“For me, it’s a public-safety issue,” said Mayor Kathy Sheehan when she requested red-light traffic cameras back in May, “This is not a revenue-driven decision at all.”
Fast-forward to last week when the mayor released her proposed 2015 budget—a budget that included $2 million in revenue from a red-light camera program that hasn’t even been passed by the Common Council yet. If legislators don’t pass the ordinance, she said it would be up to them to find $2 million in cuts to make up for the lost revenue.
It amounts to blackmail, according to some city legislators.
It was Sheehan’s first budget presentation since she became mayor in January and, already, those who had hoped to see progressive change in Albany are feeling disillusioned and fearing the worst may be yet to come. Indeed, the mayor has made some choices that seem to fly in the face of those who supported her during the election and, say some, too closely resemble the cronyism of the previous Jennings administration.
Accepting money from nonprofits and increasing taxes on personal property while reducing them for private corporations; privatizing crossing guards and shifting parking enforcement to the Albany Parking Authority; the removal of certain line-item salaries (which transfer authority to offices that are not accountable to the council); the expected receipt of $5 million from the state to restructure local government; and the omission of potential revenues from casino and nanotech deals: All these have raised eyebrows and some have even caused concern that the proposed budget reflects an intentional effort by the administration to sidestep the publicly elected Common Council and make unilateral decisions regarding the future of the city, often in conjunction with the Capitalize Albany Corporation, an unelected, invite-only public authority composed largely of local businesses that may or may not actually reside within the city. (Public authorities in New York State are neither subject to laws governing private corporations, nor are they subject to municipal regulation.)
Looming over all of these concerns are two aspects of the proposed budget that have incited the loudest public outcry: the presumed revenue from red light traffic cameras and the defunding of Ladder 1, the ladder truck that responds to fire emergencies in the lower-income South End neighborhood near the Port of Albany where increased oil transportation in subpar tankers (“bomb trains”) already has residents concerned for their safety.
A second meeting of the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee was held this Tuesday to continue answering questions regarding the implentation of a red-light camera program a little more than a week after the mayor laid down her challenge. During the first committee meeting, it was suggested that, to maintain public support and ensure that the program remains about public safety rather than revenue, the money should be reinvested in traffic safety programs. Sheehan’s ultimatum seems to have all but taken that option off the table.
“I actually had a discussion with Chief Krokoff about that,” Councilwoman Leah Golby, sponsor of the proposed ordinance and chair of the Public Safety Committee, told Metroland before the meeting this Tuesday. “And he said that his budget, the whole public safety budget, already includes over $2 million in traffic safety so that certainly, if you wanted to look at it that way, that $2 million absolutely would be reinvested in traffic safety. I’m also planning to propose an amendment tonight that in the event that in any year red-light camera revenue is above the budgeted amount, that revenue would go into a capital reserve fund to be used for traffic safety.”
Golby insists that she proposed the ordinance after years of hearing the concern of her neighbors for their safety due to the high prevalence of red-light scofflaws. “These cameras have been in consideration for at least four years,” she said, noting that it wasn’t until recently that they gained permission from the state to move forward.
In response to the mayor’s ultimatum, she said,”That’s what the previous mayor used to say too. That’s how it works.”
Other councilmembers don’t believe that’s how it should work and they question the validity of the $2 million figure—a number, it turns out, that came from one of the companies bidding to install and operate the camera program, and which is currently the target of a class-action lawsuit in New Jersey and has been ousted by several other states. And it seems, according to Deputy Police Chief Brenden Cox, that the “algorithm” used by American Traffic Solutions was the only source that the administration used as a reference.
Golby offered that, based on her personal observations alone, the number—which amounts to 110 legitimate tickets issued every day, or 40,000 per year—seems well within reason.
“I am deeply troubled that a two-million-dollar revenue line in the Mayor’s proposed 2015 budget came directly from a company that sells and operates red light cameras,” Councilman Judd Krasher told Metroland, adding that ATS has been advertising to him on his Facebook page. “There is no reason for any resident to believe that the figure is accurate, because this company has a vested interest in getting a lucrative contract with Albany.”
Although he is fundamentally opposed to the red-light camera program altogether, Councilman Frank Commisso called the revenue aspect a “moral hazard” and offered his suggestion that revenues going to the general fund be reduced and restricted, “so that if there is a budget deficit in future years that we’re not just issuing tickets because of the incentive to get this extra $2 million to the city every year.” Regarding Sheehan’s exhortation that the council would have to find a way to replace the lost revenue, Commisso said, “I don’t believe we’re under any obligation to do so.”
“It is up to the mayor to find a solid two-million-dollar stream of revenue for 2015,” agreed Krasher. “That could include the 1.9 million project fee from Nano’s ZEN building.” (The $1.9 million SUNY nanotech collaboration revenue shows up nowhere in the proposed budget, and another potential source of revenue, the $11 million deal struck by the mayor with the potential East Greenbush casino, is being diverted to the CAC.)
Another important concern that was discussed at length related to language in the legislation regarding who would be able to maintain and certify video records and the functioning of the machines: Revised language offered by Councilwoman Judy Doesschate resolved the issue by specifying that when a “technician” is not a sworn police officer, an officer would be required verify the record. In other cases, a trained police officer could serve as both technician and as the verifying officer.
Additionally, Cox assured council members that all environmental factors at intersections under consideration for placement of cameras would first be examined for possible environmental factors that could be altered instead. For instance, if a tree or sign are blocking visibility and contributing to accidents at that intersection, those would be removed first and the intersection would be reconsidered.
Before the meeting ended, the committee voted unanimously to move the legislation to the council floor for a vote, expected to occur on Oct. 20. Opposing citizens are already gearing up to protest at City Hall prior to the Common Council meeting that day.
Explaining that the city is 15 firefighters short of the number needed to staff all the apparatus currently being maintained and that the additional staffing was being paid for in overtime hours, Sheehan and her appointed Fire Chief Warren Abriel were booed when they announced their intention to take Ladder 1 out of service. She assured angry firefighters (who had shown up after catching wind of the mayor’s plan) and citizens that no jobs would be lost and that the South End station—where the Albany Fire Department has their headquarters—would remain open, but that did not assuage the concerns of those who are maintaining that this decision will put lives at risk.
The Albany Permanent Professional Firefighter’s Association (who, incidentally, supported Sheehan in her run for mayor last year) put out a statement following the announcement, calling the mayor’s decision “short-sighted” and asserting that “the removal of a ladder company from service will have a domino effect on fire and emergency response times. . . . Any recommendation that drives up response times places the entire community in jeopardy.”
Interestingly, Albany firefighters put out budget recommendations last month urging increased staffing (to the full 260 needed to keep all apparatus functioning) in which they offered a 5-point plan to cover any budgetary shortfall.
The recommendation came “following a period of population growth and increased calls for emergency services,” according to a press release put out late last month. According to Robert Powers, president of the Albany Permanent Professional Firefighter’s Association, “the women and men of the Albany Fire Department responded to more than 22,000 emergency calls for service—an increase of 8.7 percent in just five years.”
According to Sheehan, the elimination of Ladder 1 will save taxpayers $1.2 million, but that is little comfort to those who live on the top floors of buildings located near the Port of Albany and large amounts of highly flammable crude oil.