Guest column: Kudos and questions about Schenectady’s rebirth

Downtown looks great. Now it’s time for Schenectady’s finances to start looking better
Downtown Schenectady has seen a rebirth in recent years. So why hasn’t its tax situation improved?
Downtown Schenectady has seen a rebirth in recent years. So why hasn’t its tax situation improved?

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Downtown looks great.

Kudos to Metroplex and Ray Gillen for carrying on an effort begun 25 years ago.

Recently, I was asked by a new resident when Schenectady turned around.

My answer: 1993.

Most people wouldn’t pick that year because Schenectady looked pretty shabby then. 

But 1993 was the year a group of business leaders decided to do something about the city’s condition and founded Schenectady 2000. 

With the help of literally thousands of Schenectadians, Schenectady 2000 did small things — bridge paintings and park cleanups.

It also did big things — putting a plan together for downtown’s revitalization and changing the hang-dog attitude that existed in Schenectady when I arrived three years earlier.

In 1998, following an extended political battle, Metroplex was created.

Initially, despite successes (two state office buildings and MVP to serve as State Street anchors and plans for a new hotel, movie theater and expanded Proctors), Metroplex had its issues.

Once Mr. Gillen took over and provided day-to-day leadership, Metroplex and downtown came alive.

Unfortunately, petty politics often results in revisionist history.

Not surprisingly, other than attacks on Mr. Gillen’s predecessor who orchestrated the above successes (and left office 14 years ago), Metroplex’s website contains no reference to anything that occurred before 2004, the year Mr. Gillen assumed leadership of Metroplex. 

Two things are crystal clear and beyond dispute: Without the work of many in the decade before 2004, there would be no Metroplex.

And without Metroplex, there would have been no funds to provide for any of the changes that have occurred.

Downtown is very different a quarter of a century after Schenectady 2000 came into being.

Changes, good changes, are occurring regularly. We should all be happy with them.

But we should also demand answers to several questions.

Those questions begin with the following: With the positive changes in the appearance of the city, why hasn’t Schenectady’s tax situation improved?

In 2015, the number 10 was bandied about. It represented the supposed 10 percent property taxes would drop from revenues the casino would produce.

Of course, that number was pure fancy; it never materialized.

Instead, we were informed last December that property taxes would be reduced this year by 1 percent. Other than being 90 percent off the mark, the reduction was offset by increases in sewer and water rates. In the final analysis, taxpayers paid more, not less.

Metroplex’s return on investment should be clear to all. It is not. 

A few additional questions regarding the failure of the downtown improvements to result in lower taxes for Schenectady’s overburdened taxpayers: 

  • Why, when fees are included, have Schenectady’s incredibly high taxes gone up, not down, over the years? 
  • Why have the revenues produced through PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) not reduced taxes?
  • What is the cost of the incentives we are providing to attract new businesses to the city? 

The 2015, 2016, and 2017 reports to the Schenectady County Legislature are posted on the Metroplex website. In those reports, reference is made to 61 PILOTs for two of those years and 60 PILOTs for the third, which resulted in $15.88 million, $15.84 million and $15.68 million in revenues, respectively.

Putting aside the surprising consistency in the number of PILOTs and the revenue they produced, where did the money go? Certainly not to real property tax reduction. 

The questions posed are not trick questions, and I am not questioning Metroplex’s very real contributions to improving the city. Our elected and appointed officials should be able to answer the questions easily.

Again, let me be clear: Downtown looks great. Now it’s time for Schenectady’s finances to start looking better. 

One would expect the two — appearance and finance — to go hand-in-hand. To date, they obviously have not.

Dr. Roger H. Hull of Schenectady served as president of Union College and chancellor of Union University from 1990-2005. He is currently president of the Help Yourself Foundation, a Schenectady-based nonprofit educational organization.

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