by Tom Ellis
First-term Albany Common Council member Frank Commisso, Jr., has figured out how Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings operates and is determined to make substantive changes. A member of the common council’s finance committee, he led a revolt over two proposed bonding ordinances – one for $7 million to expand the city’s Rapp Road landfill yet again, the other for $2.35 million to “restore” the landfill. Both ordinances were enacted on April 2 but Jennings made concessions.
About one-half the 15-member common council attended the March 28 finance committee meeting. After discussing the resolutions, the committee voted 3-2 recommending their colleagues not enact the resolutions. Mr. Commisso asserted the mayor had no long-range landfill financing plan – no plan for how to pay landfill related costs after the dump eventually closes. He also insisted the council should not approve bonds with a payback period longer than the time the landfill is expected to remain open because there might not be sufficient revenues to pay them off.
Mr. Commisso insisted the council had a unique opportunity to compel Jennings to provide both a long-term financing plan that is not 100 percent bonded and to obtain accurate landfill financial data from Jennings that fellow council members (particularly Dominick Calsolaro) have been requesting, without success, for years. He pleaded with fellow council members saying that if they approve the bonds without a fight, the mayor will never speak to the council again about the landfill because he will have obtained the bonds he needs to expand it one final time.
Tensions rose over the next few days as it appeared the council might actually block the bonds. Passage of bonds requires a super-majority – ten affirmative votes. On Jennings March 30 weekly radio show, Commisso called in and he and the mayor had a sharp exchange. Jennings asserted that failure of the council to enact the bonds would force him to lay off 65 city Department of General Services (DGS) workers. Commisso countered and Jennings responded with, “What am I going to do, lay you guys off on the council? I’d like to.”
However, fearing defeat, Jennings blinked. He spent much of the day Monday working out a compromise. Jennings agreed to begin this summer setting aside $2 from every ton of waste brought in by commercial haulers (about $360,000 a year) in a separate account to be used to pay future landfill costs. Jennings also agreed the bonds would be for eight years instead of the twenty he initially sought; thus the bonds will not outlast the time the dump remains open.
When I arrived at 5:30 (for the 7 pm meeting) at City Hall on April 2, dozens of DGS workers were standing outside, apparently afraid their jobs were on the line. Dozens more quickly joined them. Jennings spoke to them outside city hall; his staff presented council members with the compromise at their 6:30 pm caucus. Nearly all the unionized DGS workers attended the council meeting and cheered as the two resolutions were passed.
During the public comment portion of the council meeting, Albany resident Tim Truscott said the mayor behaves like an irresponsible teenager – using someone else’s credit card – the city taxpayers. Several members of Save the Pine Bush spoke about their longstanding concerns over the costs and safety of the landfill and the failure of the city to develop alternatives to it. All expressed support for DGS workers not losing their jobs; several criticized the mayor for using DGS workers as pawns in his dispute with the council.
Council member Barbara Smith, who voted against both bonds, said “landfill finances have always been murky and remain so” and “I do not know if the landfill is profitable…I have concerns about threatening job losses. Why are we in this situation in the first place? I object to this intimidation.” Frank Commisso said that “about $360,000 would be set aside annually for the next ten years, not enough, but a start.” He told the DGS workers that “these threats are counterproductive to rational decision making…Those who vote ‘no” on the bonds tonight are not voting yes on DGS layoffs.” Councilwoman Leah Golby said the council passed a resolution in 2010 calling for preparation of a full-cost accounting study of the landfill, and the report has not yet been prepared. Mr. Calsolaro insisted that no immediate threat of layoffs to DGS workers existed. He said Jennings has “mismanaged the city all along” and cited numerous examples involving the landfill and solid waste.
Frank Commisso emerged the winner from this wild week of conflict. He displayed skill in building a coalition and obtaining real concessions from the mayor. I doubt if council members learned that by sticking together they can obtain the information from the city they need to competently do their job, or to become equal partners with the mayor in managing the business of the city. Jennings got the bonds he wanted; the landfill will stay open for 5-10 more years. DGS workers saw the mayor threaten their jobs in an effort to intimidate the city council. At the close of the April 2 meeting, Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin urged DGS workers to ask the mayor and their supervisors questions about what will happen to their jobs when the landfill does close.
Published in May/June, 2012 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter