New York's Mohawk Valley is one of four regions across the state that have so far met all seven critera to begin reopening on Friday, according to metrics outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The City of Utica is the largest community in a part of the state that includes many rural towns and villages.WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard spoke to Utica Mayor Rob Palmieri, a Democrat, about his approach to reopening as leaders from across the region begin speaking on a regular basis.
We have to do it very carefully, the last thing we want to do is open up to the point where we have to stay in the phase one for a period of time because we haven't done our due diligence. We haven't done all the proper things, making sure that we're communicating well with the public of what can be done, what not can be done at this point. So I think it's incumbent upon the leaders to make sure that the information is articulated out there. So everybody understands what levels we are, so we could get to the second phase, the third phase in the fourth phase. You know, at the end of the day, this is going to be the success of a region because as we know, there is not a vaccine that will be available for you know, quite some time. So we have to make sure that we don't become overly excited to the opening. We're resourceful to the point that we understand that these are just phases that we're going through, and that we have to make sure that we stay temperate in our in our excitement to going to the next levels.
Does Utica have its own coalition or group of stakeholders that meet or that you're gathering info from and bringing ideas to the table?
So what we do is obviously we work closely with the members of the council, we work with a faith-based group who work with some of the nonprofits that are out there. We are consistently coordinating. But to that point, we are on the phone each and every day with this whole grouping of elected officials and other individuals that we talk on a normal basis for the entire region. So we fully understand, so I can articulate how it's going to be in our city. So I could develop a strategy for members of my building, because that's going to be the first part of it. My building inspectors, my code inspectors, what my fire department what the police department should be looking for out there as we phase into it, so it's dialogue and communication. As we equate this to the new normal, we're trying to be have the city for the residents to look upon it when they're out there if things aren't progressing as it was, without this pandemic as best as we can, making sure our streets are clean, making sure that the law enforcement's are out there, making sure if there's concerns with code problems that we're addressing the concerns. So we're trying to make this as pain free as the pain really is. We're doing everything in our power to make sure that we are a lifeline of either monetary through the funding that we have, through giving them the proper information that they're going to need. Because it's very frustrating out there. People are hearing conflicting things out there. And we want to be the one source that if they go to us, if we don't have the answer, we will get back to them with the proper answer so the frustration is limited to a certain amount.
Mayor Palmieri, what's the effect right now of COVID on Utica’s finances? We have a lot of cities and communities in upstate New York and across the country that are really experiencing a drain on city finances and that includes resources for emergency services, police, fire, you name it.
All you have to look at us right off the bat is your sales taxes. The faucet has been turned off. And that's been turned off for not just the city of Utica, throughout. And when that does transpire, you have to react to that. So we will be coming out with our own strategic plan where we will no longer, the vacant positions that we have, we will not be filling them. We’ll reduce our expenditures as much as we possibly can is still deliver a service. And, you know, we'll be mindful of the sales tax when it does start, not even increasing but I think our first month it'll be interesting to see where we are in May. So we're looking for obviously a shortfall. And we will be doing everything in our power to make sure that that does not trickle down to the residents the best we can. Well, there's a lot of things we don't fully understand at this point. We don't know what the next stimulus package will be coming. If it will be out there, that will help not only the residents of the city, but there'll be for our first responders that are out there that have to continue to do their daily operations out there to provide the public safety for the people, to provide the needs for DPW to be out there and making sure that our streets are clean and safe, and we're filling the potholes, and we're operating as normal as we possibly can. So we're going to be mindful of this. It's kind of ironic that in 2012, when I took office, we the city, that was on the verge of bankruptcy, so we went into cutting and we were very lean, we cut 20% in 2012. So we don't have an awful lot to cut at this time. So we will put it, we are, we have put in place roughly two months ago when this first set a putting the brakes on any type of spending whatsoever. Our capital program was reduced by roughly 80%. So we're being proactive as much as we can. But I think at the end of the day, it will be happening, what happens on the federal level, because I'm sure in the event, the governor said, if there's no federal aid, then he's going to start looking at cutting to the schools, to the hospitals, and to local municipalities. And that will be a devastating shock to the entire state and city view, if that does happen.
Is that something that the city is preparing for just in case if that aid doesn't come through?
Well, at this point, we're prepared as much as we can at this point. And again, that would be if the cut comes, that will be going to the next layer, that will be start taking muscle away from the body. But we'll again what we'll have to do is limp our way into this. That cut at that time will be into roughly unfortunately, if it has to be public safety in DPW, in parks, that represents 70% of our budget. So if you're looking to cut, there's no other further areas to cut other than the necessities of delivering a product and the service. Our hope and prayer is that we don't have to do that. We have done that exercise in 2012. We are down to bare bones. We are not a city, we came back from the desolate time of close to bankruptcy. We are flourishing at this point we had a negative $15,000 fund balance in 2012. We were downgraded by all three of the rating agencies. Fast forward to where we are at this point, we have been upgraded by all three of the agencies, our fund balances beyond the scope of what the people have voted for. So we have exercised the due diligence of being very conservative over the last eight years, and this administration will do what has to be done to make sure that we deliver a product, we keep their taxes as low as possible, and make any moficiations if need be.