be on the line earlier in the month, it is still an upsetting figure to state workers, state unions, and politicians.

“That would be devastating to the Capital Region, because we would disproportionately lose the lion’s share of them,” said Assemblyman John McEneny (D- District 104). The assemblyman went on to point out that, as these state workers do not exist in a vacuum, layoffs of this magnitude would likely be felt by every shop and restaurant in the region. “That payday dollar turns over again and again throughout the tri-cities and the counties around here,” said McEneny.

State unions were supportive of the tone and direction of the governor’s budget proposal, but condemned any loss of state jobs.

“CSEA has repeatedly said that we are prepared to do our part and work with the administration for a better New York,” said Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association in a press release. “We are not willing to see the necessary services that CSEA members provide to people in every community in the state used as a bargaining chip to maintain tax breaks for millionaires.”

Kenneth Brynien, president of the Public Employees Federation, echoed these sentiments in a similar statement: “We will work with the governor to do our part to help during this fiscal crisis. We are willing to sacrifice, but we will not be sacrificed.”

Other preliminary areas of contention in the budget included drastic cuts to education and Medicaid. Under current law, each of these programs would have seen a 13-percent funding increase; an expense Cuomo called “wholly unrealistic” in an opinion piece released the day before the budget. The governor called for a budget process reform in order to eliminate the “rates and formulas” responsible for driving yearly budget increases to “unsustainable levels.”

Education and Medicaid would instead sustain a 2.9-percent and 2-percent reduction in funds respectively. New formulas were proposed for both areas, which would limit their future growth. Individual school districts would be assessed for aid based on the districts wealth, need, efficiency, and property-tax burden.

Schenectady schools, for example, would see an 8-percent cut under the proposed budget, according to Farley, with other precincts in his district cut by as much as 15 percent. “That’s a poor school district that has had a lot of problems with performance and to take a dramatic cut like that could be really devastating,” said Farley

Overall, legislative response to the budget proposal seemed cautiously optimistic with most praising at least the theme of reform, if not the method. Legislators now look to examine and argue the details of the budget in hopes of ensuring the least damage to necessary services for the most possible gain in government sustainability, all with an on-time budget in mind.

“Eventually we’re going to get down to the wire and there’s going to be some philosophical differences,” said McEneny. “People will run to the Legislature to be rescued with their particular project or cause . . . a lot of which are severe human service needs. I feel an obligation to make sure that whatever pain is necessary—and there will be pain necessary—is spread fairly.”

—Jason Chura

jay.chura@gmail.com

Loose Ends

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