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The Roundtable

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan Discusses Coronavirus Response, City Finances, Census

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan
Dave Lucas
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan

WAMC's Ian Pickus interviews Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan about the coronavirus, social distancing and the pandemic's economic impacts. Sheehan is a second-term Democrat.

Last week you were frustrated, I think, that the city residents, some of them, weren't taking the social distancing as seriously as they need to. Where do things stand today in your mind?

Well, I mean, we're still trying to get the message out. The weather has been a little unpredictable, well predictable but not great. So you know, we've had some rain. But as we move into warmer temperatures and warmer weather, we know people are going to want to get out. We did make the decision that we were going to take down all of our backboards, which is a process that's underway. We weren't seeing any compliance with first the signs that we started that we put up, and then we tried to use some simpler form of preventing people from actually shooting baskets, and within hours of us putting those up, they were already being damaged and people were trying to remove them. So we're in the process of removing those rims at the basketball courts throughout the city.

Can you close public places the way that the parks in New York City are going to be closed?

Well, our playgrounds are closed. We have put signage on all of our playground equipment. People should not be climbing on that equipment. It's not safe. We don't have any way of being able to clean that equipment with any regularity. With the news reports out now, which seemed to indicate that up to 25% of people who have COVID are not symptomatic, but they are spreading this virus. There is really no safe way that children or anyone can be climbing around on playground equipment at this point in time.

What should people do? I mean, they've been cooped up all winter. Now they've got a very limited area in which they can go and bring their kids, maybe get some exercise. What's your advice?

I think this is a really hard time for all of us. This is something that is impacting families across the entire country. And it is really difficult and really challenging. There are resources out there. There are so many online resources with creative ideas about what you can do with your family. Our golf course is going to remain open for walkers. So that is a facility that is used year round. And that is a place where we're encouraging people socially distance, if you pull in and the parking lot is looking like it's crowded, then you know it's time to turn around and maybe go back at a different time. But we have the beautiful Corning preserve, which has a very long walking trail, people can bike we are encouraging people to again, engage in activities that allow them to maintain that social distancing. You know, some of my rec aides are working on ideas for activities that they can do with young people. Because we are still providing and the school district is still providing childcare for the children of first responders and healthcare workers that they can engage in and maintain social distancing. I joke that the old school games, right, Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says, Those are all things that you can do six feet apart.

Nobody can come over right now. That takes me to my next question. Obviously, we know the schools have had their challenges, even in the best of times. Now that students have been sent home and there's remote learning, how confident are you that students are getting, you know, the instruction that they need and the services that they need when they can't physically gather in a certain location?

Well, look, and I want to be very clear, this is not a criticism of the school district. This is a criticism, this is a concern that I have across the country. It's not unique to the city of Albany, but we know that we have different types of learners. And some children do much better in a group environment with examples that are presented to them, tactile learners. And this is very, very challenging for those children. The other challenge that we have is the digital divide, the lack of access to a computer, the lack of access to broadband. I know that our local district here in Albany is trying to get Chromebooks into the hands of all of our students who need them. But because they went home without those devices, it's really challenging to now get those devices into their hands and they're doing great work trying to do that. But it is a challenge and we know that notwithstanding all of the efforts of our teachers of our districts, that we still have, you know, a significant divide between achievement, the achievement gap is real and persistent. And my concern is that we'll see a widening of that achievement gap. When you look at some of the resources that are available in wealthier school districts, with online learning with being able to have a parent at home supervising that work, which is a big challenge for our lower income families.

In your opinion, do you think the schools will reopen this year?

It's really unclear. You know, I think we're all looking day to day at the data that we are receiving from the state and from the federal government as to how long this is going to last. Certainly, if people are really abiding by social distancing, if people get the message that this is no joke, that this is not something that applies to someone else, this is something every single one of us needs to do, in order to save lives, then I think that we could be in a position where there is some physical schooling that would happen. But at this point, no one's really very optimistic about that. And I think that what I am hearing, and I'm on calls every week with mayors from across the country, and what we're hearing from experts at John Hopkins at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, that even when we get past the ways that the wave, that to restart things is by slowly turning on the tap. So you might start to allow, you know, certain age groups to go back to school and see what happens. You might think about, you know, allowing gatherings of 50 people and see what happens, but it's not going to be a full turn on the faucet and everything will go back to normal. This is going to be more, we're in this for the long haul.

Let me go to a couple other related areas. Does the city have a role to play in the arrival of the coronavirus patients from downstate to places like Albany Medical Center? Do you have a seat at the table and those decisions?

We don't have a seat at the table per se. From a legal standpoint, this isn't a city-run hospital. It's not a public hospital. But we have a great relationship with Albany Medical Center, and with St. Peter's Hospital, and we have been notified of these decisions; they've been explained. And we work very closely with Albany Medical Center. That is the trauma center for the region. And we work and cooperate with them and have had a long standing relationship with them. And so Dr. McKenna has been conferring with me throughout this process, from the very beginning of really explaining what the healthcare system was looking at from a system wide standpoint, what the capacity is at Albany Medical Center, and his assurances that in no way will they in any way impact their ability to care for patients here in the region. They have plenty of capacity. When Dr. McKenna spoke with me on Sunday, he talked about what their census was, and these are rough numbers, but I think he said that their patient bed census at that point in time was 400. They're typically at 650 to 700. So there's capacity there. And this isn't something that is being done just on the fly. This is being done in a very intentional way to ensure that beds are available and ventilators are available for residents here in the region.

I just want to say for our listeners, Dennis McKenna is the new CEO of Albany Medical Center and I think he officially took over this week, which is quite a time to start.

Yes, yes.

So we just passed Census Day, April 1, and you've been beating the drum on the census for months now about how important it is for Albany and other Capital Region locations to have this complete count. Are you worried that the pandemic is going to depress numbers in any way?

Oh, it absolutely is going to depress numbers in ways that we can't really even begin to fathom. So we have the issue of the colleges closing down. Now, we have been working very closely with all of the colleges in Albany who have been at the table as part of our complete count committee from the very beginning for more than a year now. And we are able to count the students who live in dorms. But we know that there are a significant number of students who do not live in dorms. They live in neighborhoods in the city of Albany. And some of those are neighborhoods that require a significant amount of our DGS crews working, police calls, you know, they are a huge demand on resources. Those students went home. Those students went back to their communities. They should have been counted in Albany, they still should be counted in Albany. But our ability to get the word out and to make that happen has been lost. There had been a plan in place that would have had people knocking on doors in those neighborhoods, beginning about a week and a half from now. And that would have occurred all the way through graduation to make sure that we got those numbers. That's not going to happen now. So right out of the gate, we are at a deficit. And now you add to that, our inability to really do the mass gatherings that we had planned. For example, census bingo with our seniors. We were planning on having a presence at all of the spring concerts at our schools, so that we could talk to parents, ensure that the census is safe, get the word out and even have kiosks available for people to be able to fill out the census right there. We were working with the faith community to do census events at churches, and our churches are now closed. So we were looking to have census Sundays where people came, they gathered for their religious services, and then went into the community hall and filled out the census. So our ability to do all of these events that have been planned, the wonderful ideas, the barber shop talks, all of that is on hold. But we are working very hard to come up with a digital alternative. We know it is going to be challenging, we know that it is going to impact the count here in the city of Albany, especially given our large student population. And you know, the challenge now is it's not just the billions of dollars of Federal funds that result from what your count ultimately is, in your eligibility for those funds, but it's sales tax dollars. We get sales tax proportionately, based on the percentage of people who are in Albany County, who live in the city of Albany. Without those college students, I think we are going to see a cut, a reduction, in the amount in the percentage of sales tax dollars that we get from Albany County, and that is going to hurt us for a decade to the tunes of potentially 10’s of millions of dollars. So it's a huge concern.

That takes me to my next question. Now, just before we spoke, the budget bills came down, just up the hill from your office, and some good news for the city of Albany was that the $12 million in capital city aid that you've annually requested to make the budget, the city budget, whole, is in the budget bill. However, Governor Cuomo says the state's effectively broke and he could revisit the budget throughout the year, and more cuts are possible down the line. At a time when, you know, businesses are closed, you're not collecting any revenue from parking meters, tourism's, obviously way down. How is that all factoring into your budget planning for next year?

Well, it's a big concern. My initial concern, my immediate concern is cash-flow. We need to have enough cash to pay our bills. And with the reductions in revenue coming in, we expect our sales tax first quarter sales tax is probably going to be significantly lower than what we budgeted. As you indicated, we're not getting revenue from a lot of the sources that we were getting revenue from. Although I will say that the revenue I like the least is fine revenue because you know, I prefer that people just follow the rules. So we just want to ticket them, but we're not getting that type of revenue. So we're really keeping an eye on our cash flow. This budget challenge, I'm very sympathetic to. I understand the governor can't give municipalities money that the state doesn't have. So it's a matter of all of us looking at ways that we can save. This is similar to what happened after the Great Recession where municipalities saw a cut in the aid that they received from the state. I'm also concerned about our pension bill, because you've seen what's happened to the stock market. And that greatly impacts the size of our pension bill, in order for the state comptroller to keep the pension solvent, or fully funded, I should say. So lots of challenges. We're all going to have to work together and face those challenges. I'm confident that I have a team in place that will be able to do that. I have great leadership in all of the departments throughout the city. They understand the gravity of this situation. They understand that we are all going to need to work together in order to be able to continue to provide essential city services, but it will be challenging.

I mean, can you see some cuts coming down the pike here?

Sure. I mean, I would be, you know, disingenuous to say that all can stay exactly the same. We need to really be looking at realistically, what our budget is going to look like, just as the state is we can't spend money that we don't have. We are hopeful that they'll be more aid from the state. We are hopeful that our businesses will be able to get back up and running and open, you know, and be able to stay in business. You know, we're concerned about our small businesses that will potentially not survive this, and that don't have the reserves to be able to ride through the storm. So we will be, we have a recovery team that started working really the day that the governor declared his first emergency. We put together a resiliency team that's led by our economic development folks. Our community development folks are there, representatives from our business improvement districts and small businesses. We have the chamber involved. And so we have a team of people who are on calls at least once, usually two or three times a week, working on ensuring that the aid that's available, the small business aid, the package that came down from Washington, that we are disseminating that information, helping our small businesses to navigate that, and collecting from them what their needs are, what are those pressure points that are really preventing them or have them really concerned about their ability to reopen their doors when this is over. So we're working on resiliency and the Future right now. And we have then from the very beginning,

I want to ask you about a report that Alice Green at the Center for Law and Justice released this week on structural racism and public safety in the Albany city. And it says that you should, you Mayor Sheehan, should acknowledge the existence of structural racism in the police department, deem structural racism a public health crisis in the city, and also direct the police chief to publicize the department's racial profiling and use of force policies. So number one, have you read the report? And number two, what's your reaction to all of those goals in the report?

I haven't had the opportunity to drill down into the report. I just received it yesterday. I believe my office received it the day before yesterday. And you know, we certainly remain committed to ensuring that the structural racism and implicit bias that exists in cities and states throughout this country are something that we're on the forefront of fighting. We passed legislation with our Common Council that really codifies our equity agenda here in the city of Albany, to ensure that as we look at how we are investing our resources, if as we look at the work that every department is doing in the city, that we're doing that through the lens of equity, and that we're looking at the numbers, that we are looking at where we're investing our dollars, that we're looking at training that we're providing in implicit bias, which is now mandated by this legislation to be done not just in our police department, but throughout every department in the city. We're looking at the investments that we're making an infrastructure and the equity of where those investments are being made. So we remain very committed to ensuring that we are focused on moving forward through the lens of equity. There have been injustices that have resulted in the inequity that we see, both implicit and explicit racism, redlining, all of the things that we see in our city we recognize, have stemmed from the injustices that Alice and her center have been fighting for for years and years. So we will take a look at it, we remain committed to it. And we are focused right now on trying to ensure that our city remains safe during this crisis, and that we get the message out for people to take these social distancing rules seriously. We don't want to have to use our police officers to enforce these rules. But we cannot stress enough that at this point in time, our focus is literally on saving lives. And if people stay home, if they're kind, they will save lives. And that's a huge focus that we all have to keep at front of mind right now, at this point in time in our city.

So last thing: how is this impacting your job? Because City Hall is obviously usually a very bustling place, and you go to a lot of ribbon cuttings, you go to a lot of meetings, you go to gatherings. How has this changed your approach to being mayor of the city?

You know, it's very interesting. It's, I've still been coming to City Hall because there are just certain things that I can do here. My husband is working from home as well. So my house is a little, a little crowded. And it's just a different type of leadership. A lot of conference calls, a lot of zoom meetings, and it but at night, I am going home, still on calls and really focusing on making sure that we're doing all that we can to meet the needs of our residents during these very difficult times, particularly I worry about our seniors, worry about families having enough food. So but it's managing it via phone and computer as opposed to being hands on, which is a challenge for me. I do enjoy being out. And I think that we get a lot done when we're able to meet face to face, but we're, I'm adjusting to it. My team is adjusting to it. And we're doing all that we can to keep people safe.

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