Amsterdam’s fiscal future is being placed in the hands of voters, as two candidates vie to take the reins of the city’s Finance Department.
The office of city controller has remained vacant as the city lost its credit rating this summer due to inadequate available data and its weak grasp on its finances caused a freeze on federal funding.
Despite the difficult landscape, Republican Matthew A. Agresta and Democrat Irene Collins are campaigning to serve the remaining two years of the term of Controller Ronald Wierzbicki, who died in office late last year.
EXPERIENCE: Former deputy comptroller, city of Mount Vernon; currently a rental property owner
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, accounting; master’s degree, international business
FAMILY: Single, one adult son
Matthew A. Agresta
EXPERIENCE: Assistant home manager, Liberty ARC; former aide to Mayor Ann Thane
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degrees in finance and marketing and political science
FAMILY: Married, two children
Agresta, 29, works as an assistant home manager for Liberty ARC.
Collins, 53, manages rental property and was deputy comptroller of the Westchester County city of Mount Vernon.
For Agresta, who lost the race to Wierzbicki in 2011, the controller position is an opportunity to stabilize budgeting.
He said he expects the annual audit the city is required to turn in to the state Comptroller’s Office will be complete before the new controller takes office Jan. 1. It was due to the state June 30, the end of the city’s fiscal year.
With those details in hand, Agresta said he believes he can give the city what it needs.
“There needs to be better accounting of what’s going on, making sure we stay on top of the day-to-day, making sure we don’t get behind,” he said. “Trying to devise a budget that works without raising taxes and cutting jobs is ideally what we are trying to do.”
City officials have cited a changeover in computer accounting software in 2011 and inconsistent staffing as reasons why the city hasn’t yet closed out its books for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Accountants from the state Comptroller’s Office have been poring over the city’s ledgers, drafting an audit local officials expect will be critical.
Despite the dire state of financial affairs, Agresta said Amsterdam isn’t alone.
“There’s a lot of cities that have fallen on hard times since 2008,” said Agresta, who believes he can work to improve the city’s reputation once the fiscal affairs are in order.
“There’s a lot of small cities who have only a certain amount of revenue and expenditures. As a city, we need to find innovative ways to try to bring our revenues and our expenditures in line with each other, ideally without losing jobs,” he said.
Though he lacks municipal finance experience, Agresta said he is a quick learner.
“There’s only one way to get that experience, and that’s by getting the job,” he said.
Collins, who considers herself semiretired as she pursues a small business venture owning residential rental properties, said she’s seen firsthand the impact city finances can have on people in the city.
“Every time you have a tax increase, it affects me. And the problem with that is as my taxes go up, my renters’ wages are not going up the same way,” she said. “So it’s very difficult to keep renters if you’re going to continue to raise their rent and price them out.”
“I have something I can offer the city. I can’t sit here and not help. The experience I’m bringing is 12 years as deputy comptroller in Mount Vernon,” she said.
Collins served as one of two deputy comptrollers, overseeing a finance staff of 12 for a city of 68,000 people and a budget of $83 million. Amsterdam is home to slightly more than 18,000 people and operates with a budget of $28 million.
Collins said property maintenance, taxes and permit fees are all factors that impact property owners, and the city’s finances have a more severe impact on the most frail of residents: senior citizens on fixed incomes.
“Where are they getting this money if they can’t even save any more, if the money they have is to pay the taxes,” she said.
Tightening up budget figures, she said, will bring the city’s finances up to the level where specific spending can be identified and scrutinized.
Compared with what she expects to find in the Amsterdam controller’s office, Collins said her time in Mount Vernon was “exactly the same.”
She envisions the job of controller as providing suggestions on increasing or decreasing budget lines and bringing questions as to what is necessary and unnecessary spending to the Common Council.
“I have to provide the financial information to them for them to make better decisions,” Collins said.
The post pays $55,000 a year.