The six candidates running for three City Council seats spent Tuesday evening wrestling with problems ranging from the city’s decreasing tax base to out-of-control children at a forum sponsored by The Daily Gazette.
Opinions were not divided along party lines, and the candidates found themselves occasionally agreeing with members of the other party and disagreeing with their own running mates. Nowhere was that more evident than on the question of police overtime.
Watch the opening statements on the Capital Region Scene blog.
The police department spent $1.4 million on overtime for the first nine months of the year, well above the budget of $750,000 for the entire year. Democrat John Mootooveren said the solution was clear.
“We need to hire more officers,” he said.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, a fellow Democrat, quickly agreed.
“We do need to increase our police force,” she said.
But Councilman Carl Erikson, another Democrat, said overtime could be managed without hiring more officers.
“The way compensation is set up could be done a lot better,” he said, adding that he has ideas that would be more beneficial to officers but cost the city less.
Answers were just as divided on the Republican side. Joseph Kelleher said the council was irresponsibly setting the overtime budget too low.
“Find a realistic budget,” he said, adding that he would do so by comparing quarterly spending to determine trends.
But Joseph Lazzari, a retired Schenectady police officer, said the city simply can’t set an accurate figure because there’s no way to predict crime waves.
“A homicide or a rash or burglaries and there goes your overtime,” he said.
Mary McClaine sided with Erikson, saying the department should find a new way to distribute overtime. Currently, detectives and other senior officers get much of the overtime. They can volunteer for as many shifts as they want, and if younger officers do not volunteer, they can work shift after shift.
“They need to take out the seniority system,” McClaine said.
The candidates came back to the issue of policing several times, particularly as they discussed the recent unrest at Mont Pleasant Middle School. On that issue, two of the Republicans agreed the city should hire school resource officers. Kelleher and Lazzari said that would be cheaper and more effective.
Lazzari added, “A uniformed officer in the school would make a drastic difference.”
But their running mate called for a different approach.
“We need community intervention,” McClaine said. “We have to teach them social skills.”
On the Democratic side, Porterfield also wanted a community approach. She said experts, community leaders and parents should be called together as they were during the teen suicide cluster in 2009.
“Stop this before it spreads to other schools,” she said.
Mootooveren said the city should fund after-school programs, while Erikson said the school district should develop its own plan.
“We let them take the lead, and we support them as best we can,” he said.
Several other questions revolved around the issue of the city’s declining tax base. With fewer property owners, everyone must pay more in property taxes. But council members were criticized when they voted to give the Galesi Group $500,000 to demolish a building and replace it with housing.
The candidates were split on whether to continue offering such incentives.
“There’s no way we should give them [$500,000]. It wouldn’t happen if we bought a home or a business,” Kelleher said.
Erikson said the city is at a disadvantage because it’s so much cheaper for businesses to go to the suburbs and “cut a few trees down” for a project.
“But if we want to keep up with Clifton Park, we have to provide a shovel-ready site,” he said.
Lazzari took Erikson’s side, saying he would be willing to spend money if it brought jobs.
“I’m all for it. You have to do it,” he said.
Mootooveren went farther, saying he would approve incentives for many businesses.
“I welcome new businesses. In this age, we have to be very competitive,” he said.
McClaine noted the Galesi deal didn’t come with any promise of new jobs.
“The city shouldn’t have agreed to it,” she said.
Porterfield found herself agreeing with her opposition. She voted against the Galesi deal because it didn’t include jobs, she said, but, she added, she might approve incentives if the business brought jobs and promised to stay for a certain number of years.
On whether to give raises to the City Council, only Erikson said he would be open to the issue. He said he would vote for one “someday,” while all the others said they would never vote for a council member’s raise.
On whether to ever raise the mayor’s salary, Erikson and Porterfield said they would vote for that. The other four said no, and McClaine added, “I’d vote to lower it.”