Saratoga Springs mayoral candidates battle over issues
SARATOGA SPRINGS The city mayoral race centers around two buildings: an indoor recreation center that is under construction and a public safety facility that is just on paper.
Many residents feel that it should be the other way around, said Democrat Ron Kim, who agrees with people who say the City Council has its priorities backward.
“In the midst of the worst recession ever, the mayor plods along and continues to move the rec center forward,” Kim said.
Kim has campaigned against Republican Mayor Scott Johnson advancing the recreation center, which is under construction on Vanderbilt Avenue.
Johnson contends that he did the best he could on the back of the previous City Council’s mistake: borrowing $6.5 million for the building without being ready to build.
By constructing the building, Johnson said he saved the city $1.5 million that would have been lost if the city sold back those bonds.
“The cost to abandon was much too high,” Johnson said. “Probably even more unfortunate is that the opposition is really distorting and taking advantage of that issue.”
Kim said the building is a waste of resources and the city shouldn’t be erecting it and laying off police officers and firefighters at the same time, as is proposed in next year’s budget.
Kim doubts the dollar figure is that high, but he said even if it is, selling back the bonds was still the right thing to do. “Last time I checked, $1.5 million is less than $6.5 million,” Kim said.
That $1.5 million figure doesn’t include any money spent since then on litigation or developing the project at the new site, said Finance Commissioner Ken Ivins.
Johnson has held regular hours at the mayor’s office during his first term.
He grew up in Saratoga Springs, living on the West Side and graduating from St. Peter’s Academy.
After living outside of the area for years, he and his wife returned in 1987.
Kim, who balances his work at his law practice with his duties as commissioner of public safety, has lived in Saratoga Springs for 17 years after living in Boston. He is originally from Glens Falls.
He was elected public safety commissioner in 2005 and has served two terms in that capacity before deciding to run for mayor this year after Johnson voted against a development proposal for a new public safety station.
That proposal, by developer Sonny Bonacio, was voted down.
Police station debate
Bonacio was one of three developers who responded to the city’s request for plans to build a police station and parking garage on a city-owned parking lot on High Rock Avenue.
He offered to give the city $4.5 million in exchange for ownership of the land, on which he would build the two city buildings as well as private development.
The city would make a $3 million lease payment for the city buildings and offset the cost with paid parking revenue.
“The High Rock proposal is a bridge to the future,” Kim said, adding that the lease payment would be deferred for 21 months.
“It looks like it would solve our problems,” Johnson said. “The reality is, no it would not.”
The city would have to complete the subdivision and land development process before getting the money, so it may not happen in 2010, Johnson said.
Johnson contends that Kim failed to maintain the police station in an effort to build his case that the city needed a new facility.
While money was set aside starting in 2004 for improvements to the police department’s headquarters on the lower floor of City Hall, female employees didn’t get their own bathroom until after they filed a discrimination complaint.
That complaint recently resulted in the city being ordered to pay $80,000 to the women, which Johnson said could have been averted had the city spent the $7,700 to put in a women’s bathroom and expand the locker room earlier.
“It’s all reactive, and not proactive, on the part of the department,” he said, adding that the department also fixed jail cell locks only after the state declared them unsafe.
Kim has criticized the mayor’s hiring of outside attorneys for labor negotiations, to which Johnson said the Harris Beach law firm has been paid $30,000 for negotiations and their expertise is needed.
Other bills for negotiations are still outstanding, he added.
Contract negotiations between the city and some of its unions — including the Police Benevolent Association and the CSEA chapter for public works employees — have been contentious, and most of the blame has been directed at Johnson.
The CSEA DPW chapter declared an impasse this year after negotiations started in the fall of 2008.
The economic recession has made negotiations more difficult, Johnson said, adding that the city’s first offer to the DPW was higher than its final offer as a result of the city’s worsening financial state.
While Kim has said he saved the city money by negotiating a firefighter contract himself instead of hiring outside attorneys, Johnson said that isn’t the case.
While Kim did reduce starting salaries, that came with a trade-off, Johnson said.
“He gave them the Cadillac version of retirement plans,” he said.
Johnson campaigned on bringing civility to government after two years of a fractured Democratic City Council, and he was elected two years ago along with two other Republicans, putting the council back in the GOP’s control.
“I do believe we’ve brought respect back to the office of the mayor,” Johnson said. “I believe we brought professionalism back to City Hall.”
If elected to a second term, he hopes to continue developing the city’s waterfront park on Saratoga Lake.
“I would only pursue that if times were better,” he said.
He also would work on the need for a new city police station, more parking downtown and faster emergency medical response on the city’s East Side. To deal with the latter, Johnson proposes putting a small ambulance facility in the city’s waterfront park on Crescent Avenue.
“I’d like to defer to public safety to come up with solutions, but I’m not seeing solutions,” he said.
If Kim is elected, he pledged to “immediately stop the practice of illegal executive sessions,” adding that Johnson convened three such meetings during his term, twice to vote to spend money on attorneys and once to discuss business with city school district officials that should have been talked about in public.
Johnson has defended his use of the executive sessions.