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Democratic mayoral candidates meet for debate in Schenectady

 A view of the debate stage at Schenectady County Community College
Open Stage Media
A view of the debate stage at Schenectady County Community College

The Democratic candidates for mayor of Schenectady met for a debate Thursday night.

City residents gathered at Schenectady County Community College to see incumbent Mayor Gary McCarthy debate City Council President Marion Porterfield.

McCarthy, who is seeking a fourth term, promoted himself as a person who has helped transform the Electric City.

“It's been an honor to serve as mayor of Schenectady for the past 12 years but elections have consequences. Schenectady residents remember clearly the days of dysfunctional city government, high taxes, high crime and decay. I'm proud to have been mayor of a city that was once down but today is a city on the rise again,” said McCarthy.

Porterfield, who has spent a dozen years on the city council, said as mayor she would seek more public input from residents to chart a path forward.

“Under a Porterfield administration, there will be a plan to develop all of the city, listening to all of residents, working together with the staff of the city, increasing the staff within the city to make sure that we are fully staffed, be able to do the job that we're called to do,” said Porterfield.

In the debate sponsored by the Daily Gazette, candidates were asked questions by a panel of local reporters.

They were asked to share a moment where they demonstrated leadership on a challenging, controversial issue.

McCarthy cited the city’s response to storms Irene and Lee — early in his tenure — when the state shut down bridges because of severe flooding.

“Traffic is backing up. And there was a little bit of debate in the room about what we're going to do. And I said, ‘I need some signs printed up.’ And traffic's backing up everywhere and they're calling off. They said, ‘What do you want the signs to say?’ ‘If you lived in Schenectady, you'd be home now.’ But that broke the tension. And again, the police, fire department, everybody came together,” said McCarthy.

Porterfield pointed to something more recent — the participatory budgeting process surrounding the distribution of American Rescue Plan Act funding.

“That was a very challenging time, in terms of how we should spend the money and having people come to agreement. Now, not everyone agreed on the allocations, we may, but we were able to make to come to enough of an agreement and have enough council members agree with it to be able to spend the money and very importantly, spend the money in some programs that don't normally get funded,” said Porterfield.

Porterfield repeatedly called for a city-wide comprehensive plan. The last time such a central planning document was developed was 2008.

“Progress is great but a plan in place helps you to move and keep that progress going. In addition to that, when the next administration comes in, there's already a plan in place, they don't have to start from scratch, they can just look at the plan and use that,” said Porterfield.

Schenectady’s downtown and riverfront have seen significant upgrades during McCarthy’s time as mayor – including the opening of the Rivers Casino and development of Mohawk Harbor. The incumbent said the city has an effective team in place that continues to drive growth.

“The unified economic development team in Schenectady produces results every day. People who talk about a plan are trying to divert away from their own inaction, their own inability to articulate and drive business and drive investment within this community,” said McCarthy.

On property taxes, the mayor said the city has seen six tax cuts over his three terms. To continue lowering taxes, McCarthy said the city needs to go after property owners who have refused to pay their share.

“We're seeing a larger number of people pay their taxes, but there's still that segment of property owners that drive our costs because they don't maintain the property, they don't pay the taxes and other ones. So that's something that we continue to focus on. And it's an area by doing those improvements that will allow fiscal stability to benefit the rest of the taxpayers and the community as a whole,” said McCarthy.

Porterfield said more city services should be brought in-house.

“We outsource a lot of work in terms of plowing of the streets. So, if we train our city staff and then have them use in-house services, we can save money on that and that should help to at least keep the taxes even so that we're not we're not spending more money out,” said Porterfield.

On crime, Mayor McCarthy touted the city’s data-driven policing model, which the former investigator says is deterring violent crime. Porterfield said her administration would convene more conversations with city residents as a way to reduce crime.

Asked about the city’s most valuable resource, McCarthy said it’s Schenectady’s water, drawn from the Great Flats aquifer. Porterfield pointed to Central Park, a gathering place for the city’s diverse community where a new pool is also under construction.

The candidates also discussed job training, education, zoning for adult-use cannabis dispensaries, and other topics during the hour-long forum.

McCarthy and Porterfield will vie for the Democratic line for mayor on June 27th before the general election in November. McCarthy is backed by the city Democratic committee. The winner will face Republican Matt Nelligan, a political newcomer and head of the city’s GOP committee.

In a statement after Wednesday’s debate, Nelligan said one Democratic candidate is “living in an alternate reality” and the other “had no vision for change.”

Detailing his own vision for Schenectady, Nelligan said in part:

“This city is on the wrong track. A blind man could see it and every citizen I talk to agrees. They want top to bottom change to fight crime, rebuild and revitalize our neighborhoods, fix our infrastructure and improve our quality of life. They know City Hall is hopelessly broken.”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.