Schenectady chamber looks to drum up interest in local elections
SCHENECTADY It’s tough to generate excitement for a midterm election that doesn’t involve heated state or federal races.
But with six state referendums on this year’s ballot and control of the Schenectady County Legislature hanging in the balance, November’s election could have significant implications locally. And that’s why the Chamber of Schenectady County is trying to drum up interest among voters.
On Tuesday, the chamber hosted a morning discussion at Proctors with candidates for the Legislature and town supervisor’s positions. Though the meeting was exclusively for members of the media and chamber officials, the hope is publicity from the event will help bring necessary scrutiny to local races.
“We really want to bring attention to the election,” said Gail Hopper, the chamber’s director of government relations and business services. “All politics is local, and this is a local election.”
Candidates were given a questionnaire about their top priorities if elected and the opportunities they see to consolidate services. The chamber also queried candidates on whether they would consider overriding the state-imposed property tax cap and what factors would influence their decision.
Hopper said municipal governments in the county will be limited to a 1.66 percent tax increase under the cap. The chamber, which normally doesn’t offer an opinion on political issues, has taken a firm stance in opposition to local governments exceeding the cap.
The Gazette collected responses from the 10 candidates attending the event about their positions on exceeding the cap. Opinions varied from dynamically opposed to wanting to weigh the options before making a choice.
Benjamin Wallach, the Republican candidate in the Legislature’s District 1, said he’d never vote to override the cap. He faulted legislators for overriding the cap last year, which resulted in a 5.9 percent tax increase in 2013.
“We need new legislators with new ideas on cutting the cost of government,” he said. “Stop expecting those who created the problems to solve any of them.”
Philip Fields, an incumbent District 2 legislator who was among those who voted to exceed the cap last year, argued for a more pragmatic approach. Fields, a member of the Legislature’s Democratic majority, acknowledged this year’s budget process will be no easier than in 2012, but said he intends to work within the parameters set by the state.
“We’re definitely committed to working within the tax cap,” he said.
Jason Planck, Fields’ Republican opponent, sees no need to exceed the cap, since there are already so many loopholes local governments use to bypass it anyway. He argues for a wholesale evaluation of the budgeting process.
“Right now, Schenectady County needs to do a full reassessment of its entire budget process to find out what are the real budget needs of the county,” he said.
District 3 Legislator Martin Finn, an incumbent Democrat who voted to override the cap in 2012, said he prefers to stay within the confines of the cap. He believes the best way to do that is to locate and enact efficiencies in government.
“The county has increased efficiencies over the last several years by reorganizing county agencies and by reducing the size of the county workforce through attrition,” he said. “We need to continue to identify these opportunities.”
Nicholas Gerace, the Republican candidate in District 3, called for “financial accountability” when addressing the tax cap issue. The veteran U.S. Army officer called on the Legislature to work with the resources it has.
“With a little discipline, leaders can stay within their limits,” he said.
Grant Socha, a Republican running in District 3, gave a flat answer: “I have no intention to override the New York state 2 percent tax cap,” he said.
Conservative Randy Pascarella, running in District 4, believes local government should strive to fall well below the cap. He said the only plausible reason to exceed the cap would be an emergency pertaining to the health and welfare of county residents.
“Not only should the property tax cap be adhered to, but the county should be striving to lower taxes every year,” he said.
Brian McGarry, who is running on the Republican ticket in District 4, described exceeding the cap as being “antithetical” to his beliefs. He said residents expect legislators to make choices that comply with the cap.
“County residents are living in a world of mandated spending caps themselves,” he said.
Supervisor candidates in Glenville also weighed in on the cap. Cathryn Bern-Smith, a Democrat, said the cap has put municipalities in a very difficult financial situation and any decision to exceed the limit would need to be deliberated carefully.
“Other ways to control spending must be implemented before raising the tax cap is proposed,” she said.
Incumbent Republican Chris Koetzle pledged to keep his budget within the tax cap, despite increasing pension and health insurance costs. He said Glenville during his tenure has been able to avoid a large tax increase, even as neighboring municipalities haven’t.
“I am proud that the town of Glenville did not break the cap under my administration, despite it happening in nearly every municipality in close proximity, including the county,” he said.