AMSTERDAM -- During a short State of the City speech Tuesday night, Mayor Michael Cinquanti said it is his goal to cut between $600,000 and $900,000 in spending from the city's $33.2 million budget.
He said during his first 21 days in office he's found about $100,000 in savings toward that goal:
• Cinquanti said he's saving the city about $50,000 by transferring Michelle Jackson from the city's Tourism, Marketing and Recreation Department to the mayor's administrative assistant position and leaving her former spot vacant.
• His hiring of Gloversville City Attorney Anthony Casale to handle the city's legal counsel and code enforcement duties will save the city $8,000 by dropping its $18,000 annual contract with Roemer Wallens & Mineaux. Amsterdam has requested home rule legislation from New York state to allow the city to waive residency requirements and appoint Casale corporation counsel; in the meantime, the city council Tuesday night unanimously approved a contract to hire Casale for legal services costing $65,000 for 2020.
• Cinquanti said he asked Rochester-based DePaul Properties, which has proposed a 60-unit affordable apartment project on Amsterdam's East End, to demolish a building for the city, saving an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 in demolition costs.
"Add these actions up and they represent $100,000 in 21 days," he said. "In my 2020-21 budget message to the city's department heads I am instructing them to do what I'm doing — treat every line item of their department's budget as an opportunity to improve the cost effectiveness of their operation."
Cinquanti said he's also looking for new sources of revenue.
"Randy Gardinier, who heads the city's water filtration plant, told me about the possibility that our city could sell full forest carbon credits at our Glen Wild watershed, and so I asked Randy to pursue that opportunity, and he's come back to me and said the city could realize as much as $75,000 per year over the next 10 years, for doing that, and really when you think about it we're doing nothing — we're promising not to cut down the forest," he said.
Cinquanti is taking over a city that the state Comptroller's Office has ranked as the most fiscally stressed municipality in New York state. The state has approved legislation to allow Amsterdam to borrow up to $8.4 million to clear off the estimated $8.3 million in budget deficits it has accumulated over the past decade. The city would py off that amount over time plus interest. The next step in the process is the state comptroller must certify the amount of Amsterdam's deficit.
Cinquanti said the city's deficit has damaged its credit rating and made it extremely difficult to move forward on any capital projects that require it to borrow money. He said once the deficit is certified the city will be able to determine if parts of it can be "forgiven" or written off without repayment. He said his preliminary estimate on the cost of borrowing money to pay off the deficit is $1 million to $1.5 million each year for 10 years.
For perspective, Amsterdam's property tax levy for its 2019-20 budget is $5.7 million. If Cinquanti's calculations prove correct, it would take a 17.5 percent hike in the property tax levy to pay for $1.5 million in annual debt payment if all of it were paid only with property taxes. The city has other sources of revenue, including sales tax and water and sewer fees. Debt service is also exempt from the New York state property tax cap.
"Where is this money coming from? There are only two sources, generating new revenues, or cutting expenses," Cinquanti said. "My goal is to make it a 60/40 split."
Meanwhile the city continues to wait for the deficit certification. Cinquanti delayed his first state of the city speech for five days in the hope the comptroller would have the deficit certified by Tuesday, but it hasn't happened yet.
Cinquanti described the city's difficult financial position.
"We have no surplus. We have a rather precarious cash flow situation, and — though we have millions of dollars in grant funding available for a multitude of much needed capital projects — there is still much to do before we can begin to break ground on many of them," he said."
Amsterdam borrowed $2 million in the form of a tax anticipation note in 2018 and renewed the bond again for 2019 to ensure the city had enough cash to make payroll.
Fire chief retiring
Cinquanti announced Amsterdam Fire Chief Michael Whitty's retirement during his speech and said the city will hire a replacement.
Whitty said he's been "month-to-month" on his decision of when to retire for much of 2019 and his decision is not connected to Cinquanti's victory over former Mayor Michael Villa in November. He said he wanted to wait to make sure two current city firefighters had obtained some new training New York state is now requiring of city fire chiefs before he officially retired. He would not provide the names of the two potential fire chief candidates.
Whitty said one of the biggest achievements of his tenure was the establishment of a city ambulance service operated by the Fire Department. He said he anticipates 2019 will show about $560,000 in revenues from the ambulance service, which is $60,000 more than was budgeted for that time period.
He said the city's Fire Department has remained at 32 people during his five-year tenure and he hopes it stays that way. He said eight firefighters are allocated to each shift, in the hope that at least six will be on duty during a fire, minus firefighters on vacation or out sick. He said anything less than six will increase danger and make it more difficult to put out fires.
"What these guys do with six, responding to a fire, is nothing short of heroic," he said.