Neighborhood revitalization in Schenectady is a pretty large and important initiative.
It’s something that doesn’t occur overnight, but takes countless hours of demolition and restoration of vacant and abandoned city properties.
So are Schenectady leaders appropriately going about accomplishing the goal of making the city a more viable, safe and attractive place to live?
I’m not so sure.
At the most recent City Council meeting, there was a juvenile spat between council members over the reallocation of a very small portion of the $3.3 million Community Development Block Grant the city received this year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city uses the annual grant to fund various programs and plans, but nonprofits and community organizations also greatly depend on its financing.
While council members squabbled over $60,000 this past Monday, there was a statement that Mayor Gary McCarthy made just a few days prior that I found most significant.
Without specification, he suggested that some of the grant money be used to fund certain demolition projects in the city. He’ll find no argument from me. But what he will find instead is my growing uncertainty around why the city absolutely needed a $3 million HUD loan to be used for even more demolition projects.
Yes, most of the grant money is earmarked for other purposes and loans are sometimes necessary in order to pay for things. But they end up needing to be repaid. It is not free money. Just maybe, city leaders should consider not incurring sizable debt to pay for things. Any time the subject of taking out a loan to pay for something comes up, council members should ask themselves, “Can the city afford it?” The answer should always be no.
Leaders need to understand that while Schenectadians want results, they don’t want them to come at the expense of economic feasibility.
Then there’s the Schenectady land bank.
With the exception of Councilman Carl Erickson, the remainder of the City Council was unwilling to allocate any money from the grant to the land bank because it has yet to receive nonprofit certification from the state.
Two things: Why is it taking so long to obtain nonprofit certification? And isn’t the purpose, nay the mission, of the land bank to serve local communities by restoring or demolishing vacant and abandoned properties?
The city advocated and worked hard to create the land bank, but it missed out on receiving seed money from the state last year. Now it sits idly while federal money is being doled out to other organizations that may not be as resourceful.
And not to pick on Habitat for Humanity, because it has done much good for Schenectady, but spending $400,000 of the city’s money to build two houses is simply not fiscally responsible enough.
With a 2014 budget of only $55,000, the individuals overseeing the land bank would have been ecstatic to receive $400,000, and one would think they would push every single penny as far as it could go.
Having more than one revenue stream is usually a good thing, but any revenue that eventually becomes an expenditure, i.e. the HUD loan, is not ideal.
More than ever, multiple parties are funded through multiple streams of revenue in order to execute multiple projects.
The city has its own HOMES program, the land bank, utilizes a handful of nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, and works with the Galesi Group on bigger projects. There’s even Metroplex, at least from a commercial perspective.
When the land bank was in the midst of creation, I assumed the city was finally taking a turn toward a centralized approach, but that clearly hasn’t happened.
I appreciate that leaders are aggressively trying to address one of the most glaring problems with the city. It shows they care about the city and are listening to residents.
But they need not listen to a fault, if effectiveness and efficiency are being sacrificed for the sake of getting more and more shovels into the ground quickly. I’m fairly certain everyone understands that the revitalization of residential neighborhoods is a long-term goal.
That is why I ask our leaders to heed caution and reassess project management and funding when it comes to neighborhood revitalization.
There’s no shame in taking a step back to make sure things are being done correctly and not creating unnecessary expenses that could potentially hurt the city and cost taxpayers.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.