CITY NEEDS STATE HELP IN FISCAL CRISIS

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A8

Date: Friday, January 21, 2011

ALBANY -- Barring an infusion of money from the state, Albany will become a "vastly different place" with fewer police officers, fewer firefighters, fewer amenities that residents have come to expect and higher taxes, Mayor Jerry Jennings warned Thursday night, sounding what has become an increasingly familiar alarm in his State of the City speech.


But Jennings also pledged to take the discussion of the city's precarious fiscal situation out of the City Hall atrium and directly to residents, holding public forums in the coming months to solicit ideas on how Albany can cope with the cash shortfalls that have already forced layoffs and painful program cuts this year.


"Without a change in the state's approach to funding Albany, the city's fiscal outlook is bleak," Jennings said, describing a city budget with little flexibility and reserve accounts virtually depleted by this year's $23 million budget gap.


"If significant cuts are to be made, they will come in the area of existing personnel," Jennings said. "If this happens, it will mean closing firehouses, reducing police patrols, eliminating many youth and recreation department programs and cutting DGS services such as free trash pickup and parks maintenance. It also means our city will be a vastly different place."


The way forward mapped by Jennings -- while calling for increased cooperation among neighboring governments and even greater austerity within the city itself -- relies heavily on some sort of enhanced assistance from the state, something Jennings has repeatedly argued New York's capital city is long overdue.


But the landscape for Jennings' plea this year may be different for two key reasons: The presence of Andrew Cuomo, the mayor's longtime friend and ally, in the governor's mansion, and a report the city commissioned this year that systematically outlines how it believes New York state has consistently shortchanged it when it comes to the costs of hosting state government.


Jennings renewed his call for the Legislature to stop the scheduled $7.8 million decline later this year in payments the state makes to Albany as compensation in lieu of taxes on the Empire State Plaza and to revive a plan to privatize the sprawling Harriman State Office Campus while making a similar payment in lieu of taxes to the city until that happens.


Despite the state's own fiscal crisis -- which could result in the layoffs of thousands of state employees, many of them likely city residents -- Jennings nonetheless said he was confident that Cuomo won't ignore the needs of the city outside his office window.


"As HUD secretary, he was instrumental in providing grants for the redevelopment of Arbor Hill and the South End," Jennings said. "His leadership of our state gives me cause for hope because I know he is committed to the continued revitalization and success of our capital city."


That revitalization comprised the high points of the mayor's speech. Jennings, now in his 18th year in office, hailed the tens of millions of dollars of investment that he said has helped transform Arbor Hill, the South End, Park South and downtown.


Jennings also announced a $500,000 commitment to programs aimed at promoting home ownership in targeted areas of the city "and encouraging city staff to own homes where they work."


He also hinted at a soon-to-be-announced partnership with the city school district to keep schools open later and kids off the streets longer and all but promised that a long-awaited bus link between the South End and Albany Medical Center Hospital would come to fruition this year.


While much of his speech focused on the hard choices, Jennings spoke optimistically in public for the first time in months about the prospects the city's convention center -- a project he's long championed -- will be built as part of a downtown transformation.


"I continue to believe," Jennings said, "that a new convention center will be a significant economic development project for the region."


Reach Jordan Carleo-Evangelist at 454-5445 or jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com