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Saratoga Springs: A Year In Review

Protesters are separated by a mounted police officer in Saratoga Springs on July 30th, 2020
Lucas Willard
Protesters are separated by a mounted police officer in Saratoga Springs on July 30th, 2020

In Saratoga Springs, 2020 brought an upended tourism season, a financial emergency at City Hall, yet another push for a new city charter, and loud calls for racial justice. 

Though it seems small in comparison to the economic upheaval that would come, at the start of 2020, Saratoga Springs officials were concerned about a $2 million cut in aid from the state’s Video Lottery Terminals in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal.

By early April, the aid was fully restored, but City Hall, along much of the rest of the country, was upended by the coronavirus pandemic and under a State of Emergency.

Here’s city Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan giving her budget projections in May.

“With a $15 to $17 million revenue projected loss, we’re still coming up short.”

The city was projecting huge losses in sales tax and other revenues from a summer tourism season that was wiped out.

In early June, restaurants were finally allowed to reopen for outdoor dining – a small return to normalcy. Schuylerville High School students Carleigh Yager and Emily Walbroehl were eating burgers outside a restaurant on a quiet Broadway.

“So I was just really happy because I was like, finally, I get somewhat of a life back,” said Yager.

“Sick of being stuck inside,” said Walbroehl.

But as Saratoga Springs was seemingly waking up after a long spring, an explosive call for racial justice after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought a different energy to the Spa City.

In an online forum with police in July hosted by the city’s Public Safety Commissioner, Robin Dalton, Skidmore College student Adia Cullors was one of several young people of color who shared their experiences with city police.

“I’ve been targeted, I’ve been intimidated, I’ve been harassed by your police department. And it’s not the kind of prejudice that can be undone by bias training,” said Cullors.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations became a regular occurrence in the Spa City and remained peaceful.

But tensions came to a head in Congress Park on July 30th, when a mostly white, older crowd of pro-police and right-wing demonstrators faced off with younger Black Lives Matter counter-protesters, a tense exchange marked by hateful language and threats.

“They buried him a month ago!” yelled one Back the Blue supporter, in reference to Floyd, who was killed after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.

The night ended with three arrests, including two juveniles, after armored police moved in on a crowd of BLM protesters in the street. Pepper bullets were fired at the protesters, before police eventually backed out of Broadway.

The next week, Dalton defended the actions of city police, who sought assistance from the county and state police during the protest.

“We did our absolute best to protect all lives and make sure no one was injured, and I stand by everything that happened that evening,” said Dalton.

In late August the city convened its own task force to “re-imagine” police, as protests continued.

As activity swirled downtown, the city’s major tourism attractions stood empty. There were no loud LiveNation concerts at SPAC. And the tens-of-thousands of horse racing fans watched the races at the flat track and harness track from home.

At Saratoga Race Course, thoroughbred trainer Linda Rice remarked on the empty grandstands on opening day, July 16th.

“Very strange, but winning is still the same.”

At the same time, residents were asked to consider whether to change their city’s system of government – again.

An advocate for charter change, Julie Cuneo, spoke to WAMC in September.

“Saratoga works if you know which button to push, and what phone number to call, or what check to write. But if you’re an everyday citizen, Saratoga doesn’t work very well for you,” said Cuneo.

But, for the third time in four years, the proposal was sunk by voters at the ballot box.

The year ended with the city coming together on a fiscal year 2021 budget.

By late November, news of a vaccine on the way, the presidential election in the rearview mirror, and the hope for a more normal 2021, led to the city council passing a $46 million comprehensive budget – an improvement over an earlier $42 million, but a budget that still arrived with cuts to employee wages, non-profits, and some tough choices.

Mayor Meg Kelly congratulated the council and Finance Commissioner Madigan upon the budget’s passage.

“We made it through. We came around, everybody’s working together. It’s clearly the hardest budget anybody in history has had to put together. And you have it in the books. So congratulations,” said Kelly.

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