Ask for anything, anything at all — just not cash, state Sen. Hugh T. Farley told the Schenectady City Council on Monday.
All three of Schenectady’s state legislators came to Monday’s committees meeting to spread the grim news that the state is in dismal shape. But since they might not be able to shower their district with money this year, Farley asked the council to come up with creative cost-saving measures that just need state approval.
Farley, R-Niskayuna, stressed that while he’ll also fight for the city’s state aid, he can’t make any promises to bring home the bacon this year. Instead, he said, he might be able to cut the city’s expenses.
“If you have mandates you think aren’t good, aren’t necessary, please tell us. We’ll get rid of them,” he said.
Councilman Gary McCarthy didn’t need to be asked twice. The looming cost of a new courthouse, to provide more courtrooms for the increased number of criminal defendants, was his first thought.
“Why can’t we run a night court, a second shift, so we can use our existing building?” he asked. “The [Office of Court Administration] says we can only work one shift. But at GE and corporations, they don’t build a second building — they add a second shift.”
Farley and Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, both Republicans, agreed with the City Council Democrat.
“We’ll look at it immediately,” Tedisco said.
Assemblyman George Amedore Jr., R-Rotterdam, was also present but did not offer an opinion.
For nearly a decade, the city and county have tried to find ways to reduce the cost of a new courthouse, but state officials insisted on a new, larger structure. County Attorney Chris Gardner said the idea of a second shift had not been considered before. Now, it could reach the floor of the Senate and the Assembly.
“It’s certainly worth exploring,” Gardner said. “It’s a new idea. Certainly there’s some things to it — for one, you can get prisoners released in a sooner fashion rather than booking them for the night and bringing them to court in the morning.”
McCarthy is focusing on the cost, not the efficiency, of the operation. The county is preparing to bond $4.4 million this fall to renovate the former TrustCo building on Erie Boulevard as a new county office building. Then, possibly in 2010, the county plans to turn the current office building into a new court.
The total cost is unclear, but will be millions, county officials have said. The city is planning to pay for a portion of the project to expand its court space, but the county will be on the hook for most of the expense.
Still, McCarthy said, removing the project from the county’s budget would save money for city taxpayers.
“That would have a significant impact on our city and county capital budgets,” he said.
Tedisco said he was impressed by the idea, and Farley said the state climate is right for such inventive legislation.
“If you need legislation to allow you to do things you can’t do now, it’s very possible. But money is very difficult,” Farley said. “This is a two-way street. I need your ideas. I want to hear more, because we need your help.”
Both Farley and Tedisco stressed that asking for more money will be fruitless. Tedisco predicted that the state will receive no revenue from Wall Street for the next five to 10 years, a staggering loss since Wall Street makes up 20 percent of the state’s annual revenue.
Farley also signaled that the years of state aid increases for Schenectady may be over.
“You’re above the average,” he said, dismissing Mayor Brian U. Stratton’s argument that many similar size cities get more aid. “I had to open a vein to get you where you are. Everybody is jealous of Schenectady, that’s what I’m hearing.”
He complimented Stratton on the “tough decision” of proposing a 2009 tax increase and fee increases in water, sewer and garbage. And he promised to fight for the city’s aid payment — due in December and at risk of being drastically cut.
But he said bluntly that the state won’t be able to increase payments next year for any of the currently unfunded programs and policies required of local governments.
“I don’t think we can fund them, because I don’t think we have any money,” he said.