With the Albany mayoral Democratic primary date approaching on Sept. 12, the candidates vying for the ballot line met for their second debate. The questions to candidates largely focused on quality of life issues, such as trash pickup, transportation and city blight caused by abandoned properties. Both Common Council member Frank Commisso Jr. and Council President Carolyn McLaughlin made their case to voters, though recent polling has shown the incumbent, Mayor Kathy Sheehan, with a sizeable lead.
Here are the top quotes from the debate. The full debate can be watched here.
Commisso, responding to a question about relieving tax burdens on residents, said:
“There is a great level of dissatisfaction in upstate New York, specifically in Albany, as it relates to our property tax system and there’s a host of ways we can begin to address that. One is from an economic development perspective. There is a public appetite that I certainly would feel very strongly about which is that we have to end the policy of local corporate welfare in the city of Albany. You have developers of luxury housing that have been coming in for a number of years and they will not be paying taxes for decades and that’s taxes not paid to the school districts of Albany County or our library branches.”
In response to Commisso’s criticism, Sheehan responded:
“I want to address that because that’s a statement that Councilman Commisso has made a number of times and I just want to reiterate every one of the developments in the city of Albany have resulted in more money for the city and the school district than had the project not been done and all the projects paid a library tax, so while they pay a payment in lieu of taxes, they are paying taxes.”
While defending the city’s efforts to crackdown on code violations in buildings and city blight, Sheehan took a shot at Commisso for voting no on the last three budgets:
“I was successful in getting the [state] attorney general to fund a position of neighborhood revitalization specialist whose job it is to focus specifically on vacant buildings and abandoned buildings, the buildings with the red ‘Xs,’ and determine how we are going to take those property owners and hold them accountable. We also are stepping up with respect to how we are using codes court and bringing in a paralegal which was supported by the council, however I believe Councilman Commisso voted against the budget, but a position that was supported in the codes department so that we have stronger codes cases and get the property owners into court and accountable.”
In response, Commisso said:
“I voted against the last three budgets for the city of Albany because they contained massive structural deficits, which are similar to the one we will face next year, which will be over $20 million and I would like to avoid having decisions where we take our most vulnerable citizens and punish them through the budget process.”
When asked about how the city could better use data to confront budget issues, Commisso responded:
“As I mentioned before, we have a budget deficit of over $20 million next year and that is of great concern to me and I think a great concern to taxpayers here in the city and certainly to our employees and to get ourselves out of that hole we need to do a few things. First we need a multi-year financial plan. It’s something that’s been talked about for years and it’s never happened here. Additionally, I think we need to have sound revenue projections. Just a few years ago, we had $1.9 million in red light [traffic cameras] revenue put into the budget and that is something that very much led to our credit downgrading.”
When answering the same question, McLaughlin sought to distinguish herself from her opponents:
“Data collection is important and helps you make informed decisions, but ultimately when those decisions are made they have to be made from a perspective that puts people first and I think that’s one thing that distinguishes me from my opponents. It is about data, it is about numbers for them, but it’s about people for me and we have made so many decisions in the city of Albany that have just been driven by data, but have had a negative impact on the lives of people.”
When asked if he supports state troopers accompanying Albany police on ridealongs, Commisso made the argument against state control and said:
“We do need to be cognizant as well that these state troopers that are here are here because we do not have independence from New York State. Effectively, we have managed our finances so poorly for the last several years that we cannot stand up to the governor, to New York State when we feel they aren’t making a decision that are in our best interest.
McLaughlin was asked about Albany’s troubled history with political dynasties and explained her support for term limits:
“Yes, I do. I do support term limits, because I think you do … it doesn’t support us in the long-term in that you get comfortable and believe that what they’re doing is the right way as long as it’s working for them, but it’s not working for the people – it really doesn’t matter. It’s working to keep them in office and that’s it, so I would be an advocate for term limits for council members as well as the mayor.”
Commisso also addressed the issue of term limits, albeit more delicately given his family’s long, powerful history in local government:
“One of the things we talked about at the beginning of the race was the need for charter reform here in the city of Albany and we have a number of items in our charter for the city that make us a very antiquated government. It’s not what’s in the expectations of residents throughout Albany. So, I’m running for mayor after eight years on the Common Council, but I do know we need charter reform for this city and that would include real budgetary powers for the Common Council, which right now it’s effectively not the case, having the Common Council have a role in the budget amendment process. One of the biggest problems we’ve had in city government in that we would have so many Common Council members not have knowledge of the budget and the budget process. Term limits are something that I hope voters can term limit and they have the choice of who to term limit, but for me a two-term limit [supported by the two other candidates] would not be a problem for me.”
Commisso also addressed the Siena poll that found Sheehan with a sizeable lead:
“What I do know I’ve been walking out door-to-door and we’ve been talking to many city employees and their families who feel they do not have a voice in their workplace and I’m glad to have the support of all these blue-collar workers in this race and it’s notable that many of those employees and their families are not supporting the incumbent mayor. In Albany’s political history this has never happened. That you’ve never had the city employees not support the incumbent.”