Mayor Kathy Sheehan Speaks to Save the Pine Bush

by Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: Albany Mayor-Elect Kathy Sheehan spoke at the November 20 SPB dinner.  Kathy said she is from a big Irish Catholic family, Albany residents “are desperate for change,” and residents told her “Albany is like an incredible stallion that someone keeps pulling on the reins.” 

She said she plans considerable community involvement in the decision-making processes of Albany.  When others make decisions for us, we get the Empire State Plaza that cuts Center Square off from downtown and I-787 that cuts Albany off from the Hudson River.  “We get better decisions,” she said, “when we involve the people who have a stake in it,.” 

“By engaging residents,” [they] “will then buy into city projects; we will have better outcomes.”   She said that unlike twenty years ago, today people want to live in cities, “No longer will a group of men sitting at the Fort Orange Club be telling us what to do,” and “[W]e will all have to work harder.” 

She favors “goals based budgeting” which asks: What will we get for the money spent?  She discussed multi-year budgeting saying Albany now has a $16 million structural deficit, $10 million from a “rainy-day fund will be used in 2014, leaving only $8 million in the fund.  Sadly, she said, many NYS cities face similar structural deficits. 

Ms. Sheehan said the Jennings Administration has not purchased new computers since 1998 and the last one was out of date when bought.  She will upgrade technology to allow expenses to be posted in real time, will split the deputy mayor position into two jobs, and favors having the county place abandoned and vacant property in a land bank to be transformed to buyers. 

Regarding bicycling and bicycle paths, she favors a real connection between the Corning Preserve and existing uptown bike paths and strongly supports bike access to the Livingston Avenue railroad bridge.  A member of the Albany Bicycling coalition said he is willing to help in many ways and said Albany needs a modern skate park.

When John Wolcott asked about the deteriorated building demolitions mania of the Jennings administration and his (John’s) desire to fix them before they become unrepairable, Kathy said one problem is the county pays the city unpaid city taxes on these properties which encourages the city to do nothing.

A student asked about the city schools.  Kathy responded saying although Albany has a strong mayoral form of government, the city does not provide all services.  She intends to work with the school district.  She said, “[W]e have an entire system that is failing our kids: criminal justice, health care” being two parts.  She said she would develop a baseline on student success and then move forward.

One man urged her to discuss the city’s building and codes department; he said it is a now a “political plaything.”  Kathy responded saying it is “not an easy thing to transform it” and added that one benefit of living in the present era is that it allows for transparency — “prevents leaders from telling one person ‘yes’ and another ‘no.’”   A woman said many city services are being duplicated “at a great waste of dollars and time.”

Unfortunately many issues near and dear to SPB were not mentioned.  These include (1) enlarging the Pine Bush preserve; (2) changes is solid waste policy — reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, education, and enforcement; (3) a preferred solid waste technology(ies) after the Rapp Road landfill is closed; and (4) the solid waste institutional framework –authority, consortium, go-it-alone  — Albany will pursue during her administration.

I asked about the landfill.  Kathy responded saying no rational business-person would continue operating the Rapp Road landfill because operating costs and future closing and “restoration” expenses exceed revenues.  One change she insisted on is that bonds must be for an individual project — no more multiple projects combined into one bonding; another is landfill bonds approved by the city council since she became city treasurer do not exceed the expected time the landfill is likely to remain open.  Both changes make it easier to match revenues and expenses. 

Kathy displayed a quick mind and an ability to easily discuss complex matters in detail. She is a policy wonk to some extent.

In her comments and again during the Q&A, she explained that cities in New York are being shortchanged by the state and she intends to work with other mayors –especially fellow women mayors in Syracuse and Rochester –to “restore fiscal fairness.”   In response to a question about Hudson River water quality, sewage conservation, and water and waste-water infrastructure, she said federal and state governments spent billions of dollars subsidizing suburban sprawl in recent decades, and “we must demand the states reinvest in cities and urban sewer systems.”  The man who asked the question said that “[A] day after heavy rainstorms, the river is disgusting.”  Another man urged the city help its residents to capture rainfall into underground cisterns adjacent to the houses, thus keeping it out of the sewers. 

Kathy said she is taking a careful look at downtown revitalization but said the current state imposed tax structure is a huge detriment to revitalization.  When asked about the large vacant downtown parcel where a convention center has been planned but never built, Kathy said it is important to link it to the cultural strengths the city possesses.  She asked, “What is the one think in the world that is unique to Albany?”  A few minutes later, Mark Platt said, “The Pine Bush is what makes Albany worldly unique.”  Chet (please include his last name) mentioned the Boys and Girls Club and the senior center on Delaware Avenue.  Kathy said the property would be redeveloped but one building is historic and will not be demolished.

Kathy was asked about renewable energy and conservation.  She said Albany has an Office of Energy and Sustainability, the city spends $4 million annually on street lighting alone, “[W]e must think long term,” and “We must have a balanced budget.”

Brian Bush asked, “How do we reduce the residential tax burden?”  Kathy said Albany has “very high tax rates.”  She said 80 percent of the non-residential property in the city is tax-exempt including properties owned by the state, schools, county, hospitals, and public housing.  She said, “[W]ealthy suburbs are being subsidized by poor city residents…I will advocate an equity agenda.”   She said suburbanites use city hospitals but the city earns no revenues for these services.

One listener said a continuing problem in Albany is that houses are sometimes destroyed when emergency personal shut off the heat in a house but not the water.  This occurs when a resident is taken to a hospital.  He said, “[The city’s incompetence leads to buildings being wrecked.”


Published in January/February 2014 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter