Schenectady County

McCarthy looks back at first year

In the same seven-day period, Mayor Gary McCarthy will hit the 100-day mark of his official term and

In the same seven-day period, Mayor Gary McCarthy will hit the 100-day mark of his official term and also finish his first year running the city.

Today will be his 100th day as the official mayor. Last Tuesday was his one-year anniversary, marking the day he took over when Mayor Brian U. Stratton resigned to take a state job.

As the double-anniversary approached, McCarthy said his eventual goal is for residents to look back at his administration and say, “Wow, they really did things.”

“Everyone was talking about [neighborhoods], trying to do little things,” he said in frustration. “Really, coming up with reasons why we couldn’t do anything.”

As mayor, he said, he is thus far doing “incremental problem-solving” to get things done, from finding legal ways to give firefighters to authority to solve arsons, to researching environmental laws for quicker and cheaper methods of demolishing houses.

While he’s pleased with the initiatives he’s begun so far, he said he doesn’t see success yet.

“We didn’t get where we are overnight. It was a multi-decade decline,” he said. “It will be a multi-year rebirth.”

His supporters and detractors analyzed his efforts from a political perspective, trying to gauge whether his work on new housing initiatives balances out the city’s continuing financial problems.

But from residents, he got consistently high marks. They said they were thrilled by the 10 miles of roads paved last summer through a new, cheaper program that he championed.

They also said they were pleased by his latest solution to a difficult problem: the cost of demolishing burnt-out houses abandoned by their owners after a fire.

Last month, McCarthy told firefighters to demolish unrepairable houses immediately after they finish investigating the fire — before owners can walk away with their insurance settlements and before state environmental laws kick in, making demolition far more expensive.

State environmental laws require workers to carefully separate asbestos from other materials, rather than quickly hauling it all to a toxic-materials landfill. The rules don’t apply until after the firefighters relinquish control of the site.

Some residents said the combination of demolition — four buildings have come down so far — and paving have given neighborhoods more of a face-lift than anything else city officials tried to do in recent years.

More to do

But Republicans said the Democrat still has a lot left to do.

“Everyone knows the city has serious financial problems,” Republican City Committee Chairman Michael Cuevas said. “And yet we see no sense of urgency from this administration.”

City Council members are trying to raise $1.5 million to recover from an unexpected bill that left the city with about $75,000 in savings. They have occasionally asked the mayor to propose cuts or other changes, but he says the city can manage by simply spending less on discretionary items while avoiding all but the most necessary hiring.

Cuevas also said McCarthy was, thus far, disappointing on crime-reduction.

“Despite the mayor’s background in the District Attorney’s Office [where he was an investigator], there seems to be no new programs or emphasis on getting crime in the city under control,” Cuevas said.

He added that he would give the mayor a “barely passing” grade, and that only because sewer, water and garbage pickup continue to operate.

Others were far more positive, praising McCarthy’s package of housing initiatives. They include foreclosing on more than 100 houses and taking the owners of hundreds of abandoned properties to court for neglect, while reorganizing the code enforcers so they spend more time following up on tickets and less time on paperwork.

The initiatives also include setting up a partnership with KeyBank to offer special mortgages to new home buyers and organizing monthly open houses that city officials attend so they can answer questions from prospective buyers. The first open house sold seven houses in one day, and Realtors have reported a total of 40 houses sold since then, although it’s not clear how many of those sales came directly from open houses.

“For 100 days, I really think he’s done a lot,” said Democratic City Committee Chairman Richard Naylor. “It’s all connected and integrated. He’s cleaning up the neighborhoods.”

Council President and Democrat Denise Brucker said McCarthy’s best skill is that he can think outside the box, coming up with new ways to attack long-standing problems.

“The idea of having experienced firefighters be arson investigators, for example,” she said. “It makes so much sense!”

And he found ways to reorganize the code enforcers to be effective, she said.

“That’s certainly indicative of his leadership: the ability to deploy people in a different manner,” she said. “Just his ability to sometimes redistribute resources we already have.”

She’s particularly pleased by his plan for demolishing burnt-out houses.

“It sounds like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s huge,” she said.

Immediate results

Even Councilman Vince Riggi, the only non-Democrat on the council, said the housing initiatives were “very impressive.”

He noted that a code enforcement sweep near his home in the Bellevue neighborhood had immediate results.

“We had squatters [in a house] near our house, and they put them out immediately and boarded up the house,” Riggi said.

“Several houses were boarded up. That doesn’t look good, but it’s more secure.”

But he said the mayor must now start cracking down on quality-of-life problems, from noise and graffiti to loose dogs.

“If we want to sell homes in Schenectady, the way to do it is to give them nice, peaceful neighborhoods to live in,” he said.

And he added that he’s worried about the city’s finances, particularly the $75,000 that it has left for cash flow and emergencies.

“The mayor said he’s comfortable with it, but I’m not comfortable with it,” Riggi said. “I don’t think anyone should run their bank account that low.”

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