PART TWO: Council Majority Leader State of the City Report

Ward 7 Alderman and Majority Leader Bill Reynolds.  Below is his state of the city report read on April 6th, 2010. If you have any thoughts or feedback, please use the Ward 7 Yahoo! Group that Alderman Reynolds is a member of.

Public service is an honor for anyone privileged enough to have been chosen by the voters to represent them.  The aldermen here tonight together in this great room with Alderman-at-Large Noble and officials who work in an appointed capacity have lately been particularly honored by the public to serve, because we were elected in the midst of what many are calling the Great Recession.  The voters chose us to do the hard work for them, and to do the best we can on their behalf.

That is why I am here to tell the people of Kingston that – we hear you.  We understand your fears and concerns.   And we will continue to listen to you because we who sit at these desks every month to make new laws and pass budgets don’t have all the answers.  We need your help and your input to make Kingston a better place.

Times have been tough, for sure, and they will continue to be difficult for the remainder of the year.  We are committed to keeping a sharp eye on the bottom line and to make the best use of taxpayer dollars – and we are prepared to make the tough decisions required to keep living and doing business in Kingston as affordable as possible. We are walking a tightrope for sure – but as long as we remain steady and as long as we keep our heads up, we will make it through this recession.

So, let’s focus on the challenges we face:

We need to rectify the safety net inequity that Kingston shoulders.

We need to continue to hold the line on property taxes and ensure that taxpayers are being assessed equitably. Bearing that in mind, we urge the school district to do the same – a 12 percent school tax increase is unsustainable.

On the heels of the ongoing success of the URGENT task force, we signal our support for the new block-by-block sweep program designed to clean up bad influences that pollute and destroy homes and neighborhoods.

We need to focus on getting our act together now, ahead of an economic upturn, by re-focusing on the basics: cleaning up the city, cracking down on crime and blight, and cutting back on a cost structure that’s outgrown our ability to pay for it.

We must continue to focus on the inequity of our “homestead/non-homestead” tax policy, which is steadily eroding the city’s commercial tax base and private-sector job market.  That being said, the immediate source of distress for many taxpayers has been the property revaluation process that was first conducted in 2008. While serious flaws and inequities were apparent in the results produced so far, this is a problem that can and will be corrected with a new revaluation.

Speaking of inequities, we had to learn quite by accident that Kingston was paying social services costs for people not living in Kingston.  And, while we look forward to the mayor working together with the county administration to be sure the city is reimbursed for lost taxpayer dollars, we remain committed to auditing future claims, and will work together with the city and county comptroller as this process unfolds.

This is terribly important, given the cost – $1.2 million in safety net spending this year, up from $400,000 seven years ago. Not only do we take in the county’s disadvantaged, we take on the entire local portion of the bill.

We remain committed to sustaining an infrastructure that up until recently seemed to be crumbling every week.  And, though we have allocated substantial sums to guard against infrastructure decay, we will continue to be sure our infrastructure meets our basic needs.

Bankruptcy is not an option for Kingston, for a whole host of reasons not the least of which such a move would require state legislative action and, quite frankly, you have to be bankrupt after all to declare bankruptcy. Kingston is still well below its tax and bonding limit, although by no means are we in a position to brag about such a thing.  But to declare bankruptcy, as I have said publicly, would be equal to raising the white flag.

That said, the financial situation we face remains serious. Correcting it will depend on how we approach labor contract negotiations.  And while we are pleased two out of three of our unions provided give backs for the 2010 year, we may still need to work with them to be sure we’ll be able to provide required services to the people while holding the line on taxes as we work to assemble a 2011 budget. The mayor has indicated he will include members of the Common Council in discussions and negotiations with the three unions.  That’s the right approach.

Some of the things we could look for would include new flexibility in the way departments are staffed and job responsibilities defined, with a particular emphasis on putting more police officers on the street at critical times each day, and cross-training more firefighters to act as building-code enforcement teams during otherwise idle periods.  We will need to look at realistic contributions by employees toward their health-care plans, recognizing that we must work together to reduce costs.  We just received word, for example, that the premium increase for the Empire Plan for 2011 may be more than 13 percent.

This is not a happy or uplifting speech, I know, but there are times that require us to set aside happy talk and speak to stark reality.  That also means making the hard decisions.  When you say you want to cut costs, you have to mean what you say and follow through on your words.  Cutting costs isn’t easy and it isn’t painless.  You have to back up your words with action, otherwise the things you say and the promises you make will sound hollow and broken.

That isn’t to say I’m not optimistic about this city’s future.  I have always and remain very optimistic that Kingston will one day reach its full potential.  When the cost cutting is over, we will need not only to streamline government but aggressively market this city so we can continue to brag about it being one of the top art destinations in the country, as not only one of the more affordable places to live in the region, but a place where several types of architecture:  beginning with stone houses, through all the great design eras – all exist in one place. We need to continue to show the world what sets Kingston apart from so many other places in the region.

We will work together with a vibrant group of citizens organizations such as the nascent Kingston Digital Corridor, KingstonCitizens.org, Friends of Historic Kingston, the Business Association of Kingston, ASK, the Neighborhood Watch group, and KURA just to name a few.  We were happy to listen to and work together with our business groups in establishing the Main Street Manager, embodied by Nancy Donskoj who has done an excellent job showcasing our city’s assets and opportunities.

I am convinced that with the right combination of marketing and a more sensible tax structure we’ll be able to move this economy forward.  We have some way to go for sure, but Kingston has been through tough times before.  We’ll get through the Great Recession and be stronger and smarter when it’s over.

Thank you.

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