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Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan On Planned Protests, Virus, Finances, Letter To Trump

Mayor Kathy Sheehan at the Irish American Heritage Museum soft opening on March 3, 2020.
Jackie Orchard
Mayor Kathy Sheehan at the Irish American Heritage Museum soft opening on March 3, 2020.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan is urging people to stay away Friday, when a second day of “Re-Open New York” protests is scheduled outside the state capitol. Sheehan says while she understands rally-goers are frustrated during the pandemic shutdown, it’s not safe for large groups to gather as officials try to limit the spread of the virus. Protestors snarled traffic outside the capitol during Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on April 22.

Sheehan also says with revenues down during the coronavirus pandemic, the city is facing a $12 to $18 million shortfall. The second-term Democrat says the city is pushing hard for federal aid to balance the books, but layoffs and cuts are likely, saying "tough decisions" loom as soon as next week.

Sheehan says even if the city resorts to short-term borrowing, eventually that money needs to be paid back too.

Sheehan: Well, I think that we still have pockets of people who are not necessarily taking it seriously. I think we heard the county executive talk about the number of cases in individuals between the ages of 20 and 29. But I think overall, people do understand that we have to abide by social distancing and the restrictions that are in place. If we want to get past this, if we want to get to a point where we start to see declines and we can be confident that our health care system is not going to be overwhelmed by this.

WAMC: We obviously see the numbers broken down by county and then we see Governor Cuomo's statewide numbers on a daily basis. But what's the effect then in the city itself?

Well, I mean, we've continued to see the number of cases rise, in part because we really advocated for and have been successful in getting testing more broadly throughout the community. You know, we had pockets and neighborhoods where we really weren't seeing the cases because there wasn't testing in those neighborhoods. But with the work that the county and Whitney Young were able to do to bring testing, more broadly throughout neighborhoods in the city, we are not surprisingly seeing some increases in the number of cases.

In your understanding, does what Albany is seeing track with what we're seeing downstate where, you know, high poverty neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are struggling are seeing worse outcomes here?

Well, I think that we are seeing that the county has started to break down some of the demographics with data and the number of people who are testing positive. And yes, we are seeing those disparities. And those disparities exist, in part because of disparities that already existed in our healthcare system, particularly for people of color. And also because many people from those very same communities are the ones who are on the frontlines. They are the ones who are delivering food, working in the grocery stores, working in our hospitals, you know, and making sure that people have access to food and to health care, and to transportation. And so those are also contributing factors to those higher incidences that we're seeing.

We've heard a lot about how a crisis like this exposes, you know, existing flaws in society. And I'm just wondering what you're learning about what the city of Albany needs to do in the future, based on this particular experience?

Well, I think that this just really demonstrates the fact that we have been focused on an equity agenda that has really been based for the last couple of years on the social determinants of health, which we've been hearing a lot about. And, you know, we really shifted to say those social determinants of health are really the important key factors. Do people have quality housing that is safe? Do people have access to healthcare? Do people have the ability to be able to get the medications that they need and the treatments that they need when if they have a chronic condition, for example. And so those are been things that we have been working on and will continue to work on. And I think that this just highlights how important that is. And another factor in that is the digital divide that we talked about, and we're really seeing the impact of that as we've moved to, not just having to educate our kids at home, but telehealth and being able to still seek medical attention when we're not necessarily going to the emergency room or to a doctor's office. So we've been using those social determinants of health to guide us in the decisions that we're making with respect to city resources. And I think that this just highlights how important that is.

Say more about the needs for broadband in areas of the city. I mean, I think this has been an issue that people in your job have been dealing with for, you know, for years and years now, more than a decade. We're still not there in terms of everybody having access to broadband internet.

That's right. And you know, there's a difference between having the capability of having broadband and having access to broadband. And so while there has been this stress on looking at some of our more rural communities and ensuring that they have access to broadband. Here we have broadband, but there are people who because they don't have the financial capacity to access it, because they don't have necessarily credit so that they can, you know, actually sign up and get a plan, you have to be credit approved to do that, you know, that we continue to see those disparities. And the other disparity that we see is access to having the hardware to do things like zoom classrooms, and to be able to participate in that requires a large amount of broadband, and it requires having a tablet or a computer to be able to engage in those activities. And so we see a gap there as well. And I think that that's something that really has been brought to light. One of the things that I know the school district has done is they've sought to get some sort of Chromebook into the hands of every household that needs it. But it's just per household. So if you've got three or four children in that household who are all in school, then they're all sharing one tablet. Well, what happens when they all have a class at the same time? So it really is highlighting the need not only for that broadband access, but to have the tools that you need to go with that broadband access to be able to effectively engage in the type of distance learning that we're seeing today.

You know, I'm a resident of your city, and I'm a user of its libraries, its public libraries. And I was thinking about how many aspects of life for some people are now missing with libraries closed. If you go into a city of Albany library branch, it's an after school center. It's a gathering place, it's a resource, it's a place with internet access, and so on. Are you thinking about replicating those services in some way now that those physical buildings are not open?

Well, I mean, again, I think that this is something that this particular event has really highlighted. We've always looked at our library as sort of that backstop to the lack of access to broadband or to a computer because the library provides that, and we've seen the library as that potential equalizer in our communities where there is not as much access as we would like to see. And this pandemic has closed the libraries. So it really highlights that, you know, just having a great library system, which we have here in Albany, and we're really fortunate to have just having a great library system is not sufficient, because what happens when that system is not available? And I know that the library would love nothing more than to be that sort of port in the storm for our community, and they can't be for all the same reasons that all of our other businesses are closed. And so I think when I think about the libraries and I talk about the libraries, it's always been a comfort to me knowing that they're there and knowing that people can access them if they're looking for a job or if their child needs help with homework and that safety net that incredible resource is not there right now.

Let me change gears, mayor, and ask you about finances. Governor Cuomo, his administration released a new executive budget analysis over the last weekend, and aid to localities is definitely on the chopping block to the tune of, I don't know, around $10 billion as we speak. He has said that the federal government's got to step in and make localities and states whole. What effect is all this having on Albany's planning?

Well, it is really a very bleak picture at this point in time. If we are not able to replace lost revenue, we are looking at draconian cuts. We are in the process right now of planning for those. I hope that we don't have to execute those plans. But there are real concerns that we have, because we are required to balance our budget. And while there might be some opportunities for us to take on more debt, in order to get the cash that we will need to pay our employees, it is still debt and we will have to pay it back which means that we will have to make cuts in order to be able to pay that debt service out of our operating budget. So this is, you know, we have just as every household across this region has had an unexpected interruption to our revenue and just as the federal government has stepped in to try to assist in replacing that revenue, whether it's through the stimulus that went directly to individuals, the increases in unemployment, we also need that same ability to replace this lost revenue in order to keep the frontline workers working. And I think it's really unfortunate some of the rhetoric that we're hearing, because it's just in my mind wrong to politicize our police officers, our firefighters, our sanitation workers, the folks that are out there making sure that our city is safe in this very difficult time. So you we are looking at a very significant revenue gap. We continue to adjust that based on what we hear out of New York State because again, that revenue comes to us from the state. So if that's going to be cut, you know, we have to be able to plan for that. But at this point, we're looking at a revenue gap of around between $12 and $18 million. That's a significant amount of money. We have to balance our budget at the end of the year. And so we are also taking a hard look at what cuts we would have to make in order to fill that void.

For example?

Well, we're looking at everything from eliminating programs. Most of our expenses are people. So if we lay off people, that means that we are unable to execute on various programs. And so I think now is not the time for us to have to be doing this type of planning. We need to be here to be able to help to reopen the economy when that time comes. That means that we need to have building inspectors Ready to inspect construction projects, we have to be able to issue permits, we have to be able to issue business licenses. All of those things are jeopardized if we have to lay people off and cut back on city services. So we want to have a summer here in Albany, we want to be able to provide safe programming to our youth. But all of those things have to be viewed in light of whether we will have the money to pay for delivering those services.

I mean, Tulip Festival and Alive at Five, those are the things that get the headlines sometimes but that's not going to make up $18 million.

No and I will tell you to Tulip Festival and Alive at Five are really breakeven events. So we do get sponsorships and we get fees from vendors that offset the costs of running those programs. So, you know, simply eliminating them is not going to get us to the types of numbers that we're looking at. So I'm hopeful that cooler heads will prevail in Washington. And that we will see that without this and you know, again, this is not a partisan thing. This is mayors across the country, in cities that are run by Democrats, cities that are run by Republicans, cities that are run by Independents, it doesn't matter. We are all losing, across the country, billions and billions of dollars in revenue. And if we do not have that revenue, we cannot pay our employees. And if we cannot pay our employees, we cannot provide the central city services.

How long can you wait?

Well, we are looking at having to make some pretty difficult decisions by the end of next week.

Well, you know, following up on that. You were the city treasurer, coming out of the last economic crisis that we saw on a national scale, you know, right after the 2008, 2009 crisis. Does that inform any of your decision making now as we head into another one?

Well, you know, we were able to weather the last economic crisis because the prior administration used the the fund balance that had been built up over the prior years. So when I came into office in my first year in office, and in 2014, the entire the fund balance was gone. It had been spent, but at the start of the 2008 financial crisis, the fund balance was, I believe, around $28 million. And it took that entire fund balance to get us out of that crisis. We were just starting to build up fund balance again. And you know, now here we are weathering an even more serious crisis and it is going to be incredibly challenging to get through this. That's why I think that if we can be successful in getting the aid that we're asking for now, we can more rapidly restart the economy and hopefully avoid how protracted things were, and how slow that recovery was coming out of 2008, 2009.

This is a theoretical question. But if we're going to get a second wave, as has been mentioned, as a possibility this fall, I mean, how do you how do you make a budget for the next fiscal year, given everything we've seen so far, and then plan for the possibility of another shutdown?

Well, you know, I'm hopeful that with the measures that the governor is putting in place with respect to monitoring what's happening, that we'll be able to react more nimbly, and we won't be looking at, you know, a multi-week, shutdown, that we’ll be able to respond more effectively. Within, for example, our schools that we will be able to make more targeted decisions about what has to close and for how long. So I think that we continue to learn from this experience. And I think that helps us to prepare for the fall. If we do have this swing around again.

Let me ask you about the protests planned around the country and in Albany, outside the capitol on Friday. This is part of the Reopen New York protests as they've been dubbed. Now, we saw a smaller one last week. What is the city doing to prepare and what are your thoughts on those protesters?

Well, you know, I understand people's frustration, I want to say, you know, put that out there. We were all frustrated and I think that it is, it's these are very, very challenging times. And I don't know a single person that doesn’t want to reopen the economy. So this is not a lack of will. It is the fact that we have to look at the science and look at the data and make really difficult decisions. But the decisions that are being made now are decisions that are literally saving lives. And so I say that as a way of also then leading into the fact that I want to be able to keep the residents of the city of Albany safe. And what I saw last week, did not make me feel safe. People got out of their vehicles, they were protesting. They were not practicing social distancing. They were standing in front of buses and preventing them from getting down the street. So those were all things that for those of us who are trying to abide by the various precautions that have been put in place to keep us safe, to see that was very troubling. And for our residents, it was troubling because they feel like our community is being placed more at risk, simply because we're the state capitol. And we have people coming here, not engaging in social distancing, and engaging in activities that we all are concerned could spread the virus in our community. And I'm sympathetic to that as well. I think that there is a way for this protest to happen that is safe. That means people staying in their cars, not getting out of their vehicles, if they want to block traffic, if they want to honk their horns, and wave their flags and signs around the capitol, then, you know, I think the safest way to do that is to bear in mind that you are coming into a city where you have healthcare workers who are taking care of the sickest of the sick people in our hospitals. You have police officers and firefighters who just want to go home to their families and not bring coronavirus home with them. And so if we can have that understanding, and that respect, that recognition that yes, you might be frustrated at state government, but you're coming into a community of moms and dads and people who are just trying to get by, and getting out of your cars and mass gatherings is really placing people who are just like you in danger. So I think that that's the message that I would like to get out. As we all try to grapple with this together.

The district attorney, David Soares, put a statement out before the last protest and said, you know, he has never prosecuted peaceful protesters, as long as they don't hurt anybody, hurt law enforcement, that kind of thing. He's declined to prosecute protesters, no matter what side of the political aisle they've been on in their protests. Do you think that should be revisited given the worries about public safety here?

Well, listen, I'm not going to speak to that. We don't want to arrest anybody. We want people to stay safe. The challenge right now and the thing that makes this protest or this type of gathering different than any other type of gathering at any other point in time, is that somebody simply getting out of their car and not engaging in social distancing is unsafe. And we want to make sure that we are keeping our frontline workers as safe as possible and not exposing them to coronavirus. And so that is the thing that I think is scary for people, right? They're there. They're worried and concerned that having masses of people, you know, gathering outside of their vehicles in large groups, just like some of the things that we're seeing out of New York city that has Mayor de Blasio saying that he is going to start arresting people. Those visuals are really frightening to people who are worried about getting sick or getting a loved one sick. And I have to tell you, I talked to nurses at Albany Medical Center. People with coronavirus, who are in the hospital are really, really sick, and you don't know the impact that it is going to have on you, no matter what your age. And so, you know, I do believe that we are Americans, we have rights. We have a constitution, we have freedoms, but we also have for one another and should have for one another, mutual respect. And just as I respect people's frustration, I hope that they respect the safety and the dignity of life of the residents here in the city of Albany and engage in what they initially said they were going to engage in which is, let's get in our cars, let's honk our horns. Let's make ourselves heard. But I think part of what we saw last week was went far beyond that. And it was, you know, I hope that it's not something that happens again, I hope that we can do this in a way that is respectful of people's constitutional rights, but also respectful of the rights of the residents of the city of Albany not to see this pandemic worsen.

OK, last thing, mayor, and maybe it's a rhetorical question: did you get a response back from the White House from your letter to President Trump?

I have not, I have not. But again, I want to fight for those frontline workers who have been out there who have been really working ceaselessly and in many cases, heroically through these difficult times. And I want to ensure that we don't have to lay off the very people who have helped us and are helping us to get through this pandemic. There is a pathway here. You know, this isn't hard. This is just facts. This isn't about, you know, a Republican way or a Democratic way. This is about Americans coming together and helping one another and ensuring that we're able to get through this together.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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