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GUEST COLUMN: Don't emulate Washington on ethics, transparency

GUEST COLUMN: Don't emulate Washington on ethics, transparency

Misleading statements hurting Schenectady

For The Daily Gazette

We don’t have to look to Washington, D.C., to find false statements, conflicts of interest, or the shattering of ethical and legal norms.

We have them in Schenectady, too.

Let’s be clear: There is much to feel good about in the city.

As noted nearly three decades ago when work began to turn Schenectady around, the city has many strengths — an incredibly diverse population, remarkable historic landmarks, important colleges, great music and theater venues, and tremendous natural assets.

Much is happening to make Schenectady better. For that, we should all feel good.

We should feel far less good about factually wrong or, at best, misleading statements.

A case in point—local home values and taxes.

For several years, the claim has been made our unbelievably high taxes are being reduced. Really? While technically correct, the claim is clearly misleading. 

This year my taxes went down $16; in the past, reductions in taxes were offset by increases in fees. (By the way, without casino payments, taxes would have skyrocketed, unless, of course, another profit-making business had occupied the casino’s space.)

Another claim is, even if taxes are high, we get great value for the homes we own in Schenectady. We do—at an exorbitant price. 

According to Zillow.com, the house I bought in 2005 is worth 20% less today than when I purchased it.

Since a house is the greatest investment for most people, a negative return on that investment is a high price to pay for the value we receive.

Of course, I am lucky. My declining property value, in a home in which I intend to stay, is nothing compared to what two neighbors who sold their homes suffered.

After several years on the market, their homes sold for roughly half of the asking price.

More important than false political claims, though, is the apparent conflict regarding the state’s recent grant of $10 million to the city.

The grant is good for Schenectady, and the projects under consideration for funding clearly would improve the city.

Several stand out, however—for the wrong reasons.

The further development of the river front is a good idea, but how is it that state funds should go to a private developer? 

Yes, as has been said, the developer has poured hundreds of millions into Schenectady, and, yes, the firm’s development has been very good—for both the city and the developer.

But does that investment justify further state funds going to the developer for projects that would enhance its investment?

Another proposed funding recipient is Proctors.

Although Proctors has received state grants in the past, should funds from the $10 million grant go to Proctors?

Perhaps — under the right circumstances.

The process of allocating the state grant, though, must be a fair one. With that in mind, how is it potential recipients — the leaders of the developer and Proctors—serve on the committee determining how those funds should be spent?

On its face, their appointments are conflicts of interest.

Despite their roles in improving Schenectady, fairness dictates both men should not be involved in any decision concerning their organizations.

Yet, even if they recuse themselves, the process would be tainted, since it would be easy to game the system. It would be best for them to resign, if their organizations are possible recipients of the grant.

A lack of transparency and conflicts of interest are troubling issues—or at least they should be. In the past, they were, but not today.

In the age of Trump, those issues are, seemingly, of no concern to most people. 

In Schenectady, ethics and legal norms should be retained.

We would all benefit, and we might even serve as a much-needed model for Washington.

Dr. Roger H. Hull is president emeritus of Union College and president of the Help Yourself Win Foundation.
 

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