Stratton faced down police force, shored up Schenectady’s finances

In the past three years, Mayor Brian U. Stratton finally came into his own.
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In the past three years, Mayor Brian U. Stratton finally came into his own.

He beat the police union, and in doing so, finally stepped out of the long shadow of his late father, U.S. Rep. Sam Stratton, politicians said.

But now that he’s managed what some say he always wanted to do, he is leaving political life to work as the director of the Canal Corp. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended him for the position Wednesday, and Stratton expects to leave by mid-March.

Even those who regularly criticized the Democrat had to admit that he had succeeded as mayor in the end.

“No question in my mind, his biggest accomplishment was what he did with the police department,” said resident and critic Vince Riggi, though he offered praise grudgingly. “He took a hard stand — finally.”

Such was Stratton’s career. He has been mayor for just seven years, during which he guided the city out of a staggering deficit and filled City Hall with professionals. But he rarely won accolades.

Although no one had ever before managed to enact widespread discipline over the city’s police, residents criticized Stratton for taking too long and spending too much money on his effort to fire officers who beat suspects, drove drunk or refused to do their jobs.

Stratton didn’t back down. It took two years, but he managed to force out eight officers with such convincing cases that many others chose to leave rather than face a disciplinary hearing.

Now, officers know that if they break the city’s laws or disregard their own rules of conduct, they’ll probably be fired. In the past three years, 55 officers left the department.

“We’re talking one-third of the department,” said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, who sees the new recruits hired to replace them as a definite improvement.

New standards

It’s hard to measure whether the police force has become more disciplined, but the new group repudiated many of the old ways. The union membership last year agreed to limit their own union officials’ time off, let the chief enforce higher supervisory standards, limit their own comp time, and submit to tougher drug testing rules — which the force had previously refused even when one of their own admitted to smoking crack cocaine that he stole from the department’s evidence locker.

Bennett said the police changes would never have happened if Stratton hadn’t stood his ground.

“He said, ‘This is a critical juncture. We have to make a statement,’ ” Bennett said. “And he made the statement.”

The union initially fought to keep Stratton from implementing a quicker disciplinary system, going to the Public Employment Relations Board. The union wanted to keep letting arbitrators make all disciplinary decisions; PERB still hasn’t issued a ruling, more than two years later.

During that time, the city had to keep paying suspended officers and its own legal team. The bill came to $1.23 million, and residents complained.

But Stratton said he’d fire officers no matter what it took — even if he had to go back to the old system of hiring arbitrators to hear each case. His team convinced the union to agree to allow one arbitrator to hear all the disciplinary cases.

The union was sure its members would never be fired by an arbitrator. But one by one, each officer was sent packing. The city won seven of eight cases and is hoping to win the eighth in a second hearing.

Stratton said he considers the results to be one of his biggest accomplishments — but that management must keep strictly enforcing the city’s standards.

“You can’t say you’ve done those and they’re permanently fixed,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate any slip-ups.”

Overall, he said, he’s leaving office with pride. “I’m very satisfied. I think we’ve done a great deal,” he said.

But nearly everything came amid controversy.

Financial turnaround

When he won office in 2003, he learned, to his shock, that the city was nearly out of money. Minutes after being sworn in on Jan. 2, 2004, he delivered a sobering speech in which he warned that the city would run out of cash by May unless he took drastic steps.

Residents questioned his figures, but an audit found the city had a $6.6 million deficit, which the state Comptroller’s Office predicted would grow to $10.2 million by the end of the 2004 if nothing was changed.

Stratton’s administration turned the city’s finances around in less than two years. The deficit was wiped out in 2005 and replaced with a $4.9 million surplus.

It wasn’t easy. The biggest steps were the sale of the city’s money-losing parking garage, to the Metroplex Development Authority, and convincing the state to let Schenectady sell its unpaid tax liens to a private collections company.

Selling those liens — millions of dollars in unpaid taxes owed to the city — was the main solution.

Democrats said Stratton’s work put the city in the best possible position for the budgetary crisis it faces today, with reductions in state aid and rising pension and health costs.

“We were in trouble,” said Richard Naylor, the city Democratic committee chairman. “Let the record show, look what we’ve done — it’s a miracle.”

Moody’s Investors Services agreed. In 2006, the highly-regarded risk analysis firm said Stratton had “restored fiscal stability to the city.”

In a four-page report about its decision to move the city back to an investment-grade credit rating, the agency wrote, “Schenectady’s financial condition is significantly stronger than it’s been since before 2000.”

Stratton also joined forces with county Legislature Chairwoman Susan Savage to rebuild the relationship with General Electric, trying to erase years of distrust and tax battles.

“It was a very intensive, round-the-clock effort,” Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said. “Brian worked very hard to improve the relationship.”

Relations were so strained in 2003 that General Electric managers vowed not to add anything to the campus and instead began demolishing buildings, slowly reducing its taxable value.

But the new atmosphere led GE to begin building its Renewable Energies Headquarters here in 2008 and to add its battery plant last year, which will more than double the amount of taxes it pays the city.

Sources of revenue

Increasing the tax base wasn’t enough. Stratton also raised taxes roughly 8 percent in his first two years and created a new fee for garbage pickup, a service that residents never had paid for separately.

To say the fee was unpopular would be an understatement. Although the middle four years of Stratton’s administration came with a 2 percent tax cut and no tax increases, he was not forgiven. Even now, residents rail at him about the trash fee, seven years after it was enacted.

There was one other problem on Stratton’s to-do list: revitalizing the city’s crumbling neighborhoods. But on this, he had very few results.

He doubled the number of code enforcers and created a demolition fund for burnt-out houses. Neither had a measurable impact.

Republican Cathy Lewis, a former council member who is now the president of the school board, said Stratton shouldn’t be “completely” blamed for that failure. “I think it’s just a lack of resources,” she said.

Some residents went further, saying Stratton “lacked the common touch.”

“He never really connected with the average Schenectadian and understood the problems they’re going through,” Riggi said.

Stratton said the neighborhoods issue was his biggest frustration. He said he had come to believe it would only be solved by an infusion of state and federal funds. “You need dollars and cents,” he said.

But council members said the effort was mismanaged. They repeatedly called for code enforcement to focus on the worst problems, but Building Inspector Keith Lamp insisted on a zero-tolerance approach that had enforcers spending most of their time on peeling paint and other minor issues.

Stratton staunchly defended Lamp even though he said he didn’t agree with him.

Still, Democrats said Stratton’s greatest skill was to delegate authority to experts. He brought in a finance team to pull the city out of debt and hired a municipal attorney, rather than giving the job to a political supporter, as had happened occasionally in the past.

And then he took their advice — even when that meant facing a rally of protesters shouting about the garbage fee.

“Brian was ready for change,” party leader and county Attorney Chris Gardner said. “He was not one to stop and accept the mediocrity. And Brian saw you have to have good people to make good government.”

Of course, delegating authority also opened Stratton to criticism when his experts made a mistake.

He agreed to a secret deal that would give Fire Chief Robert Farstad $117,000 in overtime, apparently on the advice of Director of Administration John Paolino.

It was only after media inquiries that Stratton learned that the deal would nearly double Farstad’s pension. He put a stop to it — but it was too late to avoid public criticism.

Pricey green homes

The mayor may end up with one more accomplishment — but its success won’t be determined until long after he leaves office.

His green homes initiative, in which burnt-out houses are demolished to make way for environmentally-friendly homes for low income families, is struggling.

The houses were unexpectedly assessed at twice their sale price, increasing the tax bill so much that one family couldn’t pay. That put the entire program in jeopardy, suggesting that low-income residents couldn’t afford the houses.

In an appeal, the assessments were lowered slightly, Director of Development Richard Purga said.

“So there’s been some resolution,” he said. “The green homes project is certainly part of the mayor’s legacy.”

Stratton’s goal was to stabilize neighborhoods, but only 13 houses have been built so far.

Purga acknowledged that the rate of construction is too slow to change the city’s neighborhoods. But he predicted that the movement will pick up momentum.

“I think it’s a wonderful beginning,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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