Category Archives: Power

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.

Affordable Housing and the City Line

Matthew Paulus, one of several developers with plans to build new housing at the eastern edge of Downtown, is trying to get goodwill and tax breaks by putting ‘affordable’ apartments in his newest project, but the rents don’t match the rhetoric—tenants will pay $1,050 a month, not including utilities. This is clearly not a good faith effort to engage with poverty or housing as those crises actually exist in the City, and it shows the need for City Hall to take a more active role in securing meaningfully affordable housing in Syracuse.

It takes some slick thinking to claim that $1,050 is an affordable rent in a city this poor. The first step is to side-step the City by talking about the Syracuse Area. Median household income in Onondaga County is about $55,000. These apartments are supposed to be affordable for households making “no greater than 80%” of that number, so $44,000. ‘Affordable’ housing shouldn’t take up more than 30% of a family’s income, so a family making $44,000 a year could ‘afford’ pay as much as $1,100 a month in rent.

But if Paulus ran those same calculations with the City’s median household income (about $35,000) instead of the County’s, then he’d get a definition of ‘affordable’ that would require him to set the monthly rent at something more like $650—that sounds a lot more like what someone might expect to pay live in Syracuse. Paulus can only claim that $1,050 a month is ‘affordable’ if he ignores the stark disparity between the economic situation on either side of the City line.

So the City line disappeared when Paulus was figuring out what is means for one of his apartments to be ‘affordable,’ but it will snap back into focus if he gets the tax breaks he’s asking for. If SIDA grants them, then that municipal boundary will shield suburban schools from the cost of that lost tax revenue, and it will put that burden on City kids.

City Hall has the power to flip this dynamic on its head and make the City line work for people living in the City. Developers want to build in Syracuse after all, and the Common Council has the power to enact affordable housing legislation that could apply to any development in Syracuse. City Hall also has control over permitting, zoning, tax assessments, and SIDA—an entire regulatory apparatus that can determine the success of failure of any given development. Syracuse’s government needs to use all of these tools to make sure that new housing is affordable in a way that really means something to the people living in the City now.

There’s going to be a lot of new housing built in the next few years. Developers, non-profits, and state and local governments are all looking to rebuild the eastern and southern edges of Downtown once I81 comes down. They’re all going to pay lip service to ‘affordability’ and ‘inclusion,’ but, if this project is any indication, it will just be empty talk. That’s not good enough. We need to be clear about what words like ‘affordable’ really mean for people living in Syracuse, and we need a City Hall willing to use its power to enforce those definitions and secure a better future for the entire City.

Transit is not a Tool of Social Control

At its best, public transportation expands access to opportunity, but recent local examples show how it can also be used to do the exact opposite. Instead of creating a transit system that gives its riders more choices, options, and freedom, people with power have tried to use transit as a tool of social control.

Take the video that just came out of kids fighting at the Hub. After it made the news, Centro CEO Rick Lee promised to “put and end to this.” His simplest option is to run more buses. All those kids end up stuck at the Hub at the same time because they all have to wait a pretty long time between each run. If buses left the Hub more often, fewer kids would be there at any given time, and they wouldn’t have to waste so much time just waiting around bored.

And this wouldn’t just solve the ‘problem’ of having so many high school students at the Hub at any time—it would actually make the bus work better for those students and for everybody else who rides it.

But that’s not what anybody’s talking about doing. Instead, Centro is looking to run buses directly to the schools without ever going through the Hub. Never mind that this would cut students off from the rest of Centro’s network and limit their opportunities to work, participate in community activities, or access childcare after school. Concerns like that don’t matter when what you really want is to use the buses to make kids behave.

Or look at the perennial problem of the spatial mismatch—the fact that many employers looking to hire are only accessible by car while many people looking to work don’t own cars.

The most obvious solution is to run better bus service. In the short run, that’d make more jobs accessible by bus. In the long run, it would build Centro’s ridership and attract more employers to the places with the best bus service where they’d be accessible to all those potential bus-riding customers and employees.

The County could also use its economic development powers to encourage employers to locate along bus lines or within walking distance of communities with low rates of car ownership.

Instead, Onondaga County came up with a plan to subsidize Lyft rides for people who find work through a specific employment agency, don’t have access to a car, and can’t get to their jobs on the bus. The workers themselves will have no control over their rides—the employment agency “will monitor employees’ work schedules and pay Lyft each month for the transportation.” Eventually the County hopes that employers themselves will pay Lyft directly, giving managers direct control over workers’ transportation to and from work.

That will give employers just one more piece of leverage over their workers, one more pressure point to press, one more method of exploitation. But of course none of that matters when you think, like a manager, that workers should just be happy to have any job at all and you can’t imagine how it would be a good thing for them to have the ability to travel to places other than the worksite at sometime other than the beginning of the shift.

The proposed solutions in both cases use transportation to constrain people’s choices so that they do what they’re supposed to and nothing else. Students are supposed to just go directly home at the end of the school day—they’re not supposed to hang out somewhere they could get into trouble. Workers are supposed to just travel between their homes and their current jobs—they’re not supposed to have the opportunity to travel to some other job that might offer better pay or working conditions.

Transit should do the exact opposite. It should expand people’s choices. It should give them the ability to go where they want when they want. It should make people more free.

Working with Students for a Better City

University students and people living in Syracuse long-term face a lot of the same problems and should be natural political allies, but some structural barriers keep them from working together to make the City a better place to live.

Take this garbage pickup proposal. City Hall collects trash from small residential properties but not from big apartment buildings. Right now, the cut-off between ‘small’ and ‘big’ is 10 apartments—they’ll pick up the trash from a 10-unit buildings but not from an 11-unit building. City Hall was talking about moving that cut-off to 4 apartments—any building with 4 or fewer units would still get free trash pickup, but now buildings with between 5 and 10 units would need to pay a private company to haul away their trash.

It’s pretty obvious that the result of this would have been to raise the rents on people living in buildings with between 5 and 10 apartments. Contracting out trash pickup would have cost those buildings’ owners money, and landlords would have passed that cost along to their tenants in the form of higher rents.

You can find those buildings (outlined in red) in most parts of the City, but they’re concentrated in Syracuse’s poorest neighborhoods (mapped in yellow). On the face of it, this is a bad policy that would take money out of the pockets of the people who can least afford it.

 

But a lot of people will look at this map, see that a lot of the affected properties are on University Hill and say something like ‘well that’s student housing, they’re not really poor, they can afford it, screw them.’

A lot of students, if they even ever see this map, will probably ignore it.

Both responses are short sighted. Students really are affected by what happens in the City—this law really would have raised their rent—and for that very reason, they are potential allies in the fight for a better Syracuse. 

But there are structural obstacles that stand in the way of that alliance. The most obvious is students’ transiency. Say this change to garbage pickup had gone through, and several thousand people ended up paying more in rent. Give it a few years, and no university students will be around who would remember the change. Longer term residents can help students understand the small histories, like this one, that have shaped Syracuse over decades.

Another obstacle is the University’s ability to do for students what government should do for everybody. A lot of the time it’s easier for students to get the University to fix a problem than to go through local government—that’s how Syracuse has ended up with parallel segregated quasi-public services like the University’s transit system and police force. These services are insufficient, though, and ultimately fail to protect students from the same threats that people face throughout the rest of the City everyday. Students can improve their own lives by working with the rest of Syracuse to advocate for the kinds of positive change that the entire City needs.

Syracuse’s problems affect every single person living in the City. They are the result of an inequitable distribution of power that can only exist when the people most affected by those problems are kept from working together to solve them. So people in Syracuse hate on students, students ignore people in Syracuse, and both groups continue to face the same pressures day in and day out. If they organized together, they would have the power to make the entire City a better place to live.

Tourism’s Trap

The Reimagine the Canals Initiative—a statewide brainstorming session that asks ‘how can we make more money off the Erie Canal?’—threatens to reduce one of Upstate’s most valuable pieces of infrastructure into a tourist attraction.

The initiative follows last year’s Reimagine the Canals Competition. The judges of that competition thought that the Canal was most useful as a site for waterfront development and beer festivals. It also follows the Governor’s other big ideas for Upstate communities like Syracuse: amphitheaters, gondolas, year-round fairs—all schemes to attract tourists.

Tourism is a seductive economic development strategy. It could work literally anywhere, it gets out-of-towners to pay local sales and hotel taxes, and it flatters consultants and politicians from outside of the community by assuming that a place like Syracuse would be better off if it would just cater to their upper-class tastes.

But the Erie Canal isn’t just sitting there, useless, waiting for us to reimagine a reason that tourists might want to visit it. The Canal is a statewide flood control system. It’s necessary to the survival of dozens of Upstate villages, towns, and cities, and it will become even more necessary as climate change makes the flooding up here more frequent and more destructive.

The people who actually run the Canal understand this. Thankfully, they’re at least getting the initiative’s leaders to consider flood mitigation, irrigation, and environmental remediation alongside the flashier tourism proposals. Help them out by telling the Initiative that you value the Canal for what it actually does for the state. You can submit your comments at this link.

An Ugly Idea

Ever since NYSDOT came out in favor of the Grid, Town of Clay Supervisor Damian Ulatowski has been spreading a real ugly idea around Onondaga County. He’s been telling anyone who will listen that the suburbs’ “voices are not being heard.”

When Ulatowski says that, he doesn’t mean that all the communities along I81 should have a say over what happens to the viaduct—he’s never lifted up voices from Binghamton, Harrisburg, Roanoke, or Knoxville. And he also doesn’t mean that all the different governments in Onondaga County should be working more closely together—he opposed Consensus in 2016. And clearly he doesn’t mean that decisions made in any one community should account for their effects on other communities—he’s never cared one bit how Clay’s sprawl reduces opportunity for people living in the City.

What Ulatowski means when he says “our voices are not being heard” is that the suburbs should have control over what happens in Syracuse. He believes that the City exists for the benefit of the suburbs, and that the people living in Syracuse can only be trusted to make decisions as long as they accept that fact.

It’s an ugly idea—laced with racism and paternalism—and it’s been hiding behind bland words like “compromise” and “cooperation.” We need to call it out. When people living in Manlius say that I81’s future should be decided by public referendum, ask why they think they should get to participate in that vote. When hotel owners in Salina say that the needs of the suburbs outweigh the needs of the City, ask what kind of messed up scale they’re using. When Damian Ulatowski says that his voice isn’t being heard, tell him you can hear him fine, it’s just that he’s not saying anything worth listening to.