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Funding for Mohawk flood mitigation in Cuomo budget

Funding for Mohawk flood mitigation in Cuomo budget

Lawmakers say Cuomo emphasized new spending over discussing bail reform, balancing budget
Funding for Mohawk flood mitigation in Cuomo budget
Andrew Cuomo delivers his proposed state budget at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Photographer: New York Times

CAPITOL -- The state's plan to address ice jams and alleviate seasonal flooding along the Mohawk River in the Schenectady area will move forward in 2020, according to the new state budget Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed on Tuesday.

Cuomo's budget briefing book highlights the $65 million to address ice jams as one of the immediate initiatives under the proposed $300 million Reimaging the Erie Canal plan. While the $300 million in spending will be spread over five years, the ice jam plan spending would be included in this year's budget.

The flood mitigation spending is a local highlight within Cuomo's proposed $178.6 billion budget for fiscal 2021, which calls for reforming Medicaid to close part of a $6.1 billion projected budget deficit, in a way that could cost New York counties more money. Cuomo would also spend more money on addressing climate change and rebuilding infrastructure, while proposing tax cuts for small business and the middle class.

The mitigation work would be carried out through the New York Power Authority, which owns and operates the Vischer Ferry Dam. The dam may be modified to reduce the amount of still water that can back up behind it in winter. Cuomo announced the plan earlier this month as part of his State of the State proposals.

Schenectady's historic Stockade neighborhood floods on a near-annual basis, and ways to protect it have been the subject of extensive study. Springtime flooding, in particular, has been associated with water backups behind ice jams.

As proposed, the $65 million in state funding would be allocated this year for solutions designed to prevent the ice jams and flooding which have long plagued the Mohawk River Valley, even though actual work may not happen before 2021.

"We're appreciative of the governor's interest in Schenectady and all the communities along the Mohawk River that are affected, and working with him on implementing those ideas," said Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy. "We're looking forward to having the discussion. There's a lot of research being done on what measures might be most effective, and what actions could be done."

Last year Cuomo appointed a Reimagine Task Force to come up with new ideas for the 360-mile Erie Canal's future. A sub-group was tasked with finding ways to prevent flooding caused by ice jams. It recommended four measures: using specialized icebreakers to break up ice jams; modifying the Vischer Ferry Dam to manage water releases; alleviating choke points in the Mohawk River where jams form through dredging; and deploying an early monitoring and warning system.

The ideas draw heavily on the research done by John Garver, a Union College professor of geology, who made a presentation to the task force.

Each idea requires further analysis before funding, state officials said. The Power Authority is expected to work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the best solutions.

Also planned for inclusion in the 2020-2021 state budget is $100 million in economic development funding for communities along the Erie Canal to help them stimulate tourism, including establishing a  footbridge on the existing Lock 11 on the Erie Canalway Trail in Amsterdam. The remaining $135 million will be allotted over the next few years to address issues including flood mitigation, invasive species prevention and ecosystem restoration.

Cuomo's budget also proposes cutting the video lottery terminal aid that communities with VLT facilities, including Saratoga Springs, have received for years. "The revenue benefits of hosting a facility outweigh any associated costs," according to a statement in the briefing book.

Saratoga Springs receives about $2.3 million annually in VLT aid due to the presence of the Saratoga Casino Hotel. Cuomo also proposed cutting the aid in 2015, but after city officials objected it was restored during budget negotiations.

City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said the city will again fight to get the funding restored.

"It really is just an announcement from the governor's office, so that's $2.3 million that the city relies on, and that money is mostly for public safety," Madigan said Tuesday evening. "$2.3 million is a big hole to fill for a city with a budget our size."

State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said in many other ways he is disappointed in the budget proposal, and its failure to do deal more concretely with the projected budget deficit and bail reform.

"What's on every one's mind is public safety and keeping more of their hard-earned money," Santabarbara said. "People are leaving the state. The only way to reduce taxes is to reduce spending, and this was all about increasing spending ... That's really disappointing."

He said he opposes using the budget approval process as a way to legalize marijuana without going through a separate public debate, and said he was disappointed that neither the troubles plaguing rural ambulance services or the needs of people with disabilities were mentioned.

"Bail reform, it is the top issue right now, and he glossed over it," said Santabarbara, who voted against last year's state budget over its inclusion of bail changes. "The unintended consequences is what we are now seeing."

Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Johnstown, said Cuomo shouldn't be even threatening to shift some Medicaid cost increases back to county governments, which could mean higher property taxes for residents.

"Instead, we need to address the pervasive fraud and abuse in New York's Medicaid program," he said. "It is my hope that members of the Legislature will join me in seeking the reforms necessary to clean up our state Medicaid program, as opposed to the standard tax-and-spend approach that led us to this budget crisis in the first place."

Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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