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Smart Cities funding in jeopardy as lawmakers brace for virus’ economic fallout

Smart Cities funding in jeopardy as lawmakers brace for virus’ economic fallout

City Council weighs putting brakes on $2 million expenditure
Smart Cities funding in jeopardy as lawmakers brace for virus’ economic fallout
A advanced street light set up for Smart Cities devices is shown last year in Mont Pleasant.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — Progress on the city’s Smart Cities initiative may come to a standstill as the City Council weighs halting funding until the financial impacts of COVID-19 emerge into better focus.

“We really need to know what the impact is on our city budget before we move forward,” said Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo.

Lawmakers on Monday debated issuing $2 million in bonds for capital projects, but opted to delay taking formal action for two weeks, citing the need for more clarity on progress and costs as the city continues to build out its Wi-Fi network.

The city spent roughly $2.3 million last year, with expenditures projected to rise to $3.5 million this year, according to materials provided by the city Finance Department.

Some of those funds have been allocated for devices designed to monitor activity in vacant buildings, as well as gunshot detection technology.

The City Council previously allocated the $2 million in this year’s budget, which was adopted last November. But their approval is still required to issue the actual bonds. 

Mayor Gary McCarthy urged lawmakers to stay the course.

Delaying funding, he said, would “short change” residents and put an end to the city’s ongoing deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots in Hamilton Hill and Mont Pleasant.

“It will effectively stop that,” McCarthy said on Tuesday.

The emerging network, which is being constructed in tandem with National Grid as it swaps out street lights with LED units, complements parallel efforts by the Schenectady City School District to broaden access to technology.

McCarthy said the effort is critical for students who are remote-learning who may not otherwise have access to broadband or are on limited data plans.

The statewide shutdown order has been extended until at least April 29.

Just 10 percent of the city’s Wi-Fi network has been completed so far, McCarthy estimated.

Councilwoman Carmel Patrick pointed at narrowing the broadband gap in lower-income neighborhoods as a chief reason to authorize the funding.

“If folks don’t have internet access across all of our neighborhoods, that’s a problem for people trying to get ahead, whether in the workforce or people looking to further their schooling,” Patrick said. “I would want those projects to continue to be funded.”

Skeptical lawmakers said they didn’t want to stop the project entirely, but the city should brace itself for revenue shortfalls as the coronavirus continues to batter the economy. Municipalities throughout the state are expected to see revenue drop as sales tax income plummets. Schenectady will also suffer because Rivers casino -- which pays the city and county a fee based on revenue -- has been shut down.

“We need to send a clear message to the community that we’re looking at the budget,” said City Council President John Mootooveren. “Who knows? We may end up cutting the budget.”

The state passed its $177 billion budget last week, but expects at least $10 billion less in tax revenue.

Joining Perazzo and Mootooveren as skeptics are Council members Ed Kosiur and Marion Porterfield.

“I’m not comfortable allocating more funds,” Porterfield said. “That’s for more of an ideal situation, and we’re not in an ideal situation.”

The new street lights installed by National Grid contain sensor ports that can later be plugged with nodes, each with specialized functions.

Finance Committee Chairman John Polimeni and Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas cited future applications for first responders and medical professionals.

“I think it’s a major mistake to hold off on this,” Polimeni said. “If we learn any lessons in this pandemic, it's that the use of technology is critical.”

The infrastructure, said Polimeni, lends itself to telemedicine uses, including thermal cameras which can detect body temperatures of passersby to check for fevers.

The city is also researching software that would allow first responders and hospitals to monitor patient vital signs remotely, which would ideally reduce the strain on their facilities. 

Reducing exposure will also protect first responders, said Fire Department Chief Ray Senecal.

“I think [COVID-19] is a long-term problem,” Senecal said. “And I don’t know if the Fire Department would be served by waiting for this to blow over."

McCarthy pledged to pick up the pace. 

“Any of this stuff in the capital budget could take years,” McCarthy told lawmakers. “I’m looking to expedite it and move it ahead.”

Finance Commissioner Anthony Ferrari said while the current economic environment is favorable for issuing bonds, the conditions won’t last.

“Going into the future, it’s going to be very difficult to borrow money,” he said.
 

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