Schenectady County

Fiscal policy at heart of Schenectady council campaign

In November’s City Council election, the choice may come down to fiscal philosophies.

In November’s City Council election, the choice may come down to fiscal philosophies.

Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, a Democrat appointed early this year, would support efficiency — such as consolidating city purchasing with the county’s procurement department.

Challenger Richard Patierne, endorsed by Republicans and the Alliance Party, would push for more aggressive efforts to cut spending.

But both agree the city is facing tough times that call for frugality.

“We need to look at things under a microscope,” Patierne said, “make sure we’re not spending taxpayer money foolishly.”

Porterfield wants to find “smarter” ways to spend money. “Any time we have something centralized, I think it leads to efficiencies.”

Patierne thinks that’s not enough.

“The first thing we need to do is acknowledge we have a problem, a very large problem,” he said.

Then, he said, the council needs to commit to making serious cuts. He would ask every department head to list the cuts that would be made and the impact they would have, if the budget was reduced by 5, 10 and 15 percent.

“They’re the experts,” he said.

With that information, he argued, the council could make headway in reducing the $3.1 million structural deficit built into the 2013 budget.

He also wants to tighten up on small expenses. He would demand council approval for every expenditure that exceeds $5,000 and mayoral approval for all purchases that top $1,000.

Porterfield said she wants city officials to give the City Council more information.

When the council considered limits on when employees could take home city vehicles, she asked how often each employee was actually called in overnight, so the council could determine which cars were actually needed. City officials said they didn’t keep records of that.

“Let’s look at what’s really needed,” she said. “Then you can make an informed decision.”

But she also said she doesn’t want to simply eliminate certain expenses altogether.

“It depends on the situation,” she said, “though I don’t buy people’s argument, ‘just because we’ve always done it.’ ”

Also at issue in the election is whether Patierne could make a difference as a member of the minority party. Porterfield is a Democrat, like five of the six other council members, and thus has the opportunity to run committees and persuade the majority party to vote with her.

There are indications that Patierne could be part of a powerful voting bloc, however. Councilman Vince Riggi, who was endorsed by the Alliance Party last year, has formed an occasional alliance with Democratic council members Carl Erikson — who wants to cut costs — and Barbara Blanchard, who has often supported cutting costs because of the environmental benefits of doing so. She supported the successful effort to block the Police Department from buying expensive SUVs because they get low gas mileage, while Riggi and Erikson objected to their price tag.

Porterfield was appointed to the council when Riggi cast the deciding vote, but she has not voted with his bloc. She did say she thinks Riggi and the others were right about the SUVs, however.

“I know we want to get top-of-the-line, but what can we do to meet the needs without all the bells and whistles?” she said. “We should look at how we’re spending our money, [but] I don’t want to go so cheap we’ll have to replace it in a couple years.”

Riggi’s bloc has tried to stop several other purchases, but Porterfield did not join them. Gaining a fourth member could allow the group to block more purchases, if it remains intact next year.

“I applaud their efforts when it comes to this fiscal conservatism,” Patierne said. “We need that more. I would be more than happy to be the fourth vote.”

Blanchard is currently in a rehabilitation facility, regaining the ability to speak after a sudden illness. It’s not yet clear whether she will be able to return to the council, but she has made steady progress since being stricken a month ago.

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