ALBANY – The Democratic mayor of Buffalo wants Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to back off from his plans to weaken a program that helps restore and redevelop vacant industrial properties in the city.
The Democratic mayor of New York City wants Cuomo to join him in addressing “income inequality” in his city by letting him raise taxes on rich people to pay for a full-day prekindergarten program.
The Democratic mayor of Syracuse said her city is in the midst of a “fiscal crisis” and is facing insolvency without special attention by the state.
Monday was a day for mayors and other local officials from across the state to prod lawmakers into changing the Democratic governor’s new budget proposal for 2014 to better take into account the needs of municipalities.
They called for everything from the usual – relaxing state-imposed mandates and ending a three-year freeze on state aid to localities – to the specific, such as Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown’s call to eliminate a state fee on communities that he says is preventing the city from remediating as many as 60 vacant and unsalvageable sites a year.
“I think cities are saying they have continuing challenges and they want the resources and tools to solve their challenges for themselves,” Brown said after his annual appearance before a joint legislative panel looking at subject-specific aspects of Cuomo’s proposed budget.
Brown, whose name has been floated as a possible Cuomo running mate if the governor jettisons Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy from his re-election team this fall, did not leave Albany without noting that there is more in Cuomo’s budget plan that he likes than dislikes.
But he urged lawmakers to make changes, including to what he said is Cuomo’s plan to basically eliminate a decade-old Brownfield Opportunity Area program, which has been especially helpful to a city such as Buffalo with so many older and abandoned industrial sites. He told lawmakers that Cuomo’s newly announced RiverBend project, located on the former Republic Steel site in South Buffalo, would not have been possible without the brownfield program, which permitted the city to obtain the site, get it cleaned up and shovel-ready, and provides tax breaks for developers.
The city has four properties under that brownfield program, including one it’s trying to develop on the East Side that he said will be difficult to do if the program is eliminated. Under one part of the program, local interests provide 10 percent of the funding for parts of a brownfields project, while the state pumps in 90 percent, city officials said. For instance, a $600,000 Buffalo Harbor brownfields project received $540,000 in state funds for various aspects of the work.
The mayor also raised concerns about a new Cuomo plan to change a brownfields tax credit program that has been subject to abuse, especially in some downstate areas where developers got big tax breaks for projects they would have done with or without the state money. Cuomo wants to make that program available only for cleanup costs and for properties that have been vacant for at least 10 years.
But the mayor said that without the program, upstate communities will not be able to attract enough developers. “It might cause a lot of these projects to hang out for a long time in Buffalo. We think it almost provides a disincentive,” he said in an interview.
With the help of state funds, Buffalo has demolished nearly 5,000 vacant structures since 2006, but there are still 5,000 more that officials want to raze. Brown said the city must pay up to $8,000 per structure to the state for an asbestos “notification fee,” even though, he said, a state inspector rarely comes to sites to check on buildings before they are torn down.
The Buffalo mayor was not alone in seeking budget changes. The New York State Association of Counties said that localities across the state have embraced a number of ways to share the work of providing services across county lines but that state laws and regulations hamper greater dollar savings.
The New York Conference of Mayors blasted a Cuomo plan to freeze, and not just cap, increases to the property tax levy because he has failed, the mayors say, to address the ever-rising costs associated with state-imposed mandated government services. The group told lawmakers that a plan to partly restrict property tax freezes to localities that promises to share and consolidate services with neighboring governments ends up punishing those localities that have already done so on their own.
Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appeared before the fiscal panel for more than two hours, spent much of his energy promoting his plan to enact an all-day pre-K program in the city, paid for by a tax increase on those residents making more than $500,000 annually. Cuomo opposes the tax increase, but de Blasio said the discussion comes down to a simple premise: that New York is a home rule state. He said the concept of “self-determination” by localities to carry out their own priorities “should be honored in Albany.”
Mayor Stephanie A. Miner of Syracuse, the smallest of the state’s so-called Big Five cities, came to Albany for another year to warn of impending doom for her community. She talked of police and fire department vacancies driven by budget problems and shuttered senior citizen centers. “We have tightened our belt,”’ she said, but warned that her city is “in the midst of a fiscal crisis.”
Miner has called on Cuomo to help provide the city with “basic” infrastructure needs such as police cars to new water mains. Miner said the problems have been driven by everything from mandated rising employee pension expenses to a three-year freeze in the state’s main revenue pot for localities.