A city is only prosperous when its residents are reaping the benefits as well.
On Jan. 13, during his State of the City address, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy spoke emphatically on how the addition of new businesses is improving the city financially.
He carried an optimistic tone but conceded that more work needs to be done to solve the city’s issues.
My initial problem with McCarthy’s speech is his insinuation that the improvement of business districts throughout the city equates to a prosperous city as a whole. This is simply not true.
In fact, areas like downtown Schenectady only seem to highlight the disparity between business districts and residential neighborhoods.
I also wonder whether the city is doing as well as it could from a financial standpoint, given Elmer Bertsch’s Viewpoint column last Sunday on the city’s numerous PILOT agreements. Bertsch questioned the growing number of PILOT agreements Metroplex and the county/city IDAs are doling out to new businesses in Schenectady.
After all, a PILOT agreement is simply a financial incentive used to lure in businesses that don’t want to pay county, city or school property taxes. In essence, the city is subsidizing these businesses by allowing their property tax-exempt status, as long as they pay an agreed-upon amount each year, which is generally far less than what they would pay in taxes.
And, of course, when the agreement reaches its end date, instead of entering onto the county, city and school tax rolls, the businesses can just get up and leave if they want to. One has to wonder how financially beneficial these PILOT agreements are to the city.
McCarthy also touted the city government’s finances as being “stable,” which might be true considering that its fiscal stress score from the state comptroller indicates it is not at risk. However, the city school district has the ninth worst fiscal stress score in the entire state, which is rather disconcerting.
The school district needs as much revenue as possible, considering it only received an estimated 54 percent of the financial aid it was supposed to get from the state last year.
While I’m sure the school district gets its fair portion of money through PILOT agreements, clearly it could be receiving much more revenue if these businesses were on the tax roll.
Maybe the state will eventually reverse course and give the school district the financial aid it deserves, but nothing is guaranteed when it comes to school aid.
I also have issues with some of McCarthy’s priorities for this year, which I think lack vision.
He wants to save the city money by implementing a new recycling program and curb crime by getting harder on corner stores that encourage drug dealing and nefarious activities.
I don’t think these are bad ideas, but I also don’t think they will do much in terms of solving the longstanding problems of ordinary residents.
If you want to reduce crime, you need to better educate the populace and get more police officers on the streets. If you want to save money, you need to cut wasteful spending and feasibly consolidate what you can.
But to McCarthy’s credit, the city has recently gotten Metroplex, along with the city’s land bank, on board in a small effort to help revitalize the Eastern Avenue neighborhood by demolishing some dilapidated buildings.
Granted, these buildings border a commercial area, but it will ultimately be beneficial to the neighborhood. It’s these types of initiatives that can help turn the city around and that should continue to be promoted.
It would be even more encouraging if the city could come to an out-of-court settlement with American Tax Funding over the hundreds of disputed tax liens.
With the chance to finally put ATF in the rearview mirror, the city should do whatever it can, within reason, to settle this ongoing quarrel. For the sake of property owners caught in the middle and future projects that seek to demolish uninhabitable buildings or revitalize and sell foreclosed homes, something needs to be done. This potential settlement with ATF could very well bolster the city’s Home Ownership Made Easy project.
McCarthy is taking advantage of the bright minds at Union College to develop a business and marketing plan for improving HOME. This is the kind of out-of-the-box and innovative idea that Schenectady needs going forward. It is by far the best initiative he proposed in his speech.
Most of McCarthy’s democratic allies on the City Council praised him for his “creative solutions to long-standing problems,” but I would advise them to be cautious. Solutions actually solve problems, and it’s a little premature to deem any initiatives enacted by McCarthy as successful, considering that Schenectady’s problems with crime, poverty and blight are still prevalent.
Overall, McCarthy did his usual political grandstanding, but he also showed that he has some constructive ideas to help turn around neighborhoods and improve the lives of residents.
I encourage him to keep being resourceful and to seek the counsel of his constituents and community leaders.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.