President Obama’s visit to Schenectady brought national recognition to our city and to the thousands of GE employees working here to regain global competitiveness in export manufacturing, renewable energy and green jobs. With the words he so carefully chose to speak first in the birthplace of General Electric, the president’s clarion call to America to seize its next “Sputnik moment” in technology and innovation began here.
While the president used Schenectady’s heritage of industrial excellence as a national stage to rally economic resurgence through technology, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has unveiled a tough but necessary state spending plan to restore economic stability and return New York to its former greatness as the Empire State. The president’s call to America and the governor’s call to all New Yorkers for unprecedented fiscal reform reminds us of both our great achievements as a state and nation, and of the bright future that awaits if we rise to that challenge.
Cornerstone of future
New York is home to some of the highest local property taxes in the nation, and the governor knows changing the state’s economic climate is not only necessary to attracting new job growth, but a matter of survival for New Yorkers. His proposed budget reflects that harsh reality, and reducing the burden of local property taxes by incentivizing local government consolidation is a cornerstone of the governor’s platform for rebuilding New York.
Traveling with president from Washington for his historic visit, I told him of the many challenges facing Schenectady. I pointed to Gov. Cuomo’s emphasis on consolidation as an effective and logical means for cites like ours to get a grip on property taxes.
The fact that there are more than 10,500 local taxing government entities across New York state, with more than 130 in Schenectady County alone, underscores the governor’s plan to encourage consolidation by financially rewarding local governments that make it happen.
Seated facing each other aboard Marine One en route to Andrews Air Force Base, the president listened intently as I told him of a forthcoming study by Columbia University that shows consolidation and service-sharing among Schenectady County’s seven police agencies could provide practical opportunities for reducing taxes without compromising service or safety.
Although my fellow local elected leaders have been resistant to a full-scale consolidation of police, the study by Columbia professors William Eimicke and Steven Cohen shows there are viable, noncontroversial first steps the city and town police agencies can take to achieve greater efficiencies and save our taxpayers between $230,00 and $560,000 per year.
Nearly all of these police support services are provided individually by the city and towns, but they could be more practically and logically shared. They include: centralization of records and data in a single archive; combining all public safety communications and dispatch operations; centralized personnel training and centralized booking of inmates into a single holding facility or detention center. Combining or sharing them would not only save Schenectady and our six neighboring police departments up to $560,000 per year, it could entitle each participating locality to added financial support under the governor’s budget.
Police consolidation in New York is nothing new. In Westchester County, the town of Ossining is turning its police services over to the county and will save nearly $1 million next year. In central New York, the town of Cicero voted to dissolve its police force and contract with the Onondaga County Sheriff for services. To the west, Jamestown and Chautauqua County have merged their public safety dispatch operations, while town and village police departments in Erie County have successfully merged with significant budget savings achieved.
For our city and county taxpayers, the savings potential could reach even further. The Columbia study suggests that a full-scale merger of city and town police operations into a single police department serving all of Schenectady County could reduce local policing costs by as much as 45 percent, or save each municipality between $2.2 million and $6.5 million per year in their respective police budgets.
For the city of Schenectady alone, the ability to cut our police budget by $6.5 million without impacting services could mean a local property tax reduction of more than 20 percent. Savings for taxpayers in Niskayuna, Glenville, Scotia and Rotterdam could be equally impressive.
Schenectady will now move forward with our fellow elected leaders and public safety officials to identify a list of service-sharing and contracting priorities and build a consensus. Our communities can then pursue federal and state funding for a single shared facility to handle police and public safety communications, lock-up, information technology, record-keeping, training and homeland security emergency and hazmat response planning. A detailed cost-benefit analysis and project implementation plan will be required before the city, town and county leaders jointly apply for implementation funding.
As President Obama champions an agenda for national competitiveness through technology, it is exciting to imagine what opportunities could lie ahead for Schenectady and GE, with more jobs in renewable energy and export manufacturing. But to truly reap the benefits of that growth, Schenectady must be an attractive destination for the young professionals and new families who would come for those new jobs. Without systemic fiscal change in Albany, and the kind of significant bottom-line savings local consolidation can bring our taxpayers, Schenectady and New York state will remain at a competitive disadvantage.
For Schenectady, our “Sputnik moment” should be a united resolve to put our city and all of New York back on course for economic prosperity and technological excellence through the tough fiscal reforms Gov. Cuomo has proposed. That begins by embracing consolidation and service-sharing with an open mind and can-do attitude.
Even though I will be leaving my position as mayor shortly to join the governor’s new administration as director of the New York State Canal Corporation, I will remain committed always to the future of the city of Schenectady. We can make our community an even more attractive place to live and work through fiscal prudence and consolidation. Let’s get started.
Brian U. Stratton will be relinquishing his post as mayor of Schenectady in mid-March.