You have to give the mayor credit.
If his goal was to alert citizens and the City Council about the dire consequences of the city’s financial condition in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, he certainly picked the right button to push to get their attention.
The financial situation is dire — so dire that it threatens public safety.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said Thursday that in the wake of revenue losses, the city might have to lay off 30 police officers or more to save $3 million.
In a city known for its high crime rate, this was a wake-up call: Massive cuts to city government spending are inevitable if the state and federal governments don’t come through with assistance.
The mayor estimated Thursday that the city could face a budget shortfall of $9 million, assuming that state aid is not cut — which it likely will be. On top of the $3 million in savings from the police budget, the city might have to make another $2 million to $2.5 million in cuts to this year’s budget.
The announcement of the police cuts seems to be part practical and part political.
On a practical level, shaving police staffing levels would be a quick way to trim about 2.6% off the city’s $112 million budget.
But some of those savings could be offset if the city is forced to pay overtime to the remaining officers during the busy summer months or if the city is forced to contract with outside police agencies like State Police to patrol city neighborhoods or respond to other incidents.
Could the city salvage some of the police cutbacks, if not all of them, by finding places to cut in other areas? Could, for instance, the city parks department be cut instead? City administration? Road and sidewalk maintenance? Could they scale back on some planned infrastructure projects or regular maintenance, such as trimming of trees? How about code administration? (Maybe not a good idea.)
Could they apply money sitting in other accounts to balancing the budget this year and hope for a rebound? Maybe council members would even consider cutting back on some of the mayor’s pet projects, like spending and bonding for his Smart Cities initiative.
That’s the practical part of this equation.
The political part comes in the form of manipulation, both of local officials and state and congressional representatives.
To council members, the mayor is saying that if you don’t want to make the tough decision to cut cops, then cut something else.
So council members will be forced to weigh other budget cuts that voters might not welcome. And if they’re afraid to cut, they might have to propose tax increases instead.
To our state and federal representatives, the mayor is sending a message that if they don’t come through with aid, these are the consequences of failure, namely public safety.
By initiating potential budget cuts by targeting the police budget first, Mayor McCarthy has sent a clear message about the challenges city leaders face.
Now comes the hard part: Meeting those challenges.