In a markedly civil debate, Schenectady’s mayoral candidates agreed with each other on occasion, told gentle jokes and refrained from any of the heated rhetoric that they have both used in the past.
The GE Theater was packed, with Proctors bringing in extra chairs to seat the crowd of about 400. Unlike the last mayoral debate four years ago, there were a number of residents who weren’t active members of any political party. Some said the two men were evenly matched throughout the debate, and those who had already chosen their candidate said they felt their man won by only a slight margin.
Even some rank-and-file Democrats said there was no clear winner; neither man made obvious errors.
Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy, the Democrat, abandoned his trademark sarcastic humor and instead told jokes that had most of the crowd laughing.
Former Union College President Roger Hull, who founded the Alliance Party and has also been endorsed by the Republicans, dialed back his personal criticisms of McCarthy and instead offered more details on what he would do if elected.
McCarthy’s opening statement began with his explanation that it was his wedding anniversary. He told his wife, Caroline, that they would be going to Proctors before dinner, he said. When she asked him what was playing, he told her, “Roger and me.”
Hull didn’t miss a beat.
“Gary, thank you for sharing your wedding anniversary with us,” he said.
Considering that Hull has compared McCarthy unfavorably to dictators, while McCarthy has critiqued Hull’s campaigning as if he were a teacher overseeing a novice, this was an unusually civil beginning.
Both made promises during the debate — Hull said he would take a 5 percent pay cut, which McCarthy then said he would consider as well. He has already cut the mayor’s pay nominally for next year; he’s not getting paid this year.
Hull also said he would pay for a free dinner each week for the city employee who came up the best new idea during his administration.
McCarthy said he would begin enforcing the city’s residency law, which requires most employees to live in the city. Hull said he would simply not hire anyone who did not already live in the city; McCarthy said he believed it was fair to give new employees the six months allowed by law to move here.
Housing and taxes
In one of the few contentious moments, Hull said he refused to give the city a payment in lieu of taxes when he ran Union College because he didn’t trust that the city would use the money wisely.
“I would go to the board of trustees and ask them for a PILOT when I could be assured that the PILOT would not be used to pad pensions, which it would have been until last year,” Hull said.
Instead, he said, the college helped the city by buying “crack houses” and renovating them as student housing and offices.
McCarthy struck back by saying that Hull’s refusal to work with the city hurt its tax base. Instead of buying houses and thus taking more than $800,000 off the tax roll, the college could have used the state Empire Zone program to keep them on the tax rolls with the state reimbursing the taxes, McCarthy said.
“That was an opportunity that was missed, and as a result of that, we’re all paying higher property taxes,” McCarthy said. “Roger did not act with leadership.”
On the issue of vacant housing, the men said they would take different approaches.
McCarthy said he would start by getting rid of bad landlords who let their properties deteriorate.
“Focus [code enforcement] resources on that narrow group of property owners who create the problem. We’ve got to drive them out,” he said.
Hull said removing blight isn’t enough to get people to move in. “The problem is, when taxes are the highest in the Capital District, you’re not going to be able to bring them in very easily.”
He wants to offer free college tuition to families who move into distressed houses and renovate them. He would raise the tuition money privately.
Both of them agreed that code enforcement must stop citing residents for minor infractions, particularly ones that don’t seem to be necessary. One debate question submitted by the public cited a requirement for two railings on houses that have stood with only one for 100 years. Both men agreed that the rule doesn’t make sense and should be changed.
They also agreed that Schenectady needs more police, offering ideas to supplement with auxiliary police, state police and other law enforcement officers.
Several times, Hull used his trademark phrase — “I don’t have all the answers” — to explain that he would gather experts to help him implement policies that have already succeeded in other cities.
But he has been criticized for not yet having finished that research, after nearly 11 months of campaigning. At the debate, he used some questions to emphasize his experience, which he described as “turning around two colleges.”
He compared Schenectady financial problems and its crumbling buildings to problems he successfully handled when he became president of Union. The college was in a $2 million hole and the historic Nott Memorial needed significant structural repairs.
“I am not a politician. I’m a leader who has had the experience to turn things around,” Hull said.
McCarthy emphasized his experience and what he’s accomplished so far this year.
“I’ve shown a hands-on, getting-things-done style of leadership,” he said.
McCarthy has been acting mayor for six months, a job he took without pay when Mayor Brian U. Stratton resigned to become executive director of the state Canal Corp.
In that short time, he’s found a way to quintuple the miles of streets being paved each year, added summer programs at two parks, refocused the code enforcement department to work on the worst buildings and partnered with two banks to offer incentives to draw in more homeowners, he said.
The Daily Gazette, which organized the debate, collected many more questions from the public than the candidates had time to answer. Some of the unanswered questions will be published online, and the candidates can choose to answer them in writing. Those answers will also be published online.
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Categories: Schenectady County