Category Archives: Power

It’s time for an Independent Republican Conference

The New York State Senate will look a little different next year. Democrats will keep the majority, but Upstate will play a bigger role in that conference after key wins in Buffalo, Rochester, and another potential pickup in Syracuse. That’s got people asking whether there’s a way for Upstate to advocate for itself more effectively in Albany. There is: Upstate Republican State Senators need to form an Independent Republican Conference and caucus with the Democrats.

Republican State Senators are already familiar with the logic of this idea. From 2013-14 and 2015-16, they were this close to having a majority in the State Senate. They couldn’t control the chamber all on their own, so they allied with a few broad-minded Democrats (the Independent Democratic Conference) who were willing to provide the necessary votes to get over that important threshold in exchange for special favors and privileges.

Now the shoe’s on the other foot. There are still a lot of votes left to be counted, but it looks like progressive victories in a few key Upstate districts have will bring the Democrats this close to having a supermajority in the State Senate. With just a few extra votes, they (and the Assembly’s Democratic supermajority) could override the Governor’s veto and actually do the work that New Yorkers are calling on them to do. As it stands though, the Governor has the power to block a lot of that necessary legislation with a simple veto.

Even with their diminished numbers, there are enough Upstate Republican State Senators to provide that supermajority and override that veto. If they caucus with the Democrats and provide the crucial votes to reach that threshold, the legislature will be able to pass the laws that New York State needs without interference from the Governor.

And if those Republicans make it explicit that they’re providing their votes as Upstaters, they’ll be in a great position to secure all kinds of investment and legislation to meet Upstate’s specific regional needs: rural and urban broadband, high-speed rail, investment in the NYS Canals as a flood control system, enhanced public transportation for Upstate’s many small and mid-sized cities, residency requirements for police… the list goes on.

So there’s something to all of this talk about bipartisanship and Upstate’s growing political power. The best way to really act on it is for Upstate Republican State Senators to form an Independent Republican Conference, caucus with the Democrats, and provide the necessary votes to override the Governor’s veto in exchange for legislation that benefits Upstate.

National Elections are Local Too

The City of Syracuse is governed by City Hall, Onondaga County, New York State, and the Federal Government. Each level of government has jurisdiction here, and each one owes a responsibility to this community that goes beyond their duty to its residents as individual voters. National elections are local elections too.


Syracuse’s population loss is such a mammoth problem and is the result of so many different factors that it’s often hard to pin on any one cause, but if the 2020 Census declares that fewer than 145,270 people live in the City, it will be Donald Trump’s fault.

First, because he intentionally sabotaged the census count in a transparent effort to deny places like Syracuse the federal funding and political representation that they deserve.

Second—and more importantly—because this racist, xenophobic President and his congressional enablers have made it almost impossible to immigrate to America. For more than 200 years, Syracuse has grown and prospered because people have moved here from somewhere else. For the last 20 years, those people have been moving here from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan. Keeping people from coming to America is keeping them from coming to Syracuse, and it’s killing the City.


Coronavirus destroyed the local economy, and—because local governments fund themselves with a direct tax on local economic activity—it has destroyed City Hall’s and Onondaga County’s municipal budgets. The Federal Government at least tried to help the economy, but—for purely ideological reasons—it has ignored local governments. Congressional Republicans—including Syracuse’s representative, John Katko—are denying City Hall the relief that it so obviously needs.

This is an ongoing disaster for Syracuse. It’s crippled the city libraries (but not the suburban ones), it closed the pools during a record-breaking heatwave, it’s making it even harder and more dangerous to walk anywhere in a town where more than 1 in 4 families don’t own a car.


I could go on. There are so many ways that local issues depend primarily on the action of the Federal Government, and so if you care about this community you have to care about national politics too. Syracuse depends on it.

There’s more than one kind of police misconduct

The Syracuse Police Department’s misconduct takes many forms. This week we learned that the SPD wasted a bunch of public money by mismanaging staff scheduling early in the coronavirus pandemic, and we learned that the DA’s office finally dropped charges against the innocent man that SPD had coerced into confessing to a crime that he didn’t commit.

Fiscal irresponsibility matters. City Hall can’t afford to pay for all of the public services that Syracuse needs, so when SPD wastes money like that, they’re necessarily taking a necessary public service from someone who needs it. And, since 95% of officers live in the suburbs, every dollar spent on SPD’s payroll is a direct transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

It also matters that SPD is locking up innocent people while murderers go free. Someone killed Charles Jones. It’s SPD’s job to find out who. Instead, they picked up the first black man that they found, Robert Adams, and got him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. He spent 8 months in jail. This is the exact opposite of justice.

These are two different problems—fixing one won’t necessarily fix the other. City Hall is very concerned with the first problem because it’s connected to the municipal budget. So they’ve taken concrete steps to rein in police overtime, to get cops to live in the City.

The trap here is thinking that fixing SPD’s money problems or getting officers to live in the City will make law enforcement more just—it won’t. It’s going to take a different set of actions to enforce laws fairly in Syracuse—demilitarizing the police, reducing their interactions with the public, treating mental health and addiction as the medical problems that they are. And we haven’t seen City Hall take any concrete steps to make any of that happen.

So as City Hall pursues police reform, keep in mind all of the different ways that SPD needs reforming. Yes, the police department needs to be a better steward of public money. And yes, its payroll should help build wealth in City neighborhoods. But it’s also true that the SPD needs to change its entire approach to policing if law enforcement is really going to make Syracuse a safer better place, and no amount of budget trimming or personnel policies can make that happen all on their own.

Sidewalks: Necessity or Amenity?

How can City Hall say that it’s preserving municipal services that “impact public health and safety” at the same time that it’s cutting the sidewalk plowing program? On the face of it, this makes absolutely no sense. Leaving snow on the sidewalks pushes pedestrians into the way of oversized vehicles that predictably kill and maim unprotected human bodies. Clearly, clearing the sidewalks has a positive impact on public health and safety.

And it makes even less sense when you know that City Hall has left its car-lane plowing program intact. So even my tiny redundant street will get plowed before the sidewalks on Geddes, even though way more people walk on those sidewalks than drive on my street.

The only way this can make sense is if City Hall doesn’t think people really need to use the sidewalks as much as they need to drive cars. If sidewalks are for recreation, maybe, a good way to ‘get your steps in,’ but not for the real business of transportation. If that’s true, then the people walking with cars on slick streets in winter are taking an unnecessary risk, and City Hall can’t take responsibility for that.

That’s probably a pretty good description of how City Hall’s leaders use sidewalks, but it doesn’t apply to the City at large. More than a quarter or all Syracuse households do not own even one single motor vehicle. Syracuse ranks 12th nationally for highest pedestrian commute share. The Syracuse urban ranks 55th nationally for per capita transit use. People use the sidewalks because they have to, and in the winter people walk in the street because City Hall pushes them there.

And so—like libraries, pools, and bike lanes—sidewalk maintenance gets treated like an ‘amenity’ because the people who control it have insulated themselves from the conditions that make that service a necessity for tens of thousands of people living in the City. That’s how City Hall can cut its plowing program and still pretend that it’s preserved all of the services that people ‘really need.’

What the State can do to reform policing in Syracuse

Despite all of the pressure that protesters have put on City Hall, it’s the New York State Legislature that’s really been pushing police reform in Syracuse. They acted fast to repeal 50-a and to actually ban chokeholds just days after mass protests demanded those actions in cities across the state. Now, State Senator Rachel May has written a bill that would prohibit the Syracuse PBA specifically from negotiating officer discipline as part of its contract contract with City Hall

These three actions show how the separation of powers between Cities and the State really aren’t all that separate. 50-a was a state law, so there was no way for City Hall to get around it without help from the State Legislature. Chokeholds though, are covered in individual departments’ use-of-force policies, so getting them banned had seemed like a local issue until a state law superseded all local use-of-force policies. But the State doesn’t have to confine itself to passing statewide laws—as Senator May’s bill shows, it’s entirely within the Legislature’s power to pass what are effectively local Syracuse laws from Albany.

So given that the State seems more willing than City Hall to act on police reform, it’s worth asking what else Syracuse should be demanding of its representatives in the State Legislature.

The State Legislature could make the Citizens Review Board more powerful by recreating it as a State entity (like a fiscal control board) with power over local decisions about police officer discipline.

They could pass legislation banning local police departments from using and/or owning military equipment.

They could decriminalize marijuana, seriously impeding local police departments’ ability to perpetuate the racist system of mass incarceration.

They could amend parole laws, making it possible for returning citizens to move back to their old neighborhoods and associate with their old friends without automatically breaking the law just because a broken criminal justice system has criminalized entire communities.

They could repeal the civil service law that forces Syracuse’s City Hall to hire police officers from the suburbs, ending a massive annual transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

There’s all that and a whole lot more that the State Legislature could do to meaningfully reform the system of law enforcement in Syracuse. They can do things that City Hall can’t, and they will do things that City Hall won’t.

A $45 Million Jobs Program for City Residents

Jobs are the number one issue in Syracuse. Good jobs, ones that pay well, ones that don’t require unnecessary credentials, jobs that people can get to whether or not they own a car.

In a real way, the best thing that City Hall could do for the City of Syracuse would be to run a massive jobs program.

The bitter irony is that City Hall does run an enormous jobs program, but it doesn’t do a thing for people living in the City. Every year the Syracuse Police Department spends $45 million dollars to pay more than 400 police officers a generous salary, substantial overtime, and good benefits, and 95% of the people who receive that municipal largesse live in the suburbs.

That money—about a fifth of the municipal budget—should go to employing City residents instead.

That could mean hiring City residents to work in the SPD, but City Hall has been trying to do that for years, and they’ve got nothing to show for it. State law bans City Hall from requiring police officers to live in the City, and persuasion hasn’t worked either. On the one hand, the SPD built such an awful reputation that a lot of people don’t want to work for them. On the other, the sick culture at SPD rejects the City residents who do actually try to become cops.

Much easier would be to take a bunch of money away from the police, eliminate a bunch of police officer positions, and create new positions in other departments to do a lot of the same work—work that shouldn’t ever have been left up to armed officers in the first place. Police are City Hall’s highest paid employees—often making more than $100,000 with overtime—so for each officer fired, City Hall could hire multiple City residents at a salary of $56,000 (the County’s median household income). And since these wouldn’t be police officer positions, City Hall could restrict its hiring to City residents just as it does with civil engineers, paralegals, mechanics, and just about every other position on the municipal payroll. Call them Public Safety Officers, give them official uniforms, and have them report to the Parking Violations Bureau.

Instead of sending cops to stand around at street fairs, hire people from the neighborhood to keep an eye on things. Instead of paying out $750,000 in overtime to have police follow protesters around, pay City residents to do that same work. Instead of having cops sit in their cars looking for Black drivers to harass, hire people to watch the intersections in their own neighborhoods and ticket people for running the stop sign.

A third of the City is poor. People need work. City Hall has the money and the need to employ a lot of them, but instead it’s sending its money out to Camillus and Salina and Manlius. Enough. Fire those suburban police officers and hire City residents to do the same work.

Pools, Police, and Priorities

It is such good news that the pools will open up, that children and families will be able to cool down during this historically hot summer, that kids are getting at least one thing that they’re asking for.

But it is ridiculous that it took a GoFundMe to make it happen. After City Hall announced that they were closing all the pools for lack of money, they found the funds to open two, and then went out to the community to ask for $100,000 to open two more.

And Syracuse responded because this town is full of good people, so it worked out.

But how about at the same time that City Hall was passing the hat so it could open two pools (and at the same time that people are out in the streets calling to defund the police), the Mayor was also talking about increasing SPD’s budget?

City Halls pleads poverty whenever people ask for better municipal services. And they’ve got a valid point—the whole system of taxation, transportation, and education in CNY is set up to rob Syracuse of money so that the suburbs can thrive. City Hall does need more support to provide all the services that the community needs.

But it’s also true that even in 2020, in the middle of a fiscal crisis, City Hall is planning to spend about $250 million dollars, $50 million of that on police, and $6.5 million of that on overtime.

Yusuf Abdul-Qadir shows how much of City Hall’s budget goes to police and how little goes to parks and youth programs

A budget is a moral document. There isn’t enough money to pay for everything Syracuse needs, so City Hall has to make decisions about what matters most. It’s easy to see what City Hall prioritizes by looking at what makes it into the budget and what doesn’t.

So you look at City Hall’s budget, and it’s clear that police are a really big priority, but pools are not. There’s no ‘they’re both important’ there’s no “investing in police and redirecting money to community initiatives shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.” Police are the biggest thing in the budget, and pools aren’t even halfway in it at all. Police are the priority, and pools are not.

And that’s a problem, because it means that City Hall’s priorities are not in line with the community’s. City Hall asked people to pay a voluntary tax in the middle of a recession, and the community came up with $100,000 to open up the pools. So you can bet that if the community was in control of the municipal budget, pools would have been in it, and maybe SPD would only have $6.4 million to spend on overtime.

That’s what #DefundPolice really means. It’s not about retribution, it’s not about cutting the police budget just to put cops in a hard spot. It’s about the fact that the City has higher priorities than the SPD. It’s about how when City Hall spends a fifth of the public money on armed officers and incarceration, it necessarily neglects other programs and services that would do more to make the community safer. It’s about how giving kids a safe place to cool off in a historically hot summer is a genuine public service—a service that makes Syracuse safer by making it happier. Let’s make that a priority.

Abolish the Sales Tax

Sales taxes are no way to fund a government. They create all kinds of weird incentives that make City Hall do all kinds of weird things, and—as the current crisis shows—they leave local government helpless just when we need it the most.

Local governments like sales taxes because they’re easy to charge on non-voters. That was the basic rationale for the Destiny USA deal: we got Bob Congel to build something big by agreeing not to charge taxes on him—an influential donor—but the City and County would be fine so long as Pennsylvanians and Canadians paid enough sales taxes at the mall to make up for that lost property tax revenue.

Or remember the 2014 plan to build a new stadium for SU at Washington and University on the land that Cor got when they demolished Kennedy Square? Even though SU doesn’t pay property taxes, that stadium was supposed to generate government revenue by bringing more out of towners into the County and getting sales taxes off their ticket purchases. “Sports tourism” they called it. When that project fell through, the County came up with the Onondaga Lake Amphitheater and justified it with similar logic.

All these schemes attempt to fund local government with tax dollars collected from people who can’t vote here. This requires local government to cater to people from somewhere else, to create ‘experiences’ or whatever that get them to lose a little money while they pass on through.

And that’s a hard pill for a town like Syracuse to swallow. This isn’t a resort town that’s grown up around the idea of showing people a good time while they’re on vacation. Syracuse is, and has always been, a city for workers—a city for the people who live here. It can still be that and make money off of tourism, but that’s a difficult balance to strike, especially when City Hall has a direct fiscal interest in tipping the scales towards turning the City into a better place to visit, but less of an incentive in making Syracuse a better place to live.

Then there are the more prosaically weird incentives. How about this: the sale, maintenance, and repair of personal cars accounts for 14% of sales tax revenue in New York State. When sales tax is your main source of revenue, and when 1 in 7 sales tax dollars comes from people spending money on cars, then local government does have a real incentive to encourage more driving and less walking, bike pedaling, and bus riding.

Local government has that incentive, that is, if it doesn’t care about making life better for the people who elect it. Car dealerships are a nuisance, cars can bankrupt families, and ubiquitous car-ownership means too many tax-sapping city-killing parking lots—a bunch of little facts that all point to the bigger fact that City Hall should be doing everything it can to make life easier for people who don’t own cars. But when your next year’s budget relies on sales taxes generated by car dealers, gas stations, and auto shops, it’s too easy for City Hall to lose sight of that greater good.

Overreliance on sales taxes means that City Hall has greater fiscal interest in the grey asphalt of car dealerships and highway interchanges than it does in green neighborhoods like Park Avenue

And finally, this economic crisis—like every other one that came before it—shows just how insane it is to fund a government with sales taxes since the government is most needed at the very times when people stop buying stuff. Onondaga County is spending huge amounts of money on Coronavirus testing. Centro is transporting essential healthcare workers to the hospitals while also voluntarily forgoing all fare revenue in order to protect its bus operators from infection, and it needed a federal bailout to keep going. Syracuse needs libraries and community centers to help people apply for unemployment, find new jobs, and fill out the census now more than ever, but instead OCPL is laying off staff. This is what comes of using a tax on consumer spending to fund the very services that become most necessary when people don’t have any money to spend.

I don’t know what the better option is. Income tax, payroll tax, land tax, making non-profits pay property tax? There are probably good practical and theoretical reasons to oppose all of them too. But here’s what I do know: sales taxes are bad. They make Onondaga County and Syracuse City Hall do weird things, they get in the way of making the City a better place to live, they all dried up right now exactly when people need local government the most. Can we please try something else.

Judging the Mayor’s Next Two Years

Ben Walsh just announced that he’s going to run for reelection in 2021. That gives the Mayor two years to convince you to vote for him. Here are four things to watch over that time to help inform your decision.

Sidewalks

It wasn’t a big deal when Ben-Walsh-the-candidate said he’d do something about Syracuse’s snow-covered sidewalks. Everyone knows it’s a problem, everyone wants it fixed, but no one has ever been able to make it happen.

So it was a big deal when Ben-Walsh-the-mayor actually rolled out a sidewalk plowing program in his first winter in office. That pilot program was small, but it was more than any other mayor had done, and year later City Hall doubled the size of the program.

But that pilot program pales in comparison to the Mayor’s most recent sidewalk proposal. In his 2020 State of the City, Mayor Walsh promised to plow all the City’s sidewalks and he promised to actually keep them in good repair. This would be a very very big deal, and we’ll see if the Mayor can make it happen before he runs for reelection.

Centro

Similarly, Ben-Walsh-the-candidate’s vague support for public transportation was hard to take very seriously—everybody says they like the bus, but very few politicians actually do anything to make the service better—but a City where people use the sidewalks also has to be a City where people ride the bus because Syracuse is too big for people to be able to walk everywhere worth going.

Mayor-elect Walsh’s transition team made his support for Centro a little more specific. They endorsed SMTC’s SMART1 plan, and they prioritized better service on the Eastside.

But we haven’t heard anything about the Mayor’s plans for Centro since then. For too long, Syracuse’s City Hall has pled poverty when the City’s people have demanded better bus service. That’s left public transportation to the County and the State, and both are failing City residents. It’s time for the Mayor to make Centro a priority and bring better bus service to Syracuse.

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I81

Ben Walsh’s stance on I81 is the best example of his political approach. He turned this City-Suburb wedge issue on its head by arguing forcefully and credibly that the Grid plan was the best for the entire County. Contrast that idealistic appeal for consensus with the cynical ‘compromise’ floated by the Grid’s opponents: a tunnel that would recreate all the viaduct’s worst problems at twice the cost.

Walsh’s commitment to doing the smart thing on I81 paid off. Since he claimed that space in the debate, County Executive Ryan McMahon has remained neutral and Governor Andrew Cuomo has released a DEIS that supports the Grid.

But now we’ve gone back into limbo waiting for the final EIS and Record of Decision. In the meantime, the Grid plan has morphed into a highway widening project, and other interests have started making claims on the money that should go towards mitigating the  project’s impacts on City residents.

Before Mayor Walsh’s term is out, this process needs to end. We need final word that the viaduct is coming down, and we need to know that the project will actually benefit people in the City by bringing construction jobs in, getting smog out, and making it easier for people to actually get around.

Blueprint 15

I81 is about way more than what to do with the viaduct—it’s also going to mean big changes for the neighborhoods that surround the highway. It won’t be worth the effort to tear down the viaduct if we don’t end up with a healthier, better housed, more integrated City.

Blueprint 15 is Mayor Walsh’s plan to make that dream a reality. The plan would demolish Pioneer Homes and Central Village, it would replace them with all new mixed-income housing, it would bring businesses and community services into the neighborhood, it would improve MLK Elementary, and it would put more people within walking distance of the region’s two main job centers.

That initial proposal had all the right words, but all the wrong numbers. Tearing down 1000 old affordable apartments in order to build 700 new ones and 700 new market-rate apartments is the definition of displacement. There’s no need to do that, especially when there’s plenty of room in the project area to build more homes. Before we actually get around to tearing down the viaduct, Mayor Walsh’s Blueprint 15 plan needs to change.

Ben Walsh has made a lot of his first two years as Syracuse’s mayor. He’ll need to do just as much and more over the next two if he’s going to earn a second term. These are four of the biggest things to watch to judge for yourself whether he should get your vote.

Congressman Katko’s Letters

When the Trump administration tries to harm Upstate New York, John Katko writes a letter about it. That’s what he did last week after Sonny Perdue announced a plan to take away people’s food stamps. The Congressman wrote a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture asking that “we don’t make people food insecure as a result of this.”

We’ve seen this one before. For three years the Trump administration has been making it harder for refugees to come to America. That’s bad for Upstate New York where new immigrants have been a blessing for so many struggling cities and towns over the last two decades. So Congressman Katko has written and co-signed letters about it, asking a man who campaigned for the presidency on xenophobia to abandon his signature policy and instead “uphold our nation’s commitment to assist individuals who have been displaced by violence and strife.”

None of those letters worked, and this one probably won’t either. Republicans have been trying all kinds of different ways to cut food stamps for years—from administrative tricks like getting rid of the software that allows people to use food stamps at farmers markets, to direct legislative action in the Farm Bill. This is a core value for them, and just writing letters about it isn’t going to change that.

For now we’re stuck hoping that John Katko writes persuasively enough to change Sonny Perdue’s mind. Stuck hoping that it’s not just another purely symbolic gesture designed to save the Congressman face while his party—led by a man whose stated position on Upstate New York is that people should leave it—weaponizes domestic policy to depopulate our communities.

But 2020 is an election year, so we won’t be stuck with that thin hope for long. Come November we can vote them all out and get a federal government and a local representative willing and able to exercise real power—to do more than write letters—to benefit Upstate New York.