Archive for August, 2011

Local photographer Kristina Stears took these dramatic photos of the damage and flooding near Lock 10 and also of the massive line of traffic being redirected from the closed thruway (used with permission). I hate to think that  somewhere in that mess are pieces of the Guy Park Manor.

You can view more of Kristina’s photos of the flood effects here.

It’s no secret that local papers everywhere are struggling. The number of people who choose to get their news on “paper” is declining daily.  Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when newspapers started to become popular, news travelled  slow and therefore, we created newspaper companies  that were small and that provided for the local people’s needs. Some people actually lived their entire lives only getting their news from the local paper.  But today we have radio, television and the internet to get our news. Today’s world is not the same as it was in 1930. Newspapers like the Amsterdam Recorder need to start thinking outside their territorial boundaries if they are to survive.

Inspired by the Amsterdam Recorder’s steadfast advocacy for consolidation and regional collaboration, I believe the best thing for them is to consolidate with The Leader Herald. Now I don’t have any real facts to show that this would be the best thing for them economically or if this would actually serve the needs of the people of Fulton and Montgomery County any better, but to me it just seems like the right thing to do.

Actually, it’s a little ridiculous that this paper has to be reminded of these realities, especially when our neighbor Schenectady County, with a population roughly the same as Fulton and Montgomery combined, has only one paper, the Schenectady Gazette. Now if one paper can cover that many people, why do we need two? I am sure that there are many areas where these papers are duplicating services like advertising, billing, and circulation. I bet that both these paper’s printing presses are being underutilized too. Why not just use one and save money? And I am sure that the combined reporting staff can be downsized and still cover twice the area they once did at the same salaries. I mean it just makes sense, right?

The concept of the neighborhood paper, while a nice one, simply doesn’t work. Competition between papers only hinders progress. The Amsterdam Recorder should adopt a collaborative approach which everyone will benefit from. So what do you say, editors?

“Consolidation” and “shared services” – seem to be two buzzwords that are being used a lot these days. All three mayoral candidates have expressed (in varying degrees of detail), their support for working with other municipalities to cut costs of services. The idea of  consolidating local governments gets mentioned a lot by some county supervisors, numerous Recorder editorials, and most recently is mentioned (somewhat obliquely) in an opinion piece in Monday’s Recorder by Fulton Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger, entitled “Plan a collaboration for a brighter future“.

I’ve always been supportive of the idea of shared services. If, for instance, it would cost less to pay the county to plow our roads than to maintain our own fleet, then by all means, let’s do it. So while I think that shared services and even consolidation in some cases could be good ideas, I’m starting to get a little concerned about the way this is being sold. It’s almost as if we are being asked to buy in to these ideas by faith, rather than by facts.

Swanger’s article, while well written and optimistic, contains some points which echo other ideas on consolidation and shared services that I’ve heard, but just don’t sit well with me. I’ll explain why.

In regards to regional economic growth, he gives the following chastisement:

“We must reduce barriers to development. We cannot afford to withhold water or sewer services. We cannot worry about which town or city will gain the most from development.”

Now Swanger is most likely talking about a problem that developed between the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville last year related to the development of a Walmart Supercenter. Making a long story short, Johnstown and Gloversville built a waste treatment plant together many years ago, and had an agreement that if either city wanted to extend their sewer lines past their boundaries, the other city had to approve it.  The Town of Johnstown needed a sewer line from Gloversville to move forward with the Walmart Supercenter project. The City of Johnstown, for whatever reason, didn’t want to go along. So Gloversville annexed that part of the land from the town and worked out a revenue sharing deal.  You can find articles with more details on the situation here.

So everything actually worked out just fine, the project recently broke ground and everyone (except maybe the City of Johnstown) is happy. To me, this shows that when a clear economic opportunity presents itself, localities will bend over backwards to cooperate and get things done. The City of Johnstown probably acted the way they did because they weren’t getting anything out of the deal or thought the supercenter might harm them economically.

This situation was certainly difficult and could have gone a lot smoother if there had been a more flexible agreement between the two cities. But how common is this type of arrangement where one city has actual veto power over another? Swanger goes on to say,

“Our growth cannot be constrained by what are, effectively, artificial boundaries. If we cannot collaborate across these manmade boundaries, perhaps it is time to remove them.”

I’m not 100% sure if he is literally talking about municipal boundaries here, or if the word “boundaries” is referring to certain laws that may inhibit cooperation.  But my sense is that he is indeed, talking about the latter.  So because of one special case where localities didn’t fully cooperate, this is grounds for abolishing a local government? That just seems a little extreme to me.

I also take exception to describing the current local boundaries as “artificial”. This term would better describe Africa or the Middle East, where colonial powers drew national boundaries, disregarding the traditional boundaries of various tribes or ethnic groups. To me, our current municipal boundaries are “organic”, accurately reflecting the communities that people built throughout our history. Now Swanger argues earlier in his article that these boundaries are less important because of our increased mobility, and I would agree with that. However, I would say that our local boundaries are no more artificial or man-made than our county, state or national borders.

What I see happening is that larger companies are not willing to build or expand inside city boundaries. Either there isn’t enough space or the taxes are too high. So they look to the towns for large spaces to develop on. But unfortunately they don’t have the water or sewer systems to accommodate them. So, the towns look to the cities, who have invested extensively in these systems, to extend out their lines.

So in order for these large projects to happen, there certainly has to be cooperation between the cities and towns. I tend to wonder if the idea of consolidation is simply an idea that gets mentioned in order to keep cities on their toes  (ie share your water and sewer or else!), or if this is indeed a serious, credible policy being pursued on the county level.

 Finally, Swanger offers this idea,

“No company thinks ‘I need to locate my business in Amsterdam,Johnstown, or Gloversville.’ They think, ‘In what region of the country will my business gain the best advantage?’”

Well, I can certainly believe this when it comes to large companies who can afford to locate anywhere they want. But what about, for instance, a small business located in Albany with roots in the region, but is struggling financially and needs to cut costs?  Why wouldn’t they consider moving to Amsterdam to take advantage of the low-cost commercial space that is available? With the proper marketing, I think that yes, some businesses might actually think they need to locate their business in Amsterdam, Johnstown or Gloversville. Statements like this, along with the numerous editorials from the Recorder admonishing the Mayor for pursuing city marketing, make me really wonder if this opposition exists simply because a successful growing economy in Amsterdam would be at odds with the vision for consolidation.

As the discussions on shared services and consolidation goes on, I think it is vitally important for citizens to ask the hard questions of our elected officials, both in the city and county government. We need to make sure that any decision to consolidate services or governments is based on facts that demonstrate true cost reduction and serve the best interests of everyone.

The 2011 Mayoral Race So Far

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Elections
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No Debate For You!
According to the Recorder 1, Mayoral Candidates Ann Thane and Joseph Emanuele have turned down a call from Bill Wills to hold a debate before the September 13th primaries.  Both Thane and Emanuele must believe they’ve got their primary victories in the bag, and  at this point, it  probably makes sense for them to “play the game” safe.  Wills seems to know this as he was quoted as saying “Obviously I’m the one to gain on this if you look at it from a strategic stand point”.  However, I think it is a loss for the electorate. Wills is a legitimate candidate and I think the public would have benefitted from hearing all the candidates respond to the same set of questions.

A side thought…the other interesting point in the same article was that Wills has stated he will no longer try for an independent run. He’s shooting for either the Democratic or Conservative lines.  As long as Emanuele has the Republican line as well as the Tea Party endorsement, might  a Wills victory on the Conservative line end up taking more votes from Thane in the general election?

Need The In-Fo, People!
Being a registered Republican, I won’t be voting for a mayoral candidate in the primaries. However if I were, I would be really frustrated right now over the lack of online information about Emanuele’s positions on the issues. There is absolutely nothing, not even on his Facebook page.  Even searching through the Recorder archives, I can barely put together any sense of a platform.  Of course it’s not really surprising, given his recent quote, “A lot of people do not have the Internet or really don’t choose to use it as much in politics.”2 – Okay, the 90’s called and they want their candidate back!

Now I remember Wills making a similarly anachronistic comment a while back, so to see him with his own website up and running – wdwills.com –  (and even commenting occasionally on the Vox) is commendable. Thane also recently launched her re-election website – mayorthane.com.  Comparing the two sites, however, it’s obvious that Thane has put a lot more time and effort (or money?) into developing not only the quality of the website, but also in organizing and communicating her ideas.

Wading through Will’s site’s large swaths of text, I come away with the following…
1 – He will remind city workers that they work for the taxpayers, which will presumably inspire them to do their jobs better.
2 – He will take a pay cut
3 – He will re-arrange a few city positions, and require department heads to go out and work with their crews sometimes instead of staying behind a desk all day
4 – He’ll propose two pieces of State Legislation (seriously??)
5 – He’ll require rental units to have a code inspection each time it becomes available to rent
6 – He will get the Common Council members offices at City Hall

All snarkiness aside, there’s absolutely nothing I can see here that resembles any sort of credible plan for improving Amsterdam’s economy. He has a few nice ideas and good sentiments, but otherwise there is no vision here for seriously tackling the enormous problems we face in our city. 

By comparison, Mayor Thane has put together an entire page of specific ideas covering economic developement, infrastructure work, shared services,  downtown revitalization, budget process changes, etc. So far, she is the only candidate to propose concrete ideas that follow an understandable vision for the future of Amsterdam. The depth of thought she has put into her platform should set the standard for the other candidates.

Not to let her completely off the hook though. I know this has been blogged about before, but I have to say that I find it hard to believe that she does not know, or is unable to find out, who is publishing the anti-Emanuele web site. I think she could have it shut it down if she wanted to and I think she should.

1 – “Debate demand dismissed” by Jarrett Carroll, The Amsterdam Recorder, August 13,2011

2 – “Mayor’s contest heads to the Web” by Jessica Maher, The Amsterdam Recorder, July 2, 2011

Any type of revitalization initiative has to start with a solid plan. Putting ideas down on paper forces a planner to think things through, communicate the vision clearly and provides a basis for holding our elected officials accountable for making progress toward their goals. That’s why I was excited to read about the Fulton and Montgomery County Regional Business Plan today in the Recorder. I was eager to see how this plan would compare to Amsterdam’s Comprehensive Plan and what effects this may have on our city. The Recorder’s coverage provides a good summary of the plan, but I wanted to know more of the details. An email request made to Ken Rose, director of Planning and Economic Development for Montgomery County, got me a speedy reply with the full text of the plan, which can be downloaded here.

The plan starts off with an introduction, background information, statistics on the various industrial parks and large businesses in the two counties. Next, it gets into a “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” analysis, a summary of the main goals, and then lists specific initiatives and objectives to reach those goals.

Those main goals are:

  • Educate and train the region’s students for the 21st century workforce.
  • Develop large and small shovel-ready sites.
  • Market the region.
  • Improve the region’s quality of life.
  • Extend water, sewer, utilities and broadband service throughout the region.
  • Lower the local property tax burden in the region

After my first read-through of the plan, I would say that overall, I believe the goals are the right ones and are similar to many of the main goals stated in the Amsterdam Comp. Plan. I particularly like the fact that all the objectives have target dates attached to them, and many of the tasks strike me as specific and reachable. My concern, however, is that it is not yet clear how well the  Board of Supervisors from either county buy into the plan, and it will depend on these governing bodies as to whether these plans go forward or not.

Some further thoughts on certain items in the plan…

Education
In order to “educate and train the region’s students for the 21st century workforce”, the plan suggests developing a partnership between local school districts, government and local CEO’s to help develop educational initiatives. A centerpiece of this partnership would be an Annual Education and Economic Development Summit. This type of initiative was tried by Mayor Thane in the past, but it got little traction. Perhaps with the help of county leadership, this effort can be revived.

Funding
This is the issue that usually puts the brakes on many good ideas, and I’m concerned the issue hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by the plan. In order to fund a marketing plan for the region, the plan suggests…

1) A Hotel tax with 100% of tax proceeds dedicated to implementing marketing the Regional Marketing Plan.
2) Each County considers dedicating a portion of its sales tax revenues to implementing the Regional Marketing Plan (similar to how The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority is funded).
3) Others.

Hmmm … others…

It is hard for me to believe that idea #2 would not lead to higher sales tax. And idea #1 is simply a new tax. At the same time, the plan rightly points out that the high property taxes on businesses are deterrents to economic growth. But which is worse, high sales taxes or high property taxes?

The strategy for lowering the property taxes boils down to 1) Getting NY State to agree to ease up on it’s mandates and 2) Consolidating services.

I think idea #1 is good, however I’m skeptical as to whether it can really be accomplished or not. The plan suggests coming up with a report to be sent to state officials, but beyond that, it’s hard for me to see how political leverage can be brought to bear on the situation. The biggest mandate in the budget is Medicaid and Governor Cuomo has talked about reforming it. If he can actually tame that giant, then that would hopefully lead to significant savings for counties.

I have always been in favor of consolidating services as long as it can be proven that the same level of service can be maintained at a lower cost. I don’t doubt that there areas where this can happen. I’ve heard lots of talk about consolidation, but I have yet to see any actual numbers or plans.  My concern is that the idea of consolidation sounds like a great idea on the surface, but it is going to be really difficult to come up with workable strategies that deliver the same services for less money.

Luxury Apartments
I may have to run, because Flippin is probably going to flip out on me for this one.

 From the plan…

…local CEO’s advise that the Region’s lack of a diverse housing stock is a negative quality of life issue. The predominant housing type in this Region is single-family homes. While its availability and low cost is an asset, the lack of alternate forms of housing is a quality of life liability. There are few options other than single family housing for young professionals. This market tends to enjoy luxury apartments, condos, etc. rather than houses.

(…ducks large object thown at him)

While this statement indicates that local CEO’s believe luxury apartments could attract young professionals, it is also stated that…

“The Region’s social life and cultural opportunities do not favorably compare to those available in surrounding Saratoga and Albany Counties. For these reasons, many executives and upper management of local businesses live outside the Region.”

In other words, its jobs, nightlife, and alternative housing that has to be present in order to bring young (and old) professionals in.  To me, that says those who are building small numbers of luxury apartments are on the right track, as demand for these types of housing is present, but low because of the other two factors.

There’s plenty more to comment on, but I think that’s enough for now. Thinking about the coming mayoral election, I think many of the ideas in this plan give credence to several of Mayor Thane’s initiatives over the past four years.  It seems that between the Amsterdam Comp Plan and this plan, similar goals and objectives are emerging. For me, the candidates for Mayor, Common Council, and Board of Supervisors are going to need to get specific as how they are going to work toward these goals and objectives.

I’ve often pondered what really drives the issues that are debated on and fought over in Amsterdam. Some thoughts…

Republican vs Democrat – It’s been said that party differences don’t come into play that often in local politics, but on the national level, there is a “big game” being played.  Local party leaders from both sides are expected to help deliver funding and votes (or any other type of advantage) for the bigger players.  There are also plenty of rewards that come down the pipe;  funding, favors, promotions, etc.  I am sure this dynamic factors into the positions that local leaders take on various issues.

Old vs. New –  As a person encounters various challenges in life, the person gains understanding and wisdom that they are able to apply to each subsequent challenge.  This can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the older a person gets, he or she may be better equipped to make good judgements and decisions because of their past experiences. On the other hand, past experiences can also make a person fearful to do things differently. If a person has been successful, that success can lead them to think that they have it “figured out”. Or if they have suffered failure, they may be inclined to say “we tried that already, it didn’t work”. In either case, they run the risk of not taking into account changing factors in culture, society and economics that may make their conclusions inaccurate. Younger people may be prone to pursuing uninformed or idealistic directions,  but are also more likely to see new solutions to old problems.

I think that the successes and failures that Amsterdam has experienced through history, have directly affected many people’s viewpoints on the causes of – and solutions to – the problems in our city.

Urban vs. Suburban –  Expanding on my previous comments on the excellent article “New Urbanism…”, by Jody Forehand, I believe that there are two competing visions for our city – an urban one and a suburban one.  An urban vision would value a diverse and creative culture, a dynamic commercial environment, pedestrian friendly infrastructure, public spaces, etc. An suburban vision would value safe,  quiet, stable, well maintained residential areas with convenient traffic routes to shopping, and as much surrounding land for each house as possible.  Neither of them are “wrong”, but both ideas require vastly different strategies to achieve. 

I think our city got “stuck” in the middle. Amsterdam started out as being very urban in nature, but must have been profoundly affected by the migration of middle class families to the suburbs beginning in the 1950’s. I can almost imagine city planners thinking “if people like the suburbs, let’s make Amsterdam more like the suburbs and maybe they’ll stay/come back” – leading to the “The Mall” and roadway system we have now. The problem is, Amsterdam is far too densely populated to ever be able to offer the same level of luxury space that suburbs offer. And now since our downtown sections are bypassed, commercial and cultural revitalization also seem impossible.

To pursue either vision on a serious level would require a great deal of change, funding, and committment. As long as we have competing visions for Amsterdam, I highly doubt anything will ever get done. Fortunately, as the aforementioned article suggests, it is possible to combine these visions (ie “New Urbanism”) – by planning a city that offers both. Perhaps if people of both persuasions saw and understood a plan for Amsterdam that embraced their ideals, we might approach the level of unity that would be required to actually start taking some big steps toward revitalizing Amsterdam.

Well it’s been a busy year. This blog started out strong in 2010, but after a while it just fizzled out due to my writer’s block and just getting preoccupied with other stuff.  With the encouragement of Flippin and Charlie Kraebel, and given that this is an important election year for our city, and given the gaping hole in the Amsterdam blogsphere caused by the closing of the Venner Vox, I feel compelled – nay – inspired to write again. We’ll see how it goes!