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Deficit key issue in Amsterdam mayoral race

Deficit key issue in Amsterdam mayoral race

Villa and Cinquanti square off Nov. 5
Deficit key issue in Amsterdam mayoral race
Mayor Michael Villa, left, and opponent Michael Cinquanti at a debate at Riverfront Center, Oct 15, 2019.
Photographer: Peter Barber/Gazette Photographer

AMSTERDAM — Amsterdam's mayoral race features incumbent Republican Michael Villa running against challenger Michael Cinquanti, who is running on the Democratic, Conservative, Independent, Green and Working Families party lines.

Villa, 62, a retired Amsterdam police detective, is running on his record as mayor, which includes having successfully won the New York State $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative in 2018 and increasing the city's number of tourism events from 9 to 27 with the city's #FestCityUSA and #SoMuchToDoinAmsterdamNY social media campaigns.

Cinquanti, 65, served two non-consecutive terms on the Greater Amsterdam School Board, once in the 1980s and then in the early 2000s, and has worked in the private sector as the president and majority stakeholder in Genium Publishing Corp., a firm that was spun off from GE Global Research. He's also written three books about the history of Amsterdam.

One of the major issues in the mayoral campaign has been Amsterdam's estimated $8.4 million accumulated budget deficit, why it happened and how to deal with it.

Amsterdam has been ranked as the No. 1 most fiscally stressed municipality in New York state. Villa's administration hired an independent auditing firm to help straighten out the city's bookkeeping system, which had included improper accounting practices like commingling tax revenues with money borrowed for capital projects, leading to projects going unfinished and borrowed money being used for weekly city expenses like employee payroll. 

Vote 2019: Your guide to Tuesday's elections

Villa has argued that his administration "inherited a disaster," a bookkeeping system in which past city officials, including his predecessor Mayor Ann Thane, put together annual city budgets with incomplete knowledge, never knowing how much cash the city had, or what its outstanding payables and debt were. He has said as much as $1 million in revenues are unaccounted for during the chaotic period between 2007 and 2015 and the New York State Comptroller's office has told city officials the accounting records for the city are too unreliable to determine whether all revenues were properly deposited, meaning no accurate paper trail exists to determine what really happened during that time period. 

"That's the New York State Comptroller's office, that's not me, that's not [City Controller] Matt Agresta, that's the state," he said during an Oct. 15 debate with Cinquanti at the Amsterdam Riverfront Center. "Officials failed to act, and in the city charter, when a deficit is realized, you have to take affirmative action and none was taken for a period of eight years."

Amsterdam's $33.1 million 2019-20 budget included a 7 percent tax levy increase, overriding the state tax cap. Villa proposed an 8 percent increase for the 2018-19 budget, but it was reduced by the common council to 1.97 percent. 

Amsterdam's budget consultants, Canandaigua-based Municipal Solutions Inc., told the common council in January that the city needed to increase its tax levy by 10 to 12 percent or face the possibility of a state takeover.  

Cinquanti has said raising taxes would be his last resort for balancing the city's budget, but he has no plan to cut city employees, the salaries and benefits for whom account for most of the city's expenses. Cinquanti says he wants to bring private sector budget practices to the city, monitoring expenses during budget review meetings on a monthly basis. 

Cinquanti said during the debate with Villa that Villa can't continue to blame the city's financial problems on Thane. He said Villa has continued some of the bad accounting practices, even though he wants credit for cleaning up the problem. 

"You can't blame responsibility of this year's budget on last [term's] mayor," Cinquanti said. "The city charter says that every year the common council should be presented with a capital projects schedule, a full capital projects schedule. We didn't get one [from Villa this year]. What happened in the past is a result of unprofessionalism, a result of a broken accounting system, but what's happening now is we need to be more professional in the way that we're presenting our numbers and our budgets. We don't want somebody five years down the line to say, where's the information? Where's this? where's that? That's what I mean when I say I want a more professional approach to the financial management of the city."  

Although the deficit grew under Villa's administration, Villa argues he has taken steps to reduce it in the future including restarting the city's foreclosure process, which had been dormant for six years between 2010 and 2016, and seeking state legislation to allow the city to borrow money to pay off its deficit.

Cinquanti argues he will be better able to contain city expenses once he has access to all of the information Villa has as mayor. He says he also intends to maintain Villa's approach to city-wide festivals, tourism and marketing. 

The city of Amsterdam is a majority Democratic city, with 3,776 registered Democrats and 2,432 registered Republicans. Villa, however, overcame the Democrat's registration advantage in 2015 to defeat two-term incumbent Democrat Ann Thane by 2,250 to 1,304. 

COMMON COUNCIL RACES

All five of Amsterdam's common council seats, which have two-year terms, are up for re-election Nov. 5, although Deputy Mayor James Martuscello, alderman for the 5th Ward, is running unopposed. 

Each vote on the council is crucially important, as the most recent city budget passed essentially by one vote. The council split on the 2019-20 budget 3-1-1, with 3rd Ward Alderwoman Irene Collins voting to abstain. Martuscello, a Democrat, voted with Republicans 1st Ward Alderman Patrick Russo and 2nd Ward Alderman Paul Ochal to pass the budget, with 4th Ward Alderman Dave Dybas voting against it. 

However, all five council members voted to override the city's property tax cap, enabling a 7 percent increase in the city's tax levy. At least 4/5 of the council is needed to break the state mandated tax cap. 

• 1st Ward: Incumbent Patrick Russo, a 2003 graduate of Amsterdam High School who works in sales for the computer security company Unisys, faces challenger Democrat Ken Mazur, who works for the New York state Department of Health. Patrick Russo defeated Democrat Pam Swart in a special election in November 2018 to fill out the remaining year of deceased 1st Ward Alderman Ed Russo. This is Mazur's second attempt to win the 1st ward council seat, having been defeated by Ed Russo in 2015. Patrick Russo is not related to Ed Russo. 

• 2nd Ward: Incumbent Paul Ochal, a retired General Electric employee, having worked for 25 years fact-checking and editing technical manuals, will face retired postal worker Democrat David Gomula. Ochul spent many years as a wrestling coach for Amsterdam High School, and was inducted into the school district's hall of fame in 2017. Gomula was in the Air Force and Air National Guard, where he obtained his post-high school education, traveling to different parts of the world, including Central America and Europe. 

• 3rd Ward: Incumbent Irene Collins, the former deputy comptroller for the city of Mount Vernon, will face challenger Republican Kim Van Wormer, an Amsterdam High School graduate who works as a defense attorney.  Van Wormer has never served in public office before, but says she's been recruited to run in the past both Republicans and Democrats. Collins first ran for Amsterdam elected office in 2013 to serve as the city controller was defeated by then-newcomer Matt Agresta. Collins often questions city spending and accounting practices during common council meetings. 

• 4th Ward: Incumbent Dave Dybas, a retired General Electric financial analysis and former Amsterdam city 4th Ward supervisor, faces Republican Stephen Gomula in a rematch. Dybas defeated Gomula 281-248 in 2018, after absentee ballots were counted for the race. Dybas is known for making many technical corrections to improperly written council resolutions, sometimes drawing the ire of Villa and other council members. Gomula works two jobs in the emergency management services field, one in Albany for the Regional Emergency Medical Organization and as a patient care technician for St. Mary's Hospital. He served in the U.S. Army reserves as a medic for ten years after he resigned his position as a deputy in the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office and served a month in jail following an incident in which he is alleged to have threatened to kill a man while off duty. Gomula says he deeply regrets the incident and has worked hard in the years since then to establish a career of public service and to overcome his past mistake. 

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