Posts Tagged ‘Amsterdam NY’

compass

If you haven’t already heard, I’ve been working with a great team of people in the past few months to form a new online newspaper called the Mohawk Valley Compass. I’ll be working mostly behind the scenes – maintaining the web site, handling advertising and other administrative tasks. But I will also be writing a weekly “column.” It made sense to me keep the “Pars Nova” name as it still has meaning to me and sets the tone for what I intend to continue to write about – New ideas for new direction in Amsterdam NY. All future Pars Nova posts will be on The Compass rather than on this site.

I realize I have spent alot of energy lately criticizing the established mainstream media. I believe that if you see a problem, and that problem is important enough, at some point you have to do more than just complain, you’ve got to step up and help fix the problem. I’ve always advocated that idea in regards to the problems we face as a city, and  for me, helping to start The Compass is my own way of being true to that principal.

So please take a look at my latest Pars Nova piece on The Compass titled “Amsterdam’s future:city or suburb?”  While you are there – check out the other two well written opinion pieces that were posted today. Sign up for email updates, like the FB page or follow on Twitter.  Leave your brilliant and expertly written comments as you would here. I’m looking forward to discussing the important issues with all of you in 2014 on the Mohawk Valley Compass!

uturnWhile the cities of Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam struggle to maintain their housing stock and downtown areas, Dustin Swanger, president of FMCC announced on Thursday a 12 million dollar plan to essentially build a new “downtown” on campus consisting of new housing construction and retail space.

As a graduate of FMCC, I am thrilled that the college is growing. The need for more student housing is obvious and I appreciate Swanger’s initiative, but I believe his vision is mis-guided. If he is willing to borrow $12 million dollars on behalf of the public to provide housing and amenities to students, he should invest that money into the surrounding cities that need the influx of resources to remain viable.

The location of FMCC is problematic of course. In other college areas such as Schenectady and Albany, college campuses (such as Union and Saint Rose) are integrated into the fabric of the community. However the short commute between any of the cities to the FMCC campus could easily be alleviated with a well thought out shuttle system.

I would submit that students, especially those coming from other countries, would have a much more meaningful and authentic experience living in a real local community with history and culture rather than an artificially created one such as proposed by Swanger. Our region needs our best and brightest students to return to the area once they’ve graduated. I believe that students who form friendships and bonds with the people in their community are more likely to do that. But if students are essentially isolated on campus, how likely is that to happen?

I would propose this – build three smaller housing and retail developments each in the cities of Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam. Remodel existing downtown buildings to suit student housing requirements and to accommodate new shops and stores that cater to student’s needs. This would be a much needed boost for our downtowns and would give students a better experience than living in an isolated development out in the middle of nowhere.

I would also remind readers that you do have a say in this. The college is funded by the public and the public has the right and responsibility to ensure that how the college operates is beneficial to the students and the region. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You can have a voice via your elected officials or by emailing Dustin Swanger directly at dustin.swanger@fmcc.suny.edu. In fact, if you agree with this position, why not use the “email” button below and forward this to him right now 🙂

controlpanel

I recently ran across an article from the NY Post, published last year that was interesting to me given the idea that’s been floating around in the news and in discussions lately of bringing in a state control board to sort out Amsterdam’s finances.

The Post reports that legislation is currently under review by state lawmakers to create one centralized “super control board” to handle a large number of cities, towns and counties in NY who are facing severe fiscal problems.

According to the Post, the key factor that control boards have is this…

[The control board] wouldn’t completely replace the locally elected officials. But it would provide them with the political “cover’’ many privately say they need to stand up to the powerful unions, which have consistently resisted spending cuts.

So in the context of the traditional battle between labor vs management, it’s not hard to see why Republicans (and Republican leaning pundits) might favor this type of intervention. According to the Post, control boards have proven to be an effective union-busting method.

Personally, I am neutral as far as unions go. I think they are beneficial in balancing the power of big business, however big unions can also make it difficult for small cities like Amsterdam to cut costs when it needs to. And I think right now, the city needs to cut costs in order to stay healthy long-term.

However, I believe that calling for a control board at this point is premature. Deputy Controller David Mitchell has – in fact – made good progress in correcting the city’s finances in the nine months that he has been at the job so far. He’s reconciled nearly half the accounts and has succeeded in finally getting our AUD report out the door. Additional accountants were also hired in October to work on the project.

I agree with the critics who say that both the Mayor and Common Council should have started a lot sooner on tackling this problem. But you’d have to have blinders on (or maybe have an agenda?) to not acknowledge the progress that has been made this past year. 

Furthermore, I believe the current Controller-elect and Aldermen-elect have a clear mandate to fix things, not throw up their hands and give up. Obviously, if a control board turns out to be the best option, then they have to do what’s right. But if they don’t even to try to fix the problems they’ve been tasked to solve, then I think they will have failed the voters who elected them. I think the current plan of action, along with the new council and controller, need at least another year before a decision is made on asking for a control board.

Also worth checking out is a widely circulated AP story on the reactions of some NY state mayors to the idea of a “super control board.” The article reveals some bleak statistics quoted from State Controller DiNapoli on the state of NY municipalities. In short, Amsterdam is by no means alone in our financial plight. This doesn’t absolve any of our leaders of their responsibility, but for me, it puts the problem into a larger perspective;  our economic troubles are intrinsically tied to the performance of NY State.

In the city races, it seems to me that the lack of differentiation between the candidate’s platforms resulted in a situation where perceptions, personalities and past experience were the most important drivers.

I think the release of the draft state audit (which was published in October – surprise!) was probably the most pivotal element in the election. I also think the way the Recorder covered and editorialized the financial situation – before and after the draft audit release – did it’s part to amplify voter outrage. Even though the problems with the city’s books had been known about for years, and the Mayor and Common Council had recently implemented measures to correct the situation (such as hiring the Deputy Controller), there was something about seeing it all laid out in the state audit that was extremely jarring and disheartening. I felt it myself.

In short, the Mayor’s defense didn’t get much traction. Saying it was “all good” and referring to some emails she sent to the controller a while back came across as passing the buck rather than demonstrating proactive leadership. The audit confirmed the accounting problems were widespread and had gone on for far too many years without anyone taking any decisive action. Even though neither Republican or Democratic candidates offered any substantial ideas as to how to do things any differently than what was already being done, I believe the Republicans who won benefited greatly from the public’s perception of the Mayor’s role in the situation. And perception is reality – that’s how it’s always been.

I do want to give some credit where it’s due – I have to say that 4th Ward winner Diane Hatzenbuhler has  offered a ton of specific ideas over the years – many on this blog and on others – as to how she would solve many of Amsterdam’s problems. I personally don’t agree with some of those ideas, and I think other ideas lack key details (like how to pay for them). But if she is able to implement even a handful of them I think the city could benefit. Many candidates have given lip-service to the idea of increased code enforcement. But if Diane is able to really apply herself to this issue, maybe we could get somewhere.

I also think the example she has set by coming back twice now after two election defeats is an object lesson in dedication. She has shown that if you truly care about something, you don’t give up. I think some of the losing candidates this year would do well to follow her example.

It will be interesting to see how things play out now that the Common Council will have a veto-proof Republican majority. They will clearly be in the city’s driver’s seat for the next two years and so any success or failure will completely reflect on them in the next election.

I genuinely hope that the new council does well. The state audit and numbers from the state controller’s office show we need get our books and debt under control. Balancing the budget and reducing our debt will require the council to make some tough budget decisions. I think some fiscal conservatism is probably what is needed right now to get things back under control.

However, given many local Republican’s (and not a few Democrat’s) bent toward the idea of regional consolidation, it would not surprise me if instead of working hard to cut expenses and increase revenues, that the idea of declaring bankruptcy or turning over our finances to the state were seriously explored. After all, the population has already been “primed” for this idea anyway. This would essentially amount to giving up being an independent city and would pave the way to creating one BIG regional government. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen.

If a religious leader wrote an article for the paper during an election season stating that their religion was the “only answer” and then implied that not all candidates were as strong believers of the faith as others, I have no doubt there would be a public outcry admonishing this leader to keep religion out of politics. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be surprising if the IRS and ACLU trained their sights on the leader’s organization as a result.

So does anyone else think it’s inappropriate for FMCC President Dustin Swanger to essentially do the exact same thing? In his article published on October 26th in the Amsterdam Recorder, he asserts that the “only answer” for economic growth is through “regional thinking/cooperation” (aka consolidation) and then all but asks us to vote for those who subscribe to that ideology. Of course he carefully hedges and stops short of endorsing any specific candidates, but overall, the message is clear: vote for the “true believers”.

Non-profit organizations risk their tax-exempt status when they endorse political candidates. I’m not sure if FMCC is technically subject to the same restriction. But the college president is a taxpayer-funded, non-elected position. I think Swanger comes very close to overstepping his bounds by using his position (and the visibility that position gives him) to promote a political point of view.

Make no mistake, the latest article from Swanger does not use the term “consolidation” however the idea of combining all localities into a single regional government has been clearly articulated and advocated for in past articles. He’s just using different terminology now.

And also make no mistake that just like all other consolidation proponents, Swanger has yet to show any solid plan or actual numbers that might indicate that municipal consolidation would deliver any tax relief, help restore our downtowns, or revive our economy.  The small scale consolidation plans that I have seen that do work, fall apart once you take out the financial handouts from NY State which is our tax money that is apparently being held in reserve for communities who consolidate.  Consolidation proponents have yet to show how their ideas do anything other than replace more accountable, small governments, with less accountable, big government.

I would definitely recommend that readers take a look at Swanger’s take on the role of community colleges in local politics. He presents a lot of ideas that I think are both good and essential. I think that local colleges providing leadership in the area of economic development is a great idea. But what baffles me is how Swanger’s narrative in the local paper over the years seems contradictory to the ideals he espouses in his thesis.

He affirms that small and medium-sized businesses are essential to revitalizing the economy, but promotes “regional cooperation” which primarily benefits big businesses as the “only answer”.

He talks about the importance of livable communities and neighborhoods and the importance of building up a “sense of community” but then proposes that towns, villages and cities are somehow archaic ideas that need to be done away with.

He talks about community planning as a “resurgence of order” but fails to address how reliance on big businesses (like the type that Mike Mullis works with) have disrupted that order over the past decades.

He quotes from “Rise of The Creative Class” by Richard Florida, which focuses on the ability of cities to attract creative professionals as a key economic driver, but on the other hand would discourage local cities like Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam from trying to do this on their own.

Finally, let’s call this article out for what it most likely is – a recommendation against voting for Johnstown mayoral candidate Michael Julius who has been outspokenly resistant to the idea of consolidation between the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville.

And that’s kinda funny because in my view Johnstown is one of the best examples in the Fulton/Montgomery area of the type of livable community that Swanger claims to be in favor of. Is it any wonder that city residents and leaders might want to preserve that?

I have to say, the interviews of the various candidates for common council that have appeared so far in the local media have been nearly to useless to me. I have no doubt the editorial response to the recent State Audit will be scathing. But when it comes to the candidate’s interviews, I’m reading softball answers to softball questions. Amsterdam’s financial difficulties have been well known for years now and have been underscored by the recent release of the State Audit. But I’ve read precious few details about how any of the candidates plan to cut expenses or raise revenue. Whether online or in print, I’m hearing a lot of rhetoric, vague ideas and finger pointing, but no solid proposals.

Please note, I’ve revised the table I had here before based on the advice from some of my commentors. I’ve posted the new table with an explanation here.
The pie charts are still good though!

The fact is the city has outspent it’s revenues in every fiscal year since 2000. Here’s the stats compiled from the NY State Controller’s website

Over the past 12 years, on average the city has overspent by 3.2 million dollars per year.

I think voters need to task our local leaders with a simple and achievable  target that will get us back on track financially. I think that target should be to reduce expenditures and/or increase revenues by a total of at least $4M (or by about 11% of 2011’s expenditures) per year.

We’ve only got about a week left before the elections, but I believe that candidates (as well as the Mayor) need to provide some solid answers to the $4M question. Where do we cut? And where do we find new revenue? How do we bridge that $4M gap? Here’s the pie charts that show where the money comes from and where it gets spent. Tell me where we should slice or where we can increase…

City Expenses 2011
City Expenses 2011
City Revenues 2011
City Revenues 2011

It’s not like the data isn’t out there for candidates to do their homework. The current budget is available online. The state controller’s office also has a wealth of stats that document our finances over the years (h/t to Flippin for guiding me to this resource). You can also view the finances of every other city in NY for comparison.

I understand politicians don’t like to stake specific objectives – lest they be held accountable if they fail to reach them. But frankly, I don’t think we should continue to accept that.

Stipulation: I don’t accept a candidate pointing out a few minor expenses and then claiming “it all adds up.” If you’re sure it all adds up, show your math. Then I’ll believe you.

If you agree, feel free to share this challenge with your favorite (or least favorite) candidate.

The publisher and editors at The Recorder – Kevin McClary, Kevin Mattison and Charlie Kraebel – are apparently ignorant of the definition of “Public Benefit Corporation.” In yet another scathing editorial about the mural situation released on Thursday, September 19, 2013, they assert:

The project has come to a grinding halt after Mayor Ann Thane and a few other city residents stepped in and demanded — even though they don’t own the building and have absolutely no say over it — that a mural on the second floor be preserved, claiming it has historic significance. (emphasis added)

That statement is at best a gross distortion.  No matter where you stand on this particular issue, you should not believe for a second that the public does not have any say in what AIDA does. Here are some facts:

AIDA was commissioned in 1973 as a Public Benefit Corporation.  The section of NY State law that recognizes AIDA reads:

For the benefit of the city of Amsterdam and the inhabitants thereof, an industrial development agency, to be known as the CITY OF AMSTERDAM INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY, is hereby established for the accomplishment of any or all of the purposes specified in title one of article eighteen-A of this chapter...Its members shall be appointed by the governing body of the city of Amsterdam. –  Source

Because AIDA is supposed to operate for the benefit of the people of the City of Amsterdam, board members of AIDA are appointed by the Common Council. That way, they are held accountable for the decisions they make.  Yes, AIDA has the authority to make the final decision on this matter, not the mayor. But as a citizen of the City of Amsterdam, whether you think the mural should be saved or not, you do absolutely have every right to have your say on this matter just as you do on any other matter of public policy. And the Common Council, as your elected representatives, should take everyone’s opinions into consideration when it comes to appointing new AIDA board members in the future.

iStock_000000782150XSmall

©iStock.com/Carol Gering

A couple of weeks ago, Fulton and Montgomery county economic development groups brought in the founder of J.M. Mullis – a project location specialist company – to tour the counties and give advice.

The press conference, as reported in The Recorder on September 07, 2013 , was a general guilt-tripping of cities and towns to be more “cooperative” in making deals for economic growth. The Recorder also followed up with an editorial that echoed the same sentiment.

Here’s the thing you need to remember – if you take a look at the types of businesses that Mullis is talking about, it’s really only one kind – BIG. He’s talking about businesses that employ 300-500 people, taking up anywhere from 200-300 acres of land, with 60-90 acres being “too small”.

Absent from this conversation are any ideas pertaining to small business development or downtown revitalization. It’s obviously not what this particular guy is into, and that’s fine. But I have yet to hear much of anything else from Montgomery county over the past few years. So for me, it’s just more of the same.

I have mixed feelings about big businesses, and I think that you should too. What big businesses give, they can also take away. Amsterdam’s current state is essentially due to big businesses coming in and building things up, and then big businesses moving away leaving their dilapidated buildings behind..

We all ought to think for a moment – what would be better – one big business moving to the area providing 500 jobs, or 10 medium-sized businesses moving in, each employing 50 people? Which situation would be more stable and sustainable?

If you stop and think about it – if you live in the city of Johnstown, Gloversville or Amsterdam, we already have everything we need to attract small to medium-sized businesses. We have the infrastructure (water, sewer, space) as well as the potential to develop an urban culture to attract young entrepreneurs. The towns have the space for the big businesses, but they lack the water and sewer infrastructure. And that’s why they need the cities to “cooperate” and extend their services.

Personally, I think we can do both. If deals can be worked out between cities and towns to bring in large businesses, then great. But for city residents, it’s important to remember that big businesses aren’t the only option for us, despite what you might hear from “regional” minded officials or experts.

A couple more points to consider…

First, here’s a dramatic illustration in a recent article from Better Cities and Towns which shows how low and medium rise buildings (of which our local cities have plenty of) can potentially generate anywhere from 10 to 100 times more tax yield per acre than your average “big box” development (ie Walmart and such).

Second, many news outlets have been reporting on statistics released by the US Census indicating that for the first time since the 1920’s urban growth has outpaced suburban growth. This is kind of a big deal. You can read analysis at a number of news sites, such as these…

Cities Outpace Suburbs in Growth (Wall Street Journal)
The End of the Suburbs (Time)

And home values seem to following the trend….

Urban Home Values Are Rising Faster Than Suburban Ones (The Atlantic Cities)

I will definitely explore some of the reasons behind these trends down the road, but I’m hoping this at least helps you see that our cities have far more going for them than what many would have us believe. If you’ve made an investment in living in a city, there is hope beyond that offered by big land hungry businesses. We don’t have to listen to a blaming and shaming if we decide that a deal with a neighboring town isn’t in our best interest. We have many more cards in our hands than we think!

Mayor Thane let loose with a barrage of criticism a few days ago over an apparent decision by AIDA to cover up the mural on the third floor of the building they own on Main Street. While I have yet to see an official quote from an AIDA representative on the issue, the Recorder ran an editorial the next day stating  AIDA appears poised to go with its original plan to cover up an old painting on the second floor . It’s the right thing to do.”

I’m hoping the old saying “It’s not over until it’s over” will apply here. But here’s why I think AIDA and The Recorder have got it wrong on this.

First – Just because the mural is in disrepair and the artist is unknown, does not mean it has no value. AIDA and the people who collectively write the Recorder Editorials (Kevin McClary, Kevin Mattison and Charlie Kraebel) just don’t seem to understand the value. Now everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and they have every right to share it. But I think it’s important for Amsterdam city residents to understand the perspective the editorial writers have and how that informs their opinions.

A case in point – Charlie Kraebel wrote a nice column back on September 7th about the benefits of living in the Fulton/ Montgomery County region. He talked a lot about the natural beauty of the area – the views of the Mohawk Valley, proximity to the Adirondacks, hiking, fishing, bike riding, as well as the character of the towns and villages. What I got from his column was that he is happy to live in a spot where he is able to enjoy these things that he values on a regular basis. I think that’s a wonderful perspective and I certainly value those things about the region as well.

However, I think it’s somewhat telling when he goes on to call the areas outside of downtown Saratoga Springs a “dump”. When I read that, I thought – if he thinks the city of Saratoga Springs is a dump, what must he think about most of Amsterdam?

I wonder if the editors have ever stopped to think just why a person willingly decides to live in a densely populated city like Amsterdam or Saratoga Springs and deal with all the problems that come along with city life? Or have they thought that maybe the everyday things that people in a city value might be a little different from those who choose to live in the rural areas?

I believe that many of the people who have chosen to live in this city value living in a community that is connected and that shares a common history and culture. Besides economic reasons, why else would we choose to deal with the blight, the vandalism, the noise, etc… ?

So what does this have to do with the mural? Cultural artifacts like the mural, as well as the homes, the buildings, parks, the community organizations and events, etc – all contribute to our cultural identity. It’s not about what the material things are worth on the open market, it’s about what the history and stories behind them say about the people who created them and how that shapes the continuing story of Amsterdam as a city. The mural is valuable because of what it contributes to our identity and culture. And our culture is one of the key “quality of life” reasons I believe people put down roots in a city rather than just visit. And that concept has very big implications when it comes to either the success or failure of our city to revitalize our economy.

To put it another way – what if hypothetically a developer purchases an area of land in Broadalbin, one containing fishing streams and hiking trails, etc, and decides they are going to bulldoze the whole thing to put in a strip mall? Residents would be outraged. They chose to live where they do because of certain things they value, and a reduction in that value is a loss to them. But I personally don’t fish, I don’t go camping. What if I called the controversy “silly” and urged the developer to “get back to work.” Wouldn’t that seem like a slap in the face?

I believe a majority (a slim majority, but a majority nonetheless) of Amsterdam City residents still value our urban culture and want to preserve it. Mayor Thane has championed this cause over the years, and her re-election should be irrefutable proof that this viewpoint is held by more residents than not. I think that the Recorder editors would serve their readers better by trying to understand this concept.

Second – Yes AIDA owns the building, but that does not mean that they have a right to do whatever they want. AIDA is a public benefit organization. It has authority to conduct its own affairs, but it is accountable to the public, and to the Mayor and Council who represent them.

I argued a while back that AIDA lacks the vision, skills and experience for developing our downtown, especially when it comes to developing a small businesses culture which is an essential element. Their strength and success is in managing the Industrial Park and I think they should stick to that. Mayor Thane argued at the time that AIDA was still the best option for overall economic development. I think it’s safe to say her opinion has changed. Should AIDA proceed as planned, I think there will be political consequences, and I predict the Mayor will most likely push for some changes to the makeup of the board and I think she has every right to do so.

If all else fails, I think we should preserve the mural digitally so the artwork could be restored digitally and perhaps reproduced and displayed at the Walter Elwood museum or City Hall or other such venue. Also, if possible, the murals should be covered in a way that does not ruin them, so that potential future developers can restore them if they want.

But if there are viable investors who understand how to capitalize on the cultural value of the mural, then those options need to be seriously considered, and I still hope they can be.

thirdwardThere’s a primary coming up this Tuesday for the Republican candidate for 3rd Ward Alderman. Running are Anthony Leggerio and Ron Barone. As is usual with our local elections, I’m searching high and low for an actual platform, rather than rhetoric for either of these candidates.

The Recorder ran an article on the candidates on September 3rd, 2013 from which I gleaned a few scraps of information.

I had to laugh because “high taxes” is the very first thing mentioned for both candidates – (Flippin called it). So both candidates are obviously concerned about it, as are we all.

So what are their ideas to lower taxes? ………………………………………………………………………  Buehler?   Other than the standard catch phrases all politicians use, I found no actionable plans put forth for either of them.

Barone has served for many years  as 3rd Ward Montgomery County Supervisor and currently serves on the AIDA board. So he’s got a long track record of government experience. While nothing especially stands out to me about his record, he strikes me as a pragmatic person, the most recent example of which is how he is trying to handle the current mural preservation controversy in a diplomatic fashion.

Leggerio is currently a DPW foreman and has worked for the city for 25 years. He has also previously served on the GASD Board of Education. My impression of Leggerio comes mostly from his outspoken comments on blogs and on Facebook and such. And from that I know he clearly has a long-standing grudge with Mayor Ann Thane. Several years ago he boycotted a veteran’s event citing Mayor Thane’s attendance as a reason. Every other post on his FB page seems directed at the Mayor personally. This might be a strategy, but to me it comes across as borderline obsessive.

Leggerio also cites his service in Air Force. I have tremendous respect for those who serve in the armed forces. However when someone scans their certificates of merit and posts them in a photo album titled “Pull Head Out Of Ass Ann” (and creates similarly themed captions for every single photo) that causes some concern for me.

I want someone on the Common Council who can constructively challenge the Mayor when needed. But I also want a council that respects each other and is functional.

Looking ahead to the general election, we have Debra Baranello running on the Democratic line. I like the positive approach that Debra takes on her FB page. I also know that she tends to support the Mayor’s vision. But again, I’m still searching for some specific ideas or initiatives she will bring to the council. I’m also wondering how she would handle taking a position that opposed that of the Mayor.

So based on my impressions, I would say  if elected, Barone would “get along” with the Mayor, Leggerio would “fight with” the Mayor, Baranello would “support” the Mayor.

What’s your take? Put it in the comments section. And as they say up north, remember to keep your stick on the ice!

Voting times and locations can be found here.

Update 9/9: Well obviously Ron’s off to bad start as far a getting along with Mayor. However, I would still maintain he would get along with her better than Tony.