After a difficult financial year for the city due to the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, much-needed relief from the federal government will be crucial for Schenectady’s recovery, Mayor Gary McCarthy said Monday evening during his 2021 State of the City address.
In a 20-minute presentation to open Monday night’s City Council meeting, McCarthy detailed the city’s struggles brought on by the pandemic while highlighting efforts to build back through focuses on sustainability, housing and infrastructure.
In his speech, McCarthy forecasted that the city would finish 2020 with a deficit of a little more than $8 million, and noted that the city had spent about $600,000 in unanticipated expenses due to the pandemic, which have not been reimbursed “despite promises from the federal government.”
Other factors leading to the city’s shortfall include “significant drops” in prior year tax lien collections, state aid, casino revenue and interest on Real Property Taxes.
“A year ago,” McCarthy said, “we were doing well. Five years of tax cuts, significant economic development, a stable financial outlook. Unfortunately, this year we had to raise taxes slightly to offset some of the effects of the pandemic.”
“I know that we had a tough year,” Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said during the meeting that followed the State of the City. “We may have some challenging times ahead of us, but I think working together and hopefully being very successful in getting the support we need from the federal government, we can move forward to do even better things.”
In acknowledging that 2020 was a “difficult year financially” for the city, McCarthy said that measures taken to mitigate the lack of revenue included the reduction of non-personnel expenses by $2.1 million, a hiring freeze that saved an estimated $1.9 million and the city’s issuance of a $7 million Tax Anticipation Note.
“I remain hopeful the federal government will provide assistance in the coming weeks,” McCarthy said.
City Council members echoed McCarthy’s call for federal assistance.
“The virus situation is going to cause havoc on the economy and finances this year as well, until things start turning around,” Councilman John Polimeni said. “The economic shutdowns and other things were beyond city control, beyond anything we did with our finances incorrectly. Hopefully, the federal government does the right thing as far as small cities and municipalities go.”
“We’re hoping and praying the federal government can provide the necessary funding that’s needed to help us with our deficit,” Council President John Mootooveren said.
Councilwoman Carmel Patrick urged city residents to reach out to the area’s federal representatives to press for that assistance.
“Our municipalities really need that federal assistance,” Patrick said. “I’m hopeful that with the new administration [of President Joe Biden] that we will be able to get some federal assistance, but it’s clearly something that’s needed by us and all the other local municipalities across the country.”
As the city looks to rebound from the impact of the novel coronavirus, McCarthy centered his State of the City around the theme of “Respond, Recover, Rebuild.”
“In spite of the challenges and difficulties the pandemic has placed on our community,” he said, “we are still moving ahead with environmental sustainability, housing rehabs and development, and infrastructure investments.”
McCarthy highlighted a number of significant projects the city accomplished during 2020, including the City Hall roof replacement, completion of the Rose Garden Stairs at Central Park, renovations to Fire Station No. 3, structural repairs to the Congress Street Bridge and the Complete Streets reconstruction of DeCamp Avenue.
McCarthy also singled out the “largest project undertaken since I’ve been mayor,” the continued construction at the City’s Water Resource and Recovery Facility and the construction of the new North Ferry Street Pump Station. Several stages of the project are complete, including the installation of a 36-inch swerve force main from North Ferry Street to the WRRF on Anthony Street, with other phases to be completed later this year.
In addition, McCarthy outlined a plan to do $15 million in infrastructure projects in 2021. The largest of these projects are the Kings Road Bridge full replacement and the Francis Avenue Bridge deck replacement, which are scheduled for 2021 at a combined cost of just under $7 million.
McCarthy also detailed the city’s $1.5 million 2021 Paving Program, highway safety improvements on Brandywine Avenue, intersection improvements at multiple locations and the storm line installation at Lancaster, Wyoming and Grenoside.
In the fall, design work is set to begin for the Complete Streets reconstruction of Craig Street.
Downtown, the city is slated for a $1.1 million project to improve pedestrian safety and walkability at eight intersections, while South Church Street between State and Fuller streets is set for Complete Streets reconstruction.
McCarthy touted a “steady increase” in the value of property in the city, as in 2020 the city’s Assessment Equalization Rate was 100% after being off by as many as 23 percentage points in recent years.
“It’s a significant shift,” McCarthy said, attributing it to blight removal, selling foreclosed properties, working with potential homebuyers and facilitating rehabilitation and new construction.
In 2020, the city demolished 34 blighted and dilapidated buildings in conjunction with the Capital Region Land Bank.
Even with the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns, city-owned property sales remained strong with 71 properties sold in 2020 — down just five from 2019 — for a total of $987,509. There are also 45 pending sales that have been approved by the City Council, valued at $1.2 million.
“That’s a really huge, huge achievement, to bring in almost $1 million that will be back on the tax rolls,” Patrick said. “As we’ve had the discussions to approve the sales of these properties, it’s been really great to see how many of them are going to be owner occupied, because that’s really essential as we get back to rebuilding the city.”
McCarthy also touted the city’s work in assisting first-time homebuyers and showcased several housing rehabilitation projects, including 55 new affordable housing units at Renaissance Square on Eastern Avenue, 100,000 square feet of new construction on Albany and Craig streets in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood and the continued work on the re-constructed apartments at Yates Village on the city’s northside, where there are 89 newly-constructed affordable housing units, which will increase to 300 when the project is completed.
“All of those things were really important as it relates to the housing issues that we have,” Patrick said, “as well as the economic development across the city.”
McCarthy also pointed out continued development downtown, including seven projects with either renovation or new construction.
PUBLIC SAFETY AND CITY SERVICES
The Schenectady Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative continues to be a primary focus for the city in reviewing the police department’s strategies, policies and procedures. The collaborative is currently in its fourth phase, the creation of a draft plan and presentation to the City Council.
“It seems it’s going well,” Polimeni said, “and I look forward to getting the reports from the [John] Finn Institute and the community group that’s been put together to go over this.”
McCarthy also recognized the city’s telemedicine platform, established in partnership with Ellis Hospital, MVP Healthcare, CDPHP Healthcare and United Concierge Medicine that allows the city’s 115 paramedics to perform telehealth consultations with UCM physicians.
With another snowstorm slated to hit the area this week, McCarthy acknowledged the city’s difficulties with snow removal that resulted from last month’s massive storm, nothing that in 2008 the city had 60 people on the payroll to respond to a snowstorm, in comparison to 29 for last month’s storm.
“Over the next several months I look forward to working with the Council to better define and outline when and where we bring in outside contractors to help in our operations,” McCarthy said.
Polimeni agreed that a hard look at the city’s snow removal plans is warranted.
“There is a plan, obviously, but we need to fix that plan and get it to work properly with the resources we have,” he said. “Whether that’s a mix of using technologies and . . . outside vendors, we need to make sure our roads are properly plowed and people are able to get to work and have emergency vehicles reach them.”
SUSTAINABILITY AND TECHNOLOGY
The city continues to be focused on a number of projects aimed toward improving environmental sustainability.
Chief among these is the city’s REV Demo Project with National Grid, where the first phase is completed in two zones and negotiations have been completed to accomplish a full city-wide deployment of LED street light conversion and other “Smart City Solutions.”
McCarthy also spotlighted the city’s public WiFi program, which saw the deployment of more than 100 new access points in 2020 and had more than 40,000 unique users from June through December.
“That’s especially crucial, given the fact that so many students are needing to access it — as well as the people working from home,” Patrick said. “I’m thrilled that it has been expanding.”
Monday morning, McCarthy participated in a ribbon cutting for 10 new electric vehicle charging stations on Liberty Street, increasing the total of city-owned charging stations to 28.