Schenectady County

Schenectady mayoral candidates differ on many city issues

After an extraordinarily long mayoral campaign that began with the creation of a third party last De

After an extraordinarily long mayoral campaign that began with the creation of a third party last December, it’s finally time to vote.

Here’s a rundown of the major issues raised by challenger Roger Hull and Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy:

The last big issue to come up in the campaign was the sewage treatment plant. McCarthy, a Democrat, recently signed a letter telling plant operator Veolia that the city would take over the plant at the end of the year. Veolia has run the plant for years, and the letter was a step in the latest contract negotiations.

Veolia wants to keep all of the revenue from new users serviced by the plant, as well as raising the city’s fee; its proposal would cost $7.5 million annually. McCarthy said that unless Veolia is willing to offer a better deal, it’s cheaper for the city to run it.

“Veolia has been a good partner for the city, but it’s an expensive relationship that we can no longer afford as it’s been proposed,” McCarthy said. “If we move all those people back in — and that’s 22 people — even if you look at the public sector benefit package, we’ll still save a lot of money.”

But Alliance Party founder Roger Hull said that’s nonsense.

“It makes no sense to add 21 people to a payroll of the city,” Hull said. “We are at a financial cliff and one of the reasons we are there is because of pension costs.”

City budget

On the budget, Hull described McCarthy’s spending plan as an unrealistic “dream” because it calls for $400,000 to be raised in new revenue by taking abandoned houses and selling them, as well as $300,000 by persuading new homeowners to buy houses whose previous owners weren’t paying taxes.

This year, the city was able to sell only five buildings, for which it got $34,300. But McCarthy said city employees will step up to meet the goal.

“It puts forth what I’ll call realistic expectations for revenue,” he said. “It’s really a 24-month plan as we wean ourselves off the sale of the tax liens and start to do these housing programs to bring some stability back to the neighborhoods.”

The delinquent tax liens used to bring the city millions, but lien buyer ATF is no longer willing to pay more than 60 percent of the value of the city’s liens.

McCarthy’s budget also calls for new fees and fines in instances of loud parties, frivolous calls for paramedics and other time-consuming behavior.

“The goal of those is to shift the cost to people who are causing the problems and create some deterrent to it,” McCarthy said.

Hull said the city must do better with its budget.

“The reason I got in this was to try to find a way to help people stay in their homes,” he said, criticizing McCarthy’s budget for hiking fees and taxes. Hull has calculated that the average homeowner will see a 4.6 percent increase in taxes and fees, about $92.

He would meet with city workers to find out “where the waste is” and offer free dinners to those who have the best ideas on how to save the city money.

He would also set up a task force of business owners and public sector experts from other parts of the state to offer recommendations for the budget. He would build the next budget from zero, the same technique that allowed the city’s school district to save millions this year.

“You do not build on this year and the request of any department. You start from zero. It makes you rethink things you’re doing rather than building on what you’ve already done,” Hull said. “And then you start as quickly as possible to build your revenues. People are not going to move in as taxes keep going up.”

Recruiting homeowners

McCarthy says workers at Ellis Medicine, Union College, Golub Corp. and other big companies will buy houses here if the city tries to market itself.

“We haven’t reduced it down to actual numbers but I want to pick a target of 150 to 250 homes a year that we convert back to owner-occupied housing. Those are not unrealistic numbers,” McCarthy said. “You have some turnover that’s occurring anyhow. It’s not only getting a house owner-occupied, but you don’t want to lose the ones you have.”

He would start by aggressively marketing the North End, which is near all three of the city’s big businesses. Residents could walk to work, there’s a burgeoning business corridor on Van Vranken Avenue, and there’s a wide variety of housing, from high-end to fixer-uppers, McCarthy said.

Hull says he wants to offer incentives to get new homeowners. He has pledged to raise money privately for a program he dubbed SHINE, in which he would pay for two year’s tuition at Schenectady County Community College for the child of anyone who bought and renovated a distressed house in the city.

He acknowledged that some students wouldn’t be interested in community college, but he said many others would.

“Certainly when I spoke to a group of Guyanese on Sunday, they were very receptive to the concept,” Hull said. “It’s in essence roughly an $8,000 tax-free contribution. So that is pretty significant.”

He would also meet with area Realtors to talk up Schenectady and find out why more homeowners don’t buy here.

“I love it here. I think it’s a great place. The perception certainly doesn’t meet reality,” Hull said. “But I need to attack the tax issue, because people aren’t going to be enticed by the type of 4.5 percent tax hike we have.”

Abandoned houses

Both candidates want to knock down badly-deteriorated buildings, an endeavor that could cost millions.

McCarthy wants to use two new development programs: land banks, which have been approved by the state, and tax increment financing, which city officials haven’t yet persuaded the state to allow.

In a land bank, which would need to be designated by the state, the city could take a group of houses, sell the valuable ones, and use the money to demolish the rest. Tax increment financing would allow the city to develop a group of properties by using, in advance, the money that will be collected in additional taxes when the project is done.

McCarthy has also set aside $100,000 in the 2012 budget for demolition, but that money is often used for emergency demolitions, particularly for houses left near collapse after a fire.

McCarthy wants to apply to the neighborhoods the methodical approach used downtown to acquire, repair and demolish buildings.

“Each property has a complicated history. We’ve got to go through and look at each one,” he said, adding that the city must also be “more creative” in getting insurance funds or cash from owners who abandon their property. He’s willing to go after the owner’s other assets, including tax refunds and bank accounts.

Hull wants to use Metroplex Development Authority to demolish derelict houses. He would try to persuade Metroplex to spend $1 million to $2 million to demolish 50 to 100 buildings.

It may be hard to persuade Metroplex. Its board has a policy of demolishing buildings only when a new project is ready for the site so that demolition doesn’t just reduce the city’s tax base. But Hull said it’s clear Metroplex is legally allowed to do it.

“Obviously, the mayor of Schenectady does not get to tell Metroplex what to do. I will try to get Metroplex to put money into taking down structures that are beyond repair. Clearly in the biz corridors there should be no argument on that regard,” he said, arguing that blighted buildings hurt the nearby businesses.

Hull also doesn’t plan to wait for the state to designate a local land bank.

“There is, in essence, already a land bank,” he said. “It’s called SURA.”

The Schenectady Urban Renewal Agency, made up of City Council members, was dormant until this year. Hull said the city should have been using SURA extensively to acquire property, group it together and develop it just as the Democrats want to do with a land bank.

“You do what the law provides. You take those properties and you find a way to take them and develop them,” Hull said.

Crime fighting

On the issue of crime, Hull wants police to crack down on quality-of-life crimes.

“I operate on the broken window theory. You deal with the small things, like graffiti, as quick as you can,” Hull said.

The police also need more help, he said, so he wants to reduce administrative tasks so that assistant chiefs and other top brass can spend more time in the field.

“We have to have more boots on the ground,” Hull said.

He also wants auxiliary police to watch the camera feeds from dozens of security cameras placed around the city. Those are rarely watched now, but police use the footage to help capture suspects after a crime.

He also wants to heavily advertise the police department’s tips line and offer rewards.

McCarthy wants to improve response times and “solve rates” by making the department’s current rates public.

“Things that are measured tend to improve,” McCarthy said. “I expect the police to be more results oriented.”

He also wants police to be far more public, making the public a “full partner in our crime-fighting efforts.”

“We’re sometimes overly protective. Whether it’s graffiti, whether it’s car larcenies, we hold the information internally,” he said. “You might be better off letting people know what’s going on. You may have seen something last night that in your mind was insignificant, but you don’t know that three cars a block over were vandalized.”

Economic development

McCarthy also wants to use the upper Union Street business improvement district as a model for improving other business corridors.

“Upper Union is a great example,” he said, describing it as a partnership in which businesses work together to market their area and work with the city on big-ticket infrastructure projects.

Hull wants to create a “business concierge” at City Hall to help small businesses get approvals and permits.

“We’re the least user-friendly place that I know,” Hull said.

He also wants to develop the riverfront, bringing in businesses focusing on recreation and historic tourism, and find ways to bottle and sell the city’s water.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s not a quick fix, but it is a major thing.”

Term limits

Both candidates have vowed to stay in office for no more than two terms and to take a small pay cut. The mayor’s salary is $96,700.

Categories: Schenectady County

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