Moving Forward: Focus and Finish
2012 State of the City Address
|Watch the State of the City on City12: May 15, at 1 p.m.
|Watch the State of the City on City12: May 16 at 8 p.m.
Delivered by Mayor Thomas S. Richards
City of Rochester, New York
April 30, 2012, 7:00 p.m.
National Museum of Play at The Strong
Thank you DreYanna. You know they may even have some toys here older than Carlos Carballada! I think we should also give a hand to Chelse Chambers. Chelse’s a vocal major from the School of the Arts who just was awarded a scholarship to Roberts Wesleyan College. I would also like to thank Bergmann Associates for providing the 3D model video tour, which concluded here at The Strong.
The National Museum of Play at The Strong is a world-renowned museum representing this community’s cultural strength. I am a regular visitor myself. It is a wonderful place to celebrate the past, present and future of our city, which is what we will be doing this evening—looking at our accomplishments and imagining what the future will hold for Rochester. My thanks to the two Museum of Play Vice Presidents here tonight, Suzanne Seldes and Laura Sadowski.
I need to begin by thanking some of the individuals who support me in this job and one large group—–the citizens of Rochester, who elected me. It is my honor and privilege to serve as your Mayor. You have blessed me with this opportunity, and I am grateful. In particular, I appreciate each of you who are here tonight, for your support of me and your interest in, and commitment to our city.
As I begin my second year, I am immensely grateful to the other partners in service to our people. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. To Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy; who have accomplished so much in such a short period of time. Our Assembly delegation: the Honorable David Gantt and Assemblymen Joe Morelle and Harry Bronson. They have shown great leadership when it comes to advocating for our city. Our Senate delegation as well: State Senators Joe Robach, Jim Alesi and George Maziarz. They all deserve our thanks.
And, a major appreciation goes to the members of the Rochester City Council under the outstanding leadership of President Lovely Warren. It’s my pleasure to recognize Vice-President Dana Miller and fellow Councilmembers Carolee Conklin; Matt Haag; Adam McFadden; Jackie Ortiz; Carla Palumbo; Loretta Scott and Elaine Spaull. We are blessed to be able to work in a cooperative and collaborative effort as we tackle the city’s challenges together.
I would also like to acknowledge our city employees. They are some of the finest I have seen in any of the places where I have had the privilege to work. Our city workers provide world class services and do so with respect and a customer focus.
It is fundamental that governmental entities work together. Let me recognize some key partners with the City. Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks. Our new Rochester School Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and School Board President Malik Evans and the other board members. Bolgen, you have been a good partner in forging better relations between the City and the School District. I wish you well.
I also better recognize my wife Betty—who is here. This Mayor job is an imposition on your family and she puts up with it and makes sure I don’t get too full of myself. One of the pleasures of Betty’s and my lives is our grandchildren. The oldest, Henry, has taken to pretending that he is the Mayor. He builds a little office, pulls together the furniture, populates it with various items he collects from around the house and gets ready to meet with citizens.
As he was developing this routine, he inquired about what a Mayor does. It’s not an easy question, but after struggling somewhat, Betty came up with an answer. “He solves problems.” Not a bad answer, even if directed at somebody who is a little more than 4 years old. As is often the case with kids, the second question was harder. He asked, “Do you have any problems?”
Now what are you going to say to a four year old? “I have a structural deficit or there is empty space in Midtown?” Again, my elementary school teacher wife came to the rescue. After checking out the items he had collected, she replied, “I am out of paper clips.”
“OK”, said Henry. “I will get you some.” And he did.
Now of course, I am telling you this story because—like all grandparents—I think everything my grandchildren do is wonderful. But I also try to take a lesson from it. You have to start somewhere and sometimes it means just doing what you can.
I have been in this position for a year now. Some of what I have experienced is what was to be expected: difficult economic times and a tough budget. Some was not expected. Some people who wouldn’t get out of the park or a Kodak bankruptcy. The unexpected can make the job more difficult, but it does not change the fundamental need to keep going, to stick to an agenda, to focus and finish.
And sometimes to remember that it is best to start by having enough paper clips.
With that, I give you the state of our city. It is stable, strong and moving forward despite the expected and unexpected challenges. And if I have anything to say about it, that is the way it is going to stay. To accomplish this, we continue to focus on three areas: economic development, public safety, and education. I want to discuss some of all three and to include our accomplishments — what is going well — and what we need to accomplish and what challenges us. There is much to be proud of and optimistic about our future. I don’t downplay our challenges — but let us first take a brief look at what’s going on. Let’s begin with a look at economic development.
Unlike other upstate cities, we have significant private investment—not just downtown—but also in our neighborhoods. At a time when new construction is a rare sight in upstate New York, we seem to have an abundance. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Jefferson Avenue was completely rebuilt from Plymouth Avenue to West Main Street — which is in one of four Focused Investment Strategy areas where we dedicate a higher portion of our federal funds and community development revenues to make a visible difference. We have the $20 million Voters Block Housing Project on West Main Street in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood, the Cascade District and the Bulls Head area that will feature 92 new housing units. The DePaul Project involves the rehabilitation of the historic Cunningham Carriage Factory that has been vacant for decades. It will be redeveloped in to 65 units of affordable housing. In the historic 19th Ward Neighborhood, Brooks Landing is a neighborhood and waterfront revitalization project. It features student housing, office space and the Staybridge Suites Hotel. These are just a handful of projects in the Southwest Quadrant. Over the last three years, more than $174 million dollars of public and private investment is either completed, planned or underway in the southwest
Now moving clockwise, let’s take a look at the Northwest Quadrant. In the Dewey-Driving Park Focused Investment Strategy area, the Holy Rosary project will redevelop the Holy Rosary church into a community center and 43 units of affordable housing. Rehabilitation grants to nearby property owners will also be offered. In the JOSANA neighborhood, we are going to revitalize the area west of the soccer stadium and support the vibrant, active community and residents who live there. The East House will redevelop a vacant commercial building on State Street into 45 new units of affordable, special-needs housing. Eastman Commons will be developed from a vacant manufacturing building along Dewey Avenue into 80 units of affordable housing. At the river’s end we are developing a new 6.8 acre, 118-slip public marina at the Port of Rochester. These are just a few of the projects in the northwest quadrant. More than $305.7 million dollars of public and private investment is either completed, planned or underway, over the last three years.
Continuing clockwise we come to the Northeast Quadrant where we have several major projects in our Focused Investment Strategy area. In Marketview Heights five new homes will be going up on Weld Street and eleven businesses are undergoing or planning revitalization work. In the Public Market area you will notice the improvement in the homes and streets along and off North Union and Railroad Streets. We are also acquiring and demolishing derelict properties and increasing owner-occupant housing in the area. The Northeast has also welcomed a brand new, locally owned pharmacy on Joseph Avenue. We are also investing heavily in infrastructure. A $4.8 million reconstruction of Culver Road began in 2011 and will be complete this year. Near the newly-developed pocket park at Conkey and Clifford Avenues we have invested in the El Camino Project, which features the construction of more than 50 new and remodeled, affordable housing units. These are just a sample of the many projects over the last three years in the northeast quadrant. Overall, $144 million dollars of public and private investment is completed, planned or underway.
Now, let’s take a look at the Southeast Quadrant. Our Focused Investment Strategy area in Beechwood has seen an active neighborhood coalition that worked closely with the City and the School District on the design and implementation of the Thomas P. Ryan, Jr. Community Center, which opened in 2009. The new East Avenue Wegmans is expected to result in increased property and sales tax revenue. 150 new people will be hired, bringing the total number of full time and part time employees to 600. Plus, 150 to 200 construction jobs will be created. The Culver Road Armory has undergone a remarkable renovation to create 100,000 square feet of rentable space. The $15 million investment will result in new, long-term property tax enhancement on a site that was historically tax exempt. The University Avenue ArtWalk is a $5.4 million reconstruction project. Phase II of the project, from South Goodman to Union Street, includes major enhancements along the roadway and at the Memorial Art Gallery, the Museum and Science Center and theVillage Gate sites. Alexander Park is flourishing after the demolition of a majority of the former Genesee Hospital campus at the 7-acre site. On the corner of Alexander and Monroe, a new Canandaigua National Bank has been in place for more than a year and the new corporate office of Earthlink recently celebrated its grand opening. And finally, we currently have College Town on the drawing board. This $102.8 million project will become a 16-acre gateway to the city, adjacent to the U of R medical center. The vision is a pedestrian-scaled district that will bring together retail, health, hospitality and commercial uses. These are but a few of the items in the southeast quadrant. In total, more than $481 million dollars of public and private investment is completed, planned or underway, over the last three years.
Finally, let’s examine the Center City Quadrant. There was a lot of uncertainty when PAETEC was purchased by Windstream. But, this deal to build on the Midtown site was too important to walk away from. On March 26, we broke ground on the new Windstream building. The Windstream deal will bring 335 jobs downtown, create 200 construction jobs and reuse the Seneca Building. At North Plymouth Terrace, you’ll see an old parking lot being converted into townhomes at the corner of Plymouth Avenue across from the Hochstein School of Music. If someone told you five years ago that there would be townhomes in that area you’d think they were nuts. And that tells you a lot about our progress. This area is particularly exciting right now because it is emerging as the “western gateway” along West Main Street. Last year, Nothnagle moved its headquarters to West Main Street. It is always positive when a new business moves to downtown Rochester and it causes ripple effects in the surrounding area. Likewise, the former Josh Lofton High School right across the street — now known as Bridge Square — is being renovated for a mix of office, retail and residential uses. In the last three years, more than $564 million dollars were invested in the Center City and more than $1.1 billion occurred in the neighborhoods – that’s $1.7 billion invested in our entire city.
As a result of these investments, our property values are beginning to rise. There is a lot going on here folks, but there is much more to our future than just bricks and mortar. All of this investment will create a significant amount of jobs. But how much better would it be if our city residents received training so they could be working in some of those jobs?
Working with City Council, organized labor and contractors, we have created a plan to do just that. This effort is perhaps the most exciting part of the economic development explosion we are seeing. For the Midtown Rising project, we have agreed to a Project Labor Agreement—or PLA—that has set goals for woman and minority hiring, but more importantly, the plan provides training of city residents for quality construction jobs. Contractors have agreed to fund the training program and organized labor has agreed to take in the new trainees as apprentices.
On the first day of the sign-up for training, I visited the intake center on North Clinton Avenue. There were hundreds of people there, applying for training. I spoke to many of them. I heard about their desire for an opportunity, not just to find work, but to find a career. This initiative will give city residents an opportunity to participate in our downtown renaissance. Similar agreements are in place for the City School District’s Facilities Modernization Program, and for the Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority’s new bus terminal. And this bus terminal is vital to the development of our downtown. City residents deserve the opportunity to rebuild the city they call home. When all that work is finally finished, those workers will have the skills and the union card to help them keep working and this is a plan worth celebrating.
Now, I would ask you to help me thank one particular individual who made training and job creation for city residents and minorities his lifelong passion, advocating for such PLAs for decades. He has just announced his retirement after working tirelessly for his union, the Laborers Local 435. He’s a true leader, and his legacy is the thousands of local people he has helped train and find work. Please join me in an appreciation of the career of Bob Brown.
Public safety continues to be a key focus of my administration. Our citizens, homeowners and our children—first and foremost—need to be safe and to feel safe in our city. But public safety means many things. It is not only the cop on the street or the firefighter on the truck. It also means the recreation centers and libraries where our children can find safe and productive ways to spend time after school.
Public safety means safe and affordable housing. Public safety means using police cameras, red light cameras, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Public safety also means implementing effective truancy programs to keep our children in school instead of in places where harm can befall them. We are doing all of those things in addition to the core services of police, fire and 9-1-1.
When a fire is reported, the men and women of the Rochester Fire Department respond with an average response time of four minutes. And they will arrive with a first response capable of handing most fires. When there is an accident or EMS call, chances are the fire department will respond before the ambulance will. While it’s true that fires are at an all-time low and seem to reduce every year, we still average about 700 structure fires a year.
This has been a tough few months for our firefighters. The loss of a life in a fire weighs heavily on them. But these men and women risk their lives in those fires and risk their lives every time they answer the bell. As a city, we must do everything possible to keep our firefighters well-equipped. This year we purchased seven new pumper trucks with city funds and a new, heavy rescue vehicle with grant funds. In addition, we purchased Self Contained Breathing Apparatus this year and recently authorized the replacement of turnout gear to protect our firefighters.
Equally important is our investment in the make-up of the department. Having the fire department better reflect the community we serve is our goal, but we are restricted by state law as to how we hire and test firefighters. So this year, we sought a plan to increase diversity, yet preserve the integrity of the entrance exam and the hiring process. We hired a national expert with a strong record of success and limited the test to city residents only. Our goal was to increase the number of minority candidates and at the same time, ensure that the exam and the process was better matched for all candidates with the abilities needed to be a successful firefighter. The results are outstanding by any measure. Minority representation was improved throughout the process and the percentage of minorities in the eligible pool increased from 6 percent to 43 percent.
It was accomplished by the hard work of City Council, particularly Lovely Warren, Loretta Scott and Adam McFadden, who advocated for the exam throughout the community. As well as the hard work of Chief Caufield, who investigated and found a creative new test with an innovative way of administering the exam.
Last week marked the end of Chief Caufield’s employment with the Rochester Fire Department. While he is leaving the post for an exciting new job, the department he has known, loved and served with all his heart will never leave him. Please join me in thanking Chief Caufield for his 26 and-a-half years of exemplary and committed service to our city.
I would also like to recognize Chief Sam Mitrano who will be serving as interim Chief of the Department, while we conduct a search. He is a long-time, capable member of the Department. We are in good hands. Thanks Chief.
Equipping our police officers is also important. The police have new command vehicles, on-board computers and GPS positioning devices. We expect to replace the computers with updated models this year and a number of them will go into almost 100 new vehicles that we will be purchasing this year and next.
But they also have something else going on. Something “old school” if you will. They call it policing in the spirit of service. It means your Police Chief and other officers reach out and hold regular meetings with the community—whether in a church or a barbershop. They have reinvigorated their youth explorer and Police Activities League programs. The RPD bestows citizen awards for exemplary contributions to the community. They make robo-calls to advise of crime patterns or events. They make up-to-date crime pattern analysis available at community meetings and on the web. Even the new mobile APP is about communicating with police in a manner that is convenient for our citizens.
A large part of public safety comes from feeling safe. This is one of the reasons I have pressed on with a plan for a new Downtown Police Detail in the Sibley building. No matter what the statistics, seeing that blue uniform on the street is reassuring.
I can tell you right now that violent crime is at the lowest level in Rochester in 25 years. It’s true. But if you are the victim of a crime or your neighborhood is victimized, statistics mean little. Having the Chief on your block and having neighbors work together with police in a relationship of trust goes a very long way towards feeling safe and being safe. Chief Jim Sheppard and all of the RPD: keep up the good work.
Last year, facing a downsizing of the city workforce, I asked for—and Council approved—an early retirement program in order to encourage those with enough time in the system to retire. State law requires that the last hired are the first to go in a downsizing. So, it was important to keep our latest hires, who tend to be more minority and female. We were able to avoid layoffs in the police and fire departments and preserve those hires thanks to the retirement incentive.
With the results of the new testing process for the Fire Department and a more balanced pool of eligible candidates for the Police Department, I intend to take advantage of the openings created by the early retirement and provide funding in the budget for a new recruit class for both Departments. This should work to maintain the complement in both Departments while increasing diversity.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the good work of our Emergency Communications Department—or ECD. Our city is blessed to have a 9-1-1 emergency call center that is nationally recognized for its service and innovation. This year was no exception. The center entered into a partnership program with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for the handling of missing children. We are the first 9-1-1 center in New York State to do so—and now Rochester has better and improved handling of missing child calls. Chief Merklinger: keep up the good work
Providing for public safety is one of the most significant challenges we face—just as it is for other cities similar to ours. As I will discuss later, we have come to a point where we face permanent structural financial challenges. Our largest expenditures are for public safety and they are largely devoted to uniformed staff. We need to maintain a reasonable level of staffing in the face of often varying demands, particularly in the Fire Department. This staffing—even if held flat—is increasingly expensive and comprises a large percentage of the budget. This inevitably puts public safety in conflict with our financial challenges. It’s not easy, but we cannot run away from, or ignore the conflict. I try to approach it as follows.
Public Safety is important, often the most important, but it is not sacrosanct. That we need to provide public safety is beyond challenge. That we need to do it the way we always have done it is not. This approach can be threatening. Especially to those who believe that no departmental organization, work rule or benefit should change. The Mayor is sometimes the agent of that threat. My response is that we need to work together to balance the need for public safety and our financial stability or we will wind up losing both. We’ve made some progress, but we will need to make more.
I want to take the opportunity while I have you trapped here to shift away from the traditional commercial for the City. I want to share with you some thoughts on a challenge that has proved to be the most difficult and the most bedeviling. That is education. I am not going to torture you with a repetition of the statistics about the performance of our public school system. I personally find that discussion maddening. As adults debate the obvious that the overall performance of the school system is woefully inadequate. Does it really change the problem or what we need to do if the graduation rate is 50% instead of 46%?
One of the pleasures of being Mayor is to be visited by classes of elementary school kids and to visit their classrooms. Often what I see is the bright, well-cared for faces of many colors. Someone loves these children and they are in a class where you can feel their rapport with the teacher and their positive feelings about the school and their experience of being there. We have so many good kids. We have so many good teachers. Yet, when you look into the eyes of those students, you cannot help but remember the statistics. Less than half of them will make it to graduation.
How could we have come to that? How can we be failing them so badly? I acknowledge the difficulty of addressing this problem and the complexity of its causes. It brings to the fore many of the difficulties of modern urban life: poverty, social disintegration and politics. And we must include governments and special interests. We sometimes see them at their worst and most inefficient—with no small amount of adult misbehavior.
I make no claim to have discovered the magic answer. And I won’t join that long line of those who make such claims, too often done with failed good intentions. I do believe that there is something about which we can agree. Children can be fragile and they need to be cared for. And that is where we must begin.
We must be dependable and stable—like adults are supposed to be. Our children must be able to depend on us. At its most fundamental level, this need for dependability—for stability—should not be overcome by some debate over educational philosophy. Or by which group of adults gets to decide which philosophy is correct. It means that we pick some fundamental programs and approaches and that we stick to them.
This is not just a message for the School District, but also for those who want to help. This is where the failed good intentions come in. I question how helpful it is, that with the best of intentions we try to push on the school system a constant barrage of the newest ideas and programs. Dependability and stability trump the theoretical optimal.
As adults, we must occasionally back off. I have tried to keep this principle in mind as I approach the relationship of the City and the School District. Being mindful of my own advice, I have tried to remove as much of the tension as is reasonable from our financial and working relationship. I have tried to find ways to be supportive without making things worse and to recognize that the history of our relationship—and urban education in general—justifies considerable humility. That said, as the District’s leadership stabilizes this year, I want the City to find ways to be more engaged. There are two areas where I believe we can start.
One that has been suggested by Dr. Vargas is the issue of truancy. He has shared some research on the impact of truancy and some approaches that have successfully addressed it. There is a simple truth here—if kids aren’t in school, they cannot benefit from it. A collateral truth is that the attendance figures for the District are not good. The problem starts in elementary school. And so must the solution. The District, City and County already have responsibilities and devote resources to truancy. However, our efforts are not well-coordinated and to be honest, we have allowed ourselves to become frustrated, and to some degree, we have given up.
We need to demonstrate dependability and stability when it comes to the basics. Having children in school and not truant is a good place to start. We should do it this year and I am happy to begin that work.
Another area in which we can be more engaged with the District is in the area of youth services. The City and School District have many similar assets such as libraries, recreational facilities and programs—some of which are on the same site. However, these efforts are not well-coordinated and in many cases, we simply we do not know what each other are doing. In the past, what coordination has existed has arisen from facilities planning.
And this is important because there have been some successes. But how much better would it be if instead of deciding where to do something, we get together and decided what we should do and who should be doing it? How much better would it be for students and parents if we demonstrated dependability and stability when it comes to youth services? How much better would it be for taxpayers to eliminate duplicate programs? Let the City and the District sit together and decide what each of us should do—to play to our strengths—and not just where each of us should do our own thing.
In the past, such discussions only took place when budget realities forced us to confront things we could live without. Let’s turn this around and decide for ourselves—together—what we are trying to accomplish and then figure out how to pay for it.
Both the District and the City have worked hard to build faith and trust in each other. Now we must take the next step. This year, I want to engage the School District to align our efforts so that we can guide our common programs, facilities and expenditures. I know this can’t be simply a governmental effort. Much of our success now, and in the future will depend on the contributions of others outside of government—particularly our strong, not-for-profit organizations. We need to engage such groups. But first, we need to get our own acts together.
As you think about the things that I have suggested and the future of our school district, I ask you to remember the faces of those precious, hopeful, young elementary students.
Then wonder how hopeful they would be if they understood the uncertain future that our school system is presently offering them. We owe the many good kids and many good teachers a system that is dependable and stable. It is all of our burden to place that responsibility first.
The final challenge I would like to discuss is financial. We will not be able to meet the city’s other challenges if we do not have a secure financial future. Here is the issue in the simplest terms: Our escalating governmental expense base has collided with our capacity and willingness to pay for it.
This can be argued at all levels of government, but there are some unique aspects to City government. The City is the provider of basic essential services that very few people of any political stripe are willing to do without. We have to balance our budget and cannot and should not borrow to finance our operating expenses. We have fewer citizens but their needs have grown. For example, 43 percent of city residents under the age of 18 live in poverty. The significance of the only source of revenue that we control—the real estate property tax—has declined. It is regressive and is probably outmoded as a way to finance municipal government.
Significant portions of our expense base are mandated by the State. Like a $119 million dollar contribution to the School District and an estimated $55 million pension contribution. Next year, these two mandates alone will consume our entire real property tax revenue. Put that all together and we have a structural problem. It does no good to lay blame, but we need to examine the problem.
Let’s look at the City budget. Our total budget is $586 million. Of which we are mandated to give the School District $119 million, leaving $467 million for everything else. Of that amount, $275 million—or more than fifty percent—accounts for the personnel expenses of our current and retired employees. Two elements of those expenses that are driving those costs are largely beyond our control.
Medical insurance for current and retired City employees costs us $57 million a year and is escalating by double digits. Our mandated pension expenses will increase from $31 million to $55 million this year. We have done some things like reducing our employment to ameliorate this increase, but it will still be close to this amount.
You will see that the bulk of our expenses go to the Rochester City School District and to public safety. The impact of all of this has been to start our planning for the upcoming year with a $40 million budget gap. Because of some measures that we implemented last year and a one-time “spin-up” from the State of New York we reduced the gap to somewhere between $20 to $24 million. Of course, we are looking to further reduce it.
We will solve this year’s budget gap, but my point is to present the undeniable fact that we face a structural deficit that will sooner or later catch up with us. Fair or not, there is just no way to deal with the structural deficit without dealing with mandated and rising costs. Even if we wanted to—and we don’t—we cannot tax our way out of this. The 2% tax cap would only raise $3.2 million in revenue.
Part of understanding this structural problem is to distinguish it from successful economic development. The principal impact of economic development is to increase our real estate tax base. But, that development cannot grow fast enough or large enough to solve this problem. This tax was designed many years ago for a base that was balanced between industrial and residential. Rochester’s industry generated the revenue and the residents generated the expense. We no longer have this balance.
To offset the taxes we received from one building at Kodak we would have to build residential units of twice that value. Here’s where our success works against us. It is perceived that we are doing great because we’re seeing private and public investment. While that’s good, it does not address our city’s structural deficit. We need a new way to finance cities like ours. This problem exists in many places in the country, but it is acute in New York. Our neighboring cities all have something in common. They are either under a control board—which is a form of receivership in New York—or they are a year or two away from being under one.
Much of the answer for us lies in another structural imbalance. And that is how the state finances cities. There is no formula for Aid and Incentives to Municipalities, or AIM aid. It was largely a political judgment over the last several decades that may have reflected the needs of upstate cities decades ago, but it doesn’t today. The amount of AIM dollars that come to Rochester is almost $200 per-person less than what Buffalo receives. There is also a disparity with Syracuse. If we were to be at per-person parity with Buffalo, we would receive an additional $40 million in aid. Simple fairness here would address our current problem.
We have had great support on this issue, including a campaign to bring this issue to the public’s attention sponsored by many local media. And support from the Community Coalition organized by the Rochester Business Alliance, and consisting of partners for the fields of education, government, not-for profit and labor. The one-shot spin-up aid we received this year is a great help and there is recognition of the disparity issue in Albany, but a permanent solution is desperately needed. We will continue to work toward an equitable AIM formula, but we cannot ignore the need to accept some of the responsibility ourselves and to maintain control of our own destiny.
This is not just a financial problem. Cities do not exist to produce a balanced budget. They are vehicles for delivering services that create and preserve the quality of life that attracts people to urban centers. Cities will first face cultural and social bankruptcy before they encounter financial bankruptcy. We will be forced to cut services that make city living attractive, negatively impacting our quality of life. Libraries, recreation centers, festivals, fireworks and much of the investment that you saw earlier in this presentation are the sorts of things that get cut on the way to bankruptcy. And it is just such cuts that force those who would consider living in our city to make other choices.
The 20-some million dollar deficit that we face this year is ours to solve and this will bring tough choices. For instance, the cost of two police officers or two firefighters is roughly equal to the operating expense of a branch library. So, what do you do? Cut police officers or firefighters or keep the local library open? No one wants to sacrifice public safety, but as you saw from the earlier slides, there can come a time when there is nothing else is left. We need to meet this challenge in a way that does not leave us with only these stark, unpleasant choices. This will be addressed in my upcoming budget proposal.
In preparing the budget, there are some principals that I intend to apply. First of all, public employees are not demons committed to our destruction. I can tell you that they are—by-and-large—as hard-working and committed as anyone. Some take incredible risks on our behalf. City workers find themselves in a system that needs to get more productive and efficient. There are ethical issues with respect to the benefits we have promised workers and we cannot simply walk away from this commitment.
Reasonable benefits are important and it is my goal to figure out how to save them. Nonetheless, there will have to be some changes. If we don’t get control of the system, there is a real danger of the innocent getting shot with the guilty. It is not a matter of finding fault. It is a matter of dealing with the problem that we must admit we all have.
Government is not the gift that keeps on giving. It can break and when it does, we will all get hurt.
That leads to another principal. This is a legitimate structural problem and it won’t go away by arguing over bits and pieces of it. Even differences of millions of dollars—while important in the short run—will not change the ultimate course we are on. I will try my level best to mitigate the immediate impact, but attempts to avoid the truth will not solve the problem. We need to adhere to the principal of having the fortitude to make decisions now that preserve our flexibility and stability in the future. Through the good offices of people whose stewardship of the city that has preceded us, we have accumulated some reserves. We have been using some of the reserve for several years and will probably use more this year. However, I will not follow the advice to resist expense control until our reserves are exhausted. The claim goes, “Why sacrifice?”
“Go until you run out of money and someone, apparently the State, will bail you out.”
We have some current evidence of what that can mean. Yonkers is proposing to raise taxes almost 4 percent and cutting 37 police officers and 36 firefighters. Utica’s budget contains an almost 10 percent tax increase and 50 job cuts, more the half of which are police and firefighters. In neither case is this being done because it is the right thing to do, but with all of their flexibility gone, it is the only thing they can do. A bailout may take the form of a control board which—as Buffalo has learned for more than 5 years—allows the city to survive, but not to thrive.
And that is my final principle. I intend for this city to thrive. We have challenges, but we also have resources. We are stable financially and I intend for us to stay that way even though we need to work at it. We have resourceful, capable people. We have educational, cultural and not-for-profit institutions that are the envy of any city our size.
And in the face of difficult national and regional times, we are making progress. The situation and principles that I have described point to balance and change, but they do not point to pulling back. Not for our city. Not for Rochester. We need to keep on investing by focusing and finishing. We need to continue to pursue our goals of economic development, public safety and education. We need to do this with a clear understanding of the challenges we face and the needs of our citizens. Again, I give you the state of the city that is stable, strong and moving forward despite expected and unexpected challenges. And with ample reasons for optimism. And that is the way I intend for it to stay. Please join me in making it so.