Candidates fail eye test at forum
This week, I swung by the Schenectady City Council candidates forum hoping to learn more about how the six people running for the three open seats would address the city’s myriad problems.
The candidates all struck me as well-meaning people with good intentions. I’d vote for some of them before others, but at one point or another they all said things that made sense. After an hour or so of questions and answers focused on how to improve Schenectady’s shaky finances and fix the city’s quality-of-life problems, I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Why would anyone want to serve on the City Council, anyway?”
It was a question from Daily Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore that prompted my moment of reflection.
“All of you have stated that you want to reduce taxes,” she said. “But you would have to cut about $700,000 to simply reduce the proposed 2014 tax increase to zero. To cut taxes by another 1 percent, you’d have to cut a total of $1 million. How would you do that?”
This question highlights what I think is one of the main challenges facing Schenectady and other cash-strapped upstate cities: the need and desire for public services at a time of declining revenue and financial distress.
It’s easy to talk about cutting budgets and reducing taxes — taxpayers like this message — but much harder to actually do. After all, people generally like public services. The last time I checked, nobody was advocating for the closure of public parks and pools, or the elimination of garbage pickup, or reducing funding for police or fire departments.
Perhaps that’s why the candidates’ responses to this particular question struck me as rather weak.
Democrat John Mootooveren said that the city should “be smarter, be more efficient and do things wisely.” Republican Mary McClaine said the city could start the cost-saving process by canceling the $120,000 order for new parking meters. Incumbent Democrat Carl Erikson called for a multi-pronged approach, with the goal of “increasing the value of the city cumulatively.”
Pretty unobjectionable stuff, but also pretty short on specifics.
What can’t be disputed is that the city’s finances need improvement. And that the economic anxieties of city residents, many of whom live on fixed incomes or have seen their wages stagnate in recent years, shouldn’t be ignored.
The candidates — a group that also included Republican Joseph Kelleher, Conservative Joseph Lazzari and incumbent Democrat Marion Porterfield — also spoke of the need to clean the neighborhoods of litter and trash, maintain infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks and curbs and bring more businesses, particularly retail, into downtown.
Again, pretty unobjectionable stuff. After all, litter and potholes tend to be unpopular.
If anything was lacking at the City Council candidates forum, it was a larger vision for revitalizing Schenectady.
This could have partly been due to the questions, which often focused on current events, such as the discipline problems at Mont Pleasant Middle School and the city’s effort to sell foreclosed homes. Occasionally I heard an idea that sounded promising, such as Porterfield’s suggestion that when people fail to pay their property taxes, it should be reported to major credit bureaus, because the possibility of lower credit scores might prompt timelier payments. And perhaps Kelleher was on to something when he called for better lighting in Schenectady, noting that “there are 500 lights out in the city.”
But I would have liked to hear more from the candidates about what sort of city they see Schenectady becoming.
Because here’s my bias: I like small cities. I think they have a lot to offer. I’d rather live in a struggling upstate city than, say, New York City, which I suspect would overwhelm me.
Sure, Schenectady has its problems, as do Troy and Albany. But it also has assets, such as an interesting history, beautiful old housing stock and stuff to do. And it’s close to other cities, such as Albany and Troy and Saratoga Springs, that have cool restaurants and venues and parks and museums.
Perhaps most importantly, Schenectady has diverse, engaged residents who want to see the city prosper.
What will it take for that to happen?
I’ll be honest: I don’t know. But it will require some big ideas.
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