Archive for October, 2011

Thoughts on the Mayoral Debate

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Elections
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Well, unfortunately I wasn’t able to listen to the debate live on the radio the other day. I’m going to try to catch the re-broadcast this Sunday at 12 noon. But for now, I’m reading accounts from the Mohawk Valley Independent and The Recorder and here are some of my initial opinions and impressions.

Selling City Hall

The quote that struck me the most was Joe Emanuele’s response to the issue of whether to sell the Sanford Mansion and move City Hall to another location –

“For the right price, anything is worth selling”

I wish I could have heard the tone of voice with which he said this. Because if he said it with a smile or in a “Groucho Marx” voice or something, maybe I could write it off as flippancy. But if it was said with a straight face, what does that say about the candidate’s integrity? Emanuele followed up by saying he does not think it’s the “right time” to move City Hall, but this wording clearly leaves the door open to the possibility in the future. If Emanuele believes “anything” is worth selling, then if he is elected, should we also expect him to auction off other public assets like our parks and other public lands to the highest bidder? Being willing to sell off “anything” at the right price is not the mark of a savvy business person. Rather, it indicates that he does not understand the value of our history and culture, and how that relates to the overall ability of Amsterdam to attract new home owners and businesses. I think Ann Thane gave the right response by saying “There is no right price we can put on our heritage,”

Budget and Finances

Emanuele claimed to have left the city with a 3 million dollar fund balance, as compared to a current reported 600K balance. Thane countered by saying that the 3 million dollar figure was inaccurate as it did not reflect a 500K accounting error and 800K in taxes that were not collected. So far I have not heard anyone refute Thane’s assertions. Emanuele said “”I think the fund balance is a show of strength to a budget.” All things being equal, I might agree with this sentiment. Except that the economic climate in 2007 when Emanuele stepped down was vastly different from what we have experienced from 2008 until today. These graphs clearly show how cities all over the nation began to experience extreme difficulties as the economy began to collapse in 2008. Given the reports of many cities now facing bankruptcy, I think we are fortunate, all things considered, to even have a fund balance right now.

Citing fund balance numbers misses the point. If you took a peek at my own checkbook, depending on what date you looked at the balance, and depending on when I get paid and when the bills are due, you might come to the conclusion that I was either filthy rich or dirt poor. It seems to me that this is similar to what is happening here. What matters more to me is how each candidate is going to hold down expenses and generate new income.

Emanuele points to pay increases for unionized city employees as one place that he would cut. This is one area where I agree. For taxpayers to give pay raises to union members while the rest of the population is enduring layoffs, pay cuts and loss of benefits, is simply not fair. Deferring raises could have saved the city approximately 300K1.

Thane pointed to the 700K savings on health insurance that was found during her administration and also mentioned shared services as way to save costs going further. Emanuele, I believe, has mentioned shared services as well.

For ideas on income, Emanuele sites our water supply as our “greatest asset”. I agree that expanding our water supply to surrounding areas is a logical move, and Thane also includes this idea in her platform. However, this seems to be about all the revenue ideas Emanuele has. To me, the water supply is just one of our assets, with the most important being our neighborhoods and community. Thane has consistently supported a wide-ranging, comprehensive plan for marketing our community to attract new home owners and businesses in order to improve our revenue and that is what I believe is the best route rather than betting all our money on a single horse.

Marketing & Business Development

In response to the question as to whether the mayor should be responsible for marketing, Emanuele said he believes “the city needs a manager not a marketer.” It’s hard for me to understand why he thinks these two roles are mutually exclusive. Quite simply, we need a mayor who does both. Thane responded by explaining how she personally had to take over the marketing effort because of the elimination of her confidential aide. This is an issue all to itself, but I found it strange that she did not address the larger issue, which is not so much whether the mayor should be responsible for marketing, but rather if the city should be responsible for it’s own marketing, as opposed to allowing the county to take the lead in this area.

Regardless, I know full well that Thane supports city marketing, and that Emanuele does not. To me, this is a crucial issue because it relates to the larger question as to whether Amsterdam moves forward as an independent city with it’s own identity and economy or not. Right now, the city competes with other areas for tax dollars. I’m a capitalist. I think competition is a good thing. It’s very strange for me to hear other Republicans state otherwise. Healthy competition doesn’t mean we have to play dirty or run interference (like Johnstown did with the Walmart deal). It just means that Amsterdam needs to take the initiative rather than waiting around for someone else to do it. Frankly, given how Montgomery County has slashed their funding for the MCIDA,  I really don’t think that putting our marketing eggs in the county basket is such a smart option.

There are few more areas to cover, but I will leave them for another post in a few days, hopefully after I’ve had a chance to listen to the debate for myself.

1 “City may ask unions to defer pay increases” – Jessica Maher, Amsterdam Recorder, April 09, 2010

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Crime in Amsterdam Neighborhoods

Posted: October 22, 2011 in Crime
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I was actually a bit unsettled today when I read the article Fewer Violent Crimes in Area in the Recorder. I’m glad to hear that according to Amsterdam Police Chief Greg Culick, overall crime rates have “went down a little” over the past year.  And I don’t dispute that assertion. What concerns me greatly, however,  is this outlook from Mayor Thane

Mayor Ann Thane said crime was not a major issue in Amsterdam pointing to a recent meeting at Centro Civico in the East End where residents were asked to rank the problems of the city and their neighborhood. Drugs and crime did not make the list. “I don’t see an especially high crime problem,” she said. “I’m not hearing complaints about crime and I think the neighborhood watch programs are working very effectively.”

So, putting on my Neighborhood Watch Coordinator cap for a second, I can tell you that crime most definitely is a major issue for some neighborhoods and there are plenty of complaints. Just because crime problems were not reported at this East End meeting does not mean it does not exist . And it certainly doesn’t prove that it’s not a major problem for the entire city either.  Aggregate data does not always give you an accurate picture of what is happening in certain specific areas. And I can tell you that there are areas where crime is having a direct impact on the quality of life for local residents. Here are watcher reports that show what we have been dealing with in the past few months in the Arnold Ave area.

June 15 – Large fight reported in backyard on Chestnut St.
June 18 – Approx 15-20 teenagers/twentysomethings fighting at corner of Arnold Ave and Glen Ave,  one person was swinging a golf club, others were throwing bottles.
June 20 (morning) – Approx 20  kids fighting and hitting cars on Arnold Ave.
June 20 (afternoon) –  Approx 15 kids fighting on McElwain
June 29  – 11:30pm – Approx 20 people fighting in Arnold Park parking lot
June 30 – Large crowd gathered in the parking lot again, but no fighting, police cars nearby
Early September (didn’t get a specific date) – Approx 50 kids were fighting on Bunn St, adults were seen taking pictures. 

All these incidents were called into APD, and to their credit, would usually arrive quickly to disperse the crowds.  But if you take these incidents and then add the recent stabbing on McElwain, you start to get a picture of an area that is on edge, and very concerned about crime, especially the large numbers of youth who seem like they are completely out of control.  I’ve been a strong supporter of Mayor Thane’s Neighborhood Watch effort and I’ve been very pleased with the amount of support and cooperation our watch group receives from the APD. Overall, I believe Amsterdam is a safe place to live and that our police force does the best they can. But to say that crime is not a major issue in Amsterdam is just way off base.  I would hate to see this issue get swept under the rug during this important election season.

The latest editorial from the Recorder offered a gem of a paragraph that begs for some additional scrutiny.

The 2 percent tax cap under which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has snugly tucked New York’s municipalities — including the most flailing and failing — is an urging toward merging. Eliminating duplication and layers of government, forcing small school districts to join forces with neighboring rivals and small counties to do likewise, has long been a song and dance performed in this very space. For the most part, it’s been a solo act. With a deafening echo. And crickets.

No doubt, Gov. Cuomo has always been an advocate for consolidation. Looking for some additional background on the subject, I found this website that was created back when Cuomo was Attorney General. Reading through this site, one can clearly see where the inspiration for the narrative put forth by local consolidation proponents comes from.

Now the intent of the “Empowerment Act” that Cuomo spearheaded was to make it easier for local governments who wanted to consolidate to do so. That by itself sounds fine to me. But the Recorder, however, suggests that Cuomo’s intent with the 2 percent tax cap was to purposefully force local governments into financial crises that would somehow push them in the direction of consolidation. I think that may be a stretch. But the Recorder goes further to advocate forcing school districts and counties to consolidate. This is blatantly un-democratic and quite frankly, a disturbing sentiment that should concern anyone who values a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

What further concerns me is as I read through this site is that the narrative exhibits the same ideology based arguments as put forth in the Recorder, and has a similar lack of any hard numbers or credible proof that consolidation results in lower taxes. It seems to me that if the intent behind consolidation was purely to save taxpayers money, then the most convincing arguments would include facts and figures which would show the potential savings. But none seem to exist, and I think we have to wonder why!

Instead we have a long list of quotes from dozens of politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, jumping onboard the bandwagon repeating the same thing over and over again, that inefficiencies and duplication of services within the local government are the reason our taxes are so high. There are pictures of multiple tax bills and graphs showing how NY state taxes are the highest in the nation. But as far as actual proof – examples of where there is duplication of services or examples of how a given consolidated region would save the taxpayers money – there is nothing.

There’s been plenty of online discussion about the issue of consolidation. But whenever anyone has asked for some actual numbers, we hear nothing but crickets!

The thing is, though – I am absolutely sure that cost-saving opportunities are out there. They just have to be researched by our county and local governments. Do the homework and show the math that proves the idea will save money, and chances are there will be widespread support for the idea.

How about we start with looking at areas where we already know that larger numbers gets us better prices? How about a regional fuel purchasing partnership (as suggested in Mayor Thane’s platform), that provides fuel for all the service trucks in the various localities at a cheaper rate? Or how about creating a health insurance partnership that would provide lower cost health insurance to all municipal employees in a given region?

Or what about Medicaid? How about we start looking at cooperating with other counties to lobby for Medicaid reform? Medicaid is by far the largest item in the Montgomery County budget and probably is in other counties. Even a modest 10% to 20% reduction in Medicaid costs would save us many millions of dollars.

These are ideas that may actually work. But if “crickets” is all we continue to hear when we ask consolidation proponents to qualify their ideas with actual numbers that we can hold them accountable with, then don’t be surprised if “crickets” is all you get back!

A Ray of Hope for the East End

Posted: October 15, 2011 in Vision
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I was encouraged by the Recorder’s account of the Brownfield Opportunity Area meeting for the East End.  The most compelling idea that has come out of the meeting is the vision summary, which reads:

 

 

“The East End will be a city within the larger city with its own definite and coherent sense of place, containing all the amenities and features that attract and support new urban living, within a green setting that embraces a human scale.”

“It will be a new kind of downtown that connects easily with other city neighborhoods and amenities but does not rely on these to attract and support its own residents and businesses.”

This is quite a bold vision. The idea of having distinct neighborhoods with their own identities, with essentially their own economies, is a distinctly urban oriented idea, one that may not sit well with those who have suburban ideals for the city in mind. In fact, I wonder if proponents of the consolidation concept might fear the idea of a stronger local identity as a roadblock to regional consolidation.

I believe that developing neighborhood identities is essential to the revitalization of Amsterdam, and the East End is a great place to start and it is in line with the guidelines presented by the Amsterdam Comprehensive Plan. The plan suggests:

“Amsterdam’s greatest asset is its neighborhoods. The goal is to protect, and enhance as needed, this asset.”

Making our neighborhoods attractive and interesting places to live will bring more people to Amsterdam. Businesses and stores will follow the people, and that brings tax revenue.  Landlord Eddie Valentin raises the issue of low rent rates as an underlying problem in the area. The law of supply and demand should fix this because if you increase desirability of a certain area, the demand will increase, thus raising prices.

The involvement of not only the East End residents but all the residents of Amsterdam is essential. An effort has been made to invite members of the community the two past meetings and that is to be applauded. However I believe the Mayor’s office needs to heed Robert von Hasseln’s admonishment to do a better job at communicating the meeting times. There’s no excuse for not having the meeting announcements in the paper, on the radio and on the internet at least 2 weeks in advance. I would also suggest handing out flyers door to door, or even recruiting volunteers to knock on doors and talk to people in order to make sure the importance of the meetings is communicated.  I believe the effectiveness of any revitalization program is going to be dependent on how much “equity” the community has in the project.

We have to take into consideration that this is an area that has been neglected for many years. It’s going to take a certain amount of time for people’s gears to shift into the mode of thinking about the future and imagining what types of transformations they would like to see in their neighborhood. I am glad that von Hasseln predicts there will be “many, many” more meetings of this kind so that there is plenty of time and opportunity for people to get involved with the planning process.

A couple concerns I have after reading the article are 1) given the large Hispanic population in the East End, will creating a “city within a city” help relations between the Hispanic community and the rest of the city or will it create deeper divisions? As we make plans for the future of our city, I think it’s time to take a hard look at some of the underlying racial issues that exist within our city. 2) Just because complaints of crime were not reported at these meetings, doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem.

Overall, I believe the ideas for infrastructure improvement, marketing and cultural development in the East End are on the right track. There is still much work to do and many specifics to be nailed down, but it’s exciting to see the process begin to work and a plan taking shape!

Well I figured it was about time for the Recorder to write yet another editorial singing the praises of consolidation. This time the idea is to consolidate the Fulton and Montgomery County Chambers of Commerce. It’s worth noting here that Recorder Publisher Kevin McClary is a member the Montgomery County Chamber Board of Directors.

I found this editorial interesting because it indicates to me that the “vision for consolidation”, of which the Recorder is the primary evangelist of, clearly extends further than just Amsterdam/Montgomery County, encompassing all of Fulton and Montgomery Counties. The Chambers are private organizations but their memberships include almost all the major industries in the region. I believe a merger would be a major step toward unifying the business cultures of the two counties, which I suspect would lay a groundwork for further regional consolidation. Given the Recorder’s consistent and long-term advocacy of the consolidation concept, it’s hard not to see this single idea as part of a wider strategy.

Of course the supporting arguments for the merger idea are vague, which is par for the course with these types of editorials. The Recorder’s argument seems to be hinged on the premise “Pooling resources whenever possible is often a good idea; today, it is most often a necessity.” This sounds “truthy” at first, but really says nothing about this specific situation. Are the two Chambers struggling financially? Is a merger necessary for them to survive? Who knows?

Outside of the survivability issue, the specific question that I believe needs to be answered in this case is whether a combined Chamber will be more effective at supporting its members, promoting tourism for the area, and marketing the area to new businesses, than the two Chambers separately. There needs to be solid evidence that a significant advantage can be achieved, otherwise one would have to question the need to do this. I hope that Chamber members of both organizations will keep an eye on the progress of this idea, ask questions, and make sure that their opinions are heard.

Meet Your Neighbor Day 2011

Posted: October 9, 2011 in Community
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Thanks to everyone who helped make the 2011 Meet Your Neighbor Day at Arnold Ave Park a success. We had great weather and got to meet alot of nice folks from the neighborhood!

Thanks to my wife Lisa for taking these photos!

CNN  recently ran a series of articles based on the theme “Why is our government so broken?”.  The articles are generally well balanced and contain some thought provoking ideas. Some of these ideas can also be applied to our local government situation.

Here’s a few of the articles that started my wheels turning, if you are up for some reading…

 
Similar to the view expressed by William Bennet, I don’t completely agree with the common sentiment that national government is “broken”, although I would not agree with his assertion that the current situation is a “good thing”. When we use the word “broken”, I think what we really mean is that we are not getting satisfactory solutions to the problems we care the most about. As an analogy, consider that the purpose of a car is to get you to where you want to go. If the driver is lost and driving around in circles, something is obviously wrong, but you wouldn’t call the car “broken” would you? The fault lies in the people operating it.  

To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t problems with our system. Things like the gerrymandering of congressional districts, partisanship, corruption, and the influence of special interests all subvert the original intent of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” However, all these factors have been present throughout our country’s history.  Many people have a sense that something is wrong with our government now that wasn’t wrong with it before. I’m not convinced that these “usual suspects” are any worse than they ever have been.

The way I see it, our system of government, with its checks and balances, is designed to stand still when there is not a broad consensus on what direction to go in. If recent polls are accurate (as quoted in the article by David Gergen), there exists a widening gulf in our nation’s ideology, and so it would seem the political discourse is currently reflecting that.

Our nation is no stranger to having a charged political climate. There has always been conflict and heated arguments throughout our history. Browsing the historical records of the US Senate, we see our government struggling with division before the Civil War, during the Great Depression, and before the two World Wars.  However, one instance sticks out to me as a stark warning. In 1856, we had a one member of congress physically attacking another over a heated argument regarding slavery.  Historically, this event is regarded as an example of the breakdown of reasonable discourse that led to the Civil War.

While we should take comfort that our nation has survived many crises and that the situation we have now is not likely the end of the world, we should be just a little frightened knowing that it is certainly possible for things to spiral out of control as they did before the Civil War.  So how do we make sense of the current gridlock and disunity over the nation’s finances and the role of government in our society? Consider this excerpt from the article Is America becoming a house divided against itself?

“Those of us who are older — born somewhere close to midcentury — grew up in an America where there was a general consensus that the United States was a great nation, that you could be a success if you worked hard and played by the rules, that government had a positive role to play when trouble hit, and that politics must stop at the water’s edge as we united against dangerous enemies. But with Vietnam, the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s, Watergate and more, our sense of common purpose began collapsing…

 …If you go back 100 years, you find that the U.S.was a huge pioneer in public education. … The U.S. was a real pioneer in creating a national, very deep university system. … The U.S. was a pioneer in the interstate highway system. … We stepped to the plate in the past and made very, very bold investments in the fundamental environment for competitiveness. But right now, we can’t seem to agree on any of these things.”

This, to me, is the heart of the matter. As a nation, we are growing apart in our view of what we want the future of America to look like. The failures of our government have shattered our traditional image of America and forced people to re-think their vision of what their nationality means to them, and people have come up with some very different viewpoints.

Relating this to our local situation here in Amsterdam, I see a similar story with similar results. I look at the sense of failure over the massive urban renewal effort (with the mall being the centerpiece), as a pivotal and defining situation for our city. I believe that anyone old enough to remember the mall at its peak only to witness its rapid decline (which would include anyone in their mid thirties on up) probably carries a latent sense of hopelessness when it comes to thinking that our government (or anyone else for that matter) has workable solutions to reversing our decline as a city.  Consequently, I see two divergent views for the future of Amsterdam emerging. One view is to reverse the mistakes made in the urban renewal period and remake the city in an image closer to that of other cities we see with successful downtowns such as Saratoga Springs or Schenectady by developing an urban culture and promoting the identity of the city. On the other hand, we see a vision for remaking city in the image of successful suburbs, abandoning the idea of urban culture, thinning the housing stock and ultimately allowing our government services, along with our identity, to be absorbed by the town and county. Both are valid directions, but it’s hard to see how these two visions can be completely reconciled or compromised on.

On both a national level and a regional level, the question comes down to how we as a people can get to the level of cooperation and consensus it takes to get behind the types of big projects that are necessary to solve our big problems. I have no easy answers, but I do see a starting point in this excerpt from the same article…

“Surely there are many sources of the fractures in today’s electorate, just as there are many social scientists more qualified to take a crack at explaining them. But one potential contributing factor comes from a fascinating piece in National Affairs by Marc Dunkelman, who fears the winnowing out of so-called “middle-tier relationships” for the American citizen.

These relationships have long been, as Dunkelman puts it, “at the root of American community life,” and encompass such different-minded acquaintances as “bridge partners, brothers in the Elks club, fellow members of the PTA.” But these connections have withered in recent years, even as we stay close to those like-minded folks who inhabit our inner circles of friends and family, and are connected on an unprecedented scale by technology and social media to those farther away. Without these vibrant, heterogeneous “middle-tier” relationships, Dunkelman argues, it may simply be much harder to build the sense of public trust and unity that allows people to stand up to big challenges together.”

In our modern culture with our high degree of mobility and internet technology, it is far easier than in the past to pick and choose who we associate with on a regular basis. I’ve seen this evident in my own life as I currently drive my family to church in Gloversville rather than attend one of the 30 or so churches in the Amsterdam area. It would seem I have more in common with people who live 20 miles away than I do with those who live within walking distance. Because we now have a tendency and ability to gravitate toward social groups that already see things our way, I believe our ability to tolerate, compromise, or be persuaded by other people’s viewpoints has been diminished.

A politician can present a compelling argument as to why people should support his or her idea, but unless a broad groundwork of trust among the constituency has been established, that politician is going to have a hard time persuading enough people to form the majority required to push through a piece of legislation of any substance. They key to persuasion, in my experience, has as much to do with the level of trust as the quality of the argument.

So to put it all in perspective, I believe that to fix the big problems facing us, either on a national or local level, we need a solid consensus as to what the right solutions are. Consensus is formed through persuasion across a diverse populace and requires a certain degree of trust in order to happen. I believe the starting point is to be found in the “middle tier” relationships, where people with diverse backgrounds learn to tolerate each other and work together on some sort of common ground.

On a practical level, this is why I have chosen to invest time in our neighborhood watch group. Here you have a perfect example of people with different political views and beliefs sitting down and working together. We all want to see our neighborhoods improve, and it’s inspiring to be able to work with a small group of dedicated individuals who care enough to put aside time to working toward this common goal. Some really good ideas have come out of this group, some of which are beyond the scope of our little organization and may lead to other endeavors, but others we are able to put into action. This weekend we’re hosting a neighborhood party where folks can come and meet their neighbors. It’s a small, simple step to try to help bring people together, but it’s part of an effort that if embraced and expanded on by more people, I believe will begin to knit together a more united American fabric, one that will allow us to move beyond the current divisiveness and provide the underlying support for some of the big solutions needed to solve the big problems we face.