Schenectady

Foss: Schenectady budget plan assumes no help is coming

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Categories: -The Daily Gazette, News, Opinion, Sara Foss

Two cities with similar challenges.

High property taxes, aging infrastructure, poverty and blight.

One city, Albany, has proposed a budget for 2021 that assumes federal aid will come.

Among other things, this spending plan calls for investments in sidewalks, playgrounds and parks, new equipment for the fire department and a “living wage” for all employees. It includes a small tax increase of 1.8 percent, but no layoffs.

The other city, Schenectady, has proposed a budget for 2021 that assumes no federal aid is coming.

It calls for 63 staff reductions, primarily through attrition, a tax hike of 2.82 percent, and raises commercial and residential trash collection fees from $224 to $274 annually.

Given the grim economic climate and uncertainty in Washington D.C., it isn’t difficult to understand why Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy has opted to balance his budget with a mix of cuts and revenue boosters.

Faced with a $12 million shortfall, he’s taken a distinctly Eeyore-like approach to crafting his budget, while Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan has chosen a rosier route. She’s betting that Congress will get its act together and pass another stimulus package that includes money for struggling municipalities.

It’s a bet McCarthy also could have taken.

But he didn’t.

Which approach is better?

It’s tough to know.

I don’t have a crystal ball that can see into the future.

What I can say is that Sheehan’s approach might be less painful, at least in the short-term, but has some definite risks.

The federal aid she’s counting on might never come, although if I had to guess, she’s watching the polls and anticipating that Democratic nominee Joe Biden will be president on Jan. 1. If that happens, a new stimulus package might materialize, with generous aid for New York. Sheehan has also been quick to point out that she has a back-up budget just in case Congress doesn’t agree on a new stimulus package.

One other thing working in Sheehan’s favor: Albany has paid off its landfill, which will reduce the city’s scheduled debt payments by $5.7 million next year.

Which is certainly helpful.

That said, counting on Congress to do anything seems like the sort of strategy a high-stakes gambler might adopt. When I look at Washington, D.C., I don’t see anything resembling a functioning government.

McCarthy’s pessimism seems more appropriate to the current moment.

Responsible, even.

But that doesn’t make it pretty.

Perhaps most unfortunate is that Schenectady appeared poised to make progress on some longstanding areas of concern, such as blighted buildings and the lack of park maintenance.

The mayor’s bare-bones budget for 2021 all but guarantees that Schenectady will take a step backward on these important quality-of-life issues, with the hits to the perennially-understaffed Codes Department especially regrettable. Under McCarthy’s plan, two code enforcement officers would lose their jobs, as well as a clerk and an assistant building inspector.

If federal aid does come through, perhaps those cuts will be reversed.

Perhaps McCarthy will be able to restore lost staff positions and refund all or part of his tax increase.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

And neither, it seems, would McCarthy.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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