CAPITAL REGION — Leaders of small cities in the Capital Region suspect that politicians in Washington, D.C. — at least some of them — don’t really grasp what cities do.
“The thing I don’t think people in Washington realize is that it’s cities that provide the basic services for quality of life,” said Gloversville Mayor Vincent DeSantis. “Police, fire, water, if those services are compromised it really reduces the quality of people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. We’re on the front lines.”
A survey of several local mayors and municipal leaders on Wednesday about the $900 billion federal stimulus bill that passed both houses of Congress this week — without aid to help cities that have seen their revenues devastated by the pandemic — found them distressed.
Gloversville, the largest city in Fulton County, cut $750,000 from its $18.8 million budget after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic started to become clear without laying off any city employees. DeSantis said that in keeping with a conservative approach, he planned for new federal aid in 2021, and doesn’t anticipate layoffs.
But the risk of municipal layoffs remains for many communities if they don’t receive new revenue from somewhere.
Often, upstate New York cities were struggling with their budgets before the pandemic undermined nearly all their assumptions about spending and revenue. But their plight has received less attention than Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s vociferous criticisms of the Trump administration and Republicans not providing aid to the state.
The first version of the 2021 Saratoga Springs budget projected deep layoffs across city departments, after the pandemic devasted Saratoga’s tourism-oriented economy. It assumed no federal aid.
But during budget discussions, Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan added $5 million in federal aid. If that aid doesn’t come through, the city will draw on money set aside for a 2022 state retirement system payment instead. Layoffs would be avoided for 2021, but deep cuts to police, fire and public works departments would come in 2022, Madigan said.
And there’s still the uncertainty of any recovery.
“You don’t know what the next year holds,” Madigan said. “If the race track and (Saratoga Performing Arts Center) don’t open next summer, all bets are off.”
Madigan is optimistic, though, about a new dynamic in Washington once President-elect Joe Biden and a new Congress take office in January, and a local government aid package will be approved.
“I am very hopeful that the dynamic will be different next year,” Madigan said. “State and local governments need the help.”
Amsterdam Mayor Michael Cinquanti, a Democrat, laid the blame for lack of aid to local governments squarely on the Republicans led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have steadfastly opposed aid to municipalities as “bailouts.”
“I am deeply disappointed that once again, the party controlling the U.S. Senate does not recognize the fact that local and state governments are in desperate need of special funding to cope with the additional expenses and decreased revenues, which are directly related to this horrid pandemic,” Cinquanti said. “I get so sick of hearing Mitch McConnell say he doesn’t want to help cities get out of a hole they created.”
Since Amsterdam uses a fiscal year that runs through June, Cinquanti said he can wait to see if Biden prioritizes local government aid — and the outcome of the Jan. 5 Georgia elections that will decide control of the Senate — before recommending the City Council make further cuts. The city budget adopted last June assumed the city would receive $1.2 million in federal aid.
“Our workers have been on the frontline fighting this virus from day one and because of this pandemic, everything we purchase has a higher price tag and every source of revenue we depend on is being cut back,” Cinquanti said.
On Monday, ahead of the final vote on the stimulus package, the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials condemned the legislation for not offering municipal aid.
“It defies logic that Congress would pass a COVID relief package that did not include funding for local municipalities and, by extension, the first responders and other public servants who, for the last nine months, have put themselves at risk to keep our communities safe,” said NYCOM President and City of Binghamton Mayor Richard C. David.
David said the group was disappointed that the municipal aid issue had become politicized.
“While we acknowledge that the current package will provide some assistance to millions of families and businesses, it simply did not go far enough and was a missed opportunity to stave off harmful local government cuts that will exacerbate the stalled economic revival we are facing as a nation,” David said.
DeSantis said many of the prominent Republican senators who don’t support municipal aid are also opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls to “defund the police.” He finds ther juxtaposition ironic.
“It was my hope the federal government would come through for us,” he said. “Now we have the federal government and the Congress, and what they’re doing by not helping us is they’re defunding the police, defunding fire departments, defunding other services.”