The Schenectady City Council candidates all agree that they would like to work across party lines if elected to the seven-member body.
Seven of the eight candidates vying for four open council seats participated in a forum Thursday evening hosted by the Bellevue Preservation Inc., giving local residents the opportunity to learn more about them and where they stand on the issues.
“I’m known as the only non-Democrat on the City Council,” said Councilman Vince Riggi, who is seeking re-election. “I’m the lone ranger. My voting record is well over 90 percent that I vote with my colleagues. It’s only when I see something glaring to me that I choose to vote no.”
Council members Ed Kosiur and Leesa Perazzo, both Democrats, are also seeking re-election. Perazzo said although there are six Democrats on the council now, that doesn’t mean they always agree.
“My main goal is to do the best thing for the city,” she said. “I want to move the city in the right direction.”
Newcomers in the race for council include Michael Cuevas, a Republican, John Polimeni, a Democrat, Tom Verret, a Conservative, and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, a Democrat. Republican Ann Rigley did not attend the forum.
One thing the Democratic and non-Democratic candidates did not agree on is whether to keep Wayne Bennett’s position as public safety commissioner.
Cuevas, Polimeni, Verret and Zalewski-Wildzunas said they would like to cut his position.
“I would encourage using that money to get additional police officers,” said Polimeni, a professor of economics at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
Verret, who has two sons who are Schenectady police officers, said he would also like to see more officers patrolling city streets.
“I can’t comment on Bennett’s competency,” said Verret, a local funeral home director. “I would not be in favor of keeping him on staff. He makes a lot of money. We need boots on the ground to combat this crime.”
With Chief Brian Kilcullen leaving the department at the end of the month to head the Rutland, Vermont, police department, Perazzo said she feels safe knowing Bennett is on the job.
“I wasn’t sure at first what Commissioner Bennett did,” she said. “He splits his time between the Fire and Police departments. I sleep at night because Commissioner Bennett holds his position.”
The candidates also clashed on the question of the crime rate after the casino opens at Mohawk Harbor off Erie Boulevard. Kosiur and Polimeni said state troopers would have their own barracks on site.
Cuevas, an attorney and former city corporation counsel, said “it will be an office, not a full barracks.”
“There is a lot of violent crime in this city and we need more resources to protect residents,” he said.
Zalewski-Wildzunas said she would like to see the city add more staff to crack down on crime citywide.
“I would look to the budget to reallocate funds to see that takes place,” said Zalewski-Wildzunas, a banker who sits on the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority board.
On the topic of the budget, Cuevas said Mayor Gary McCarthy’s proposed 2016 budget is “filled with borrowing.”
“Right now this budget is balanced by plugging in $3.5 million from reserves and rainy day funds,” he said. “That kind of budget practice is silly and cannot be continued.”
Polimeni, who sits on the boards of the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority and Better Neighborhoods Inc., said substantial tax cuts will happen when there is increased economic growth.
“Economic growth is the key,” he said. “I would bring ideas forward for job creation and look at putting more people in houses.”
Perazzo, who chairs the finance committee, said “the council means business when it comes to the budget.”
“That’s how we land here at a 0 percent budget,” she said. “That’s how we land with 0 percent fiscal stress on this city.”
The candidates focused on different topics in their closing statements including crime, education, neighborhoods and taxes.
“I say let’s embrace turning back the clock to a time when we felt safe in our homes, when crime was low in the city and when taxes were low and our home values were high.” — Cuevas
“I will continue to be a strong advocate for investing in youth. Without a strong school district our city will not thrive. I would like to continue to crackdown with code enforcement and work closely with the neighborhood associations.” — Kosiur
“I took a leadership role in significantly reducing the tax increase by less than 1 percent. My voting record reflects encouragements to keep and bring businesses to the city.” —Perazzo
“We need public-private partnerships between the city and trade unions. We need initiatives that will build tax base, raise incomes and lower property taxes. I will propose value added to properties from home improvements would not be taxed for a five-year period.” — Polimeni.
“I think our neighborhoods have been sorely put aside for other developments in the city. Let’s put the ‘pleasant’ back in Mont Pleasant and the ‘bell’ back in Bellevue. I want to continue being the independent voice on the City Council.” — Riggi
“I hate the drug dealers in Schenectady and the gun violence in Schenectady. Let’s get Vince some help on the City Council. Let’s get everyone involved. And let’s scrap this fireworks thing.” — Verret
“I have a financial background and with my experience will look to maintain and reduce tax liability on homeowners. There is a lot to celebrate, but all of the work is not done yet. We need the team that understands what needs to be done and work together to get things done.” — Zalewski-Wildzunas
Ahead of the City Council candidate forum, mayoral candidates Gary McCarthy and Roger Hull fielded a handful of questions from the audience, fresh off a debate Wednesday evening at Proctors.
“We should have elections at least once a year,” said Hull, a former Union College president challenging McCarthy a second time. “That’s the only time you get things done. The roads are paved and suddenly the budget has no tax increase.”
McCarthy, a Democrat seeking a second term, said he believes the parks are key to revitalizing neighborhoods. He also touted “stabilizing the finances” and pointed to a recent report from the state Comptroller’s Office that labeled the city with 0 percent fiscal stress.
“We have put back in place the Recreation Advisory Commission,” he said. “They did the inventory, identified problems and the assets. A quarter of a million dollars is in this year’s budget to put playground equipment in the parks. An equal amount of money is in this year’s budget as well.”
Hull said the city has increased its debt by a third over the last four years, adding, “it’s not a formula for sustainability and success.” Hull said he would look to implement zero-based budgeting.
Hull said the city has dumped 212 million gallons of raw sewage into the Mohawk River over the last four years. McCarthy said “Roger is wrong” and that it’s pre-treated before it goes into the river.
Hull and McCarthy also disagreed over whether the city should reach an agreement with Rush Street Gaming on the casino in terms of jobs and revenue.
“We could and should have an agreement that [local] people will be employed at the casino,” Hull said.
“I want Schenectady residents to have those jobs,” McCarthy said. “But I also want them to benefit from jobs at [SUNY Polytechnic Institute] and GlobalFoundries. I don’t want to restrict opportunities in the region.”