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Albany Budget Blues

City of Albany

As citizens of Albany celebrate their new female mayor, the business of running the city could escalate into crisis mode.

According to the Albany Times Union, ex-mayor "Jerry Jennings is handing (Kathy) Sheehan a fiscal grenade that's set to explode. The new mayor faces a budget deficit of about $16 million, with few viable options for closing the gap." Speaking to reporters after her taking her oath of office, Mayor Kathy Sheehan acknowledged the need to get city finances under control.  "We have some serious fiscal challenges but we also have a lot of talent, a lot of great ideas and I'm gonna be working with our workforce and with our residents to really put us on a path to financial sustainability."

Chief City Auditor Leif Engstrom did not mince words as he used the occasion of his inauguration to sound the alarm about Albany's financial condition.  "Since I'm the auditor and it's part of my job to raise some uncomfortable topics, I'm going to take a moment to point out that, regardless of how well we do in cutting costs and balancing the budget and making Albany a more vibrant and successful city, we'll still have about 40 million dollars in street maintenance needs with about 5 million dollars to meet them. Our city schools will still have crowded classrooms and our property taxes will still be as high as they can realistically go.  And these are a few of our challenges."

Engstrom noted that "our nation has never been as wealthy as it is today." He added, "it doesn't feel like it, but it is true." The auditor is calling for a change in the national dialogue. "When we say that municipalities need to be less dependent on federal and state funding, we're saying that each community should only have the education, the clean water, the public safety that it can afford, and that those thing should be funded with more sales taxes and more property taxes which weigh heavily on the poor and the middle class.  We have to change that way of thinking. Federal and state funding from progressive taxation are essential to providing equal opportunity to America's children."

Engstrom's words hit a home run with Congressman Paul Tonko, the emcee of Albany's inauguration ceremony at Kiernan Plaza. "I heard the message about Federal, state, local partnership. I endorse it. I couldn't agree more. We need to continue to fight for an urban agenda in America. Make no mistake about it. We're there with you in the fight."

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy agrees, and adds the key to solving the money crisis may lie in a combination of efforts. "I've been meeting with the 19 municipality leaders for the last two years, and now with Kathy there, we can really look at consolidating services that we have duplication, or we can provide better or they can provide better, but save the taxpayers money."

Meanwhile, Mayor Sheehan faces a myriad of challenges aside from the budget, including what to do about the city landfill, a citizen outcry against gun violence and calls to step up high-tech development.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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