On the air, Jennings backs borrowing plan, trades words with Commisso

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, March 31, 2012

ALBANY -- Mayor Jerry Jennings invoked the dual spectres of layoffs and fiscal crisis as he seized the pulpit of his Friday morning radio show to pressure recalcitrant city lawmakers to support two bonding measures crucial to the Rapp Road landfill's future.

"Our council members have to think a little bit more maturely than some of them are thinking," Jennings told listeners on Talk 1300. "I expect them to support us."

His remarks -- as well as a wide-ranging defense of the plan to borrow an additional $9.3 million to fund the landfill's expansion and a related environmental restoration -- came in response to a defiant vote by the Common Council's finance committee on Wednesday when lawmakers declined in 3-2 vote to recommend that their colleagues approve the two bonds this Monday night.

Jennings called the council's obstinacy short-sighted, saying a failure to back the borrowing would force the city to lay off 65 Department of General Services workers and confront the dire financial consequences of losing the cash flow provided by the landfill much sooner.

The fate of those workers became a flash point between Jennings and 15th Ward Councilman Frank Commisso Jr., who has said he is opposed to the bonding until the mayor submits a financial plan to explain how the city is going to pay down the landfill debt once it closes.

That reckoning is currently projected to come in 2021.

After the president of the city's Blue Collar Workers Union Local 1961 called Jennings to say he planned to rally his members on Monday night to support the vote, Commisso phoned in to voice his concerns about the lack of a plan and accused Jennings of threatening the workers' jobs to pressure the council.

"To threaten the DGS workers, the ones who actually live in the city, the ones who actually pay for their health care ... " Commisso said before the mayor cut him off.

Jennings, pushing back, accused Commisso of using the landfill bonding as leverage for another one of his pet issues: reining in the costs of retired police officers' and firefighters' health care benefits by requiring those retirees to contribute toward the premiums.

Commisso has fought for that -- despite fierce union opposition -- over the last two years only to be stifled, he believes, by colleagues and an administration deferential to the unions.

As part of that push, Commisso has argued that it's unfair that the city's blue collar workers, who often make much less than their uniformed counterparts, are required to pay for parts of their health care while working for the city and in retirement.

In leading the opposition to the bonding Wednesday night, Commisso acknowledged the landfill is part of the city's future. But he urged his colleagues to seize the vote as the council's last bit of leverage to force Jennings to present a plan for how the city will handle the landfill's debt when it's closed and can't produce some $11 million a year to fund the city.

"Don't use this as a lever because of your dislike to what the firemen and the cops are getting," Jennings chided Commisso, who along with the council's 14 other members is a Democrat.

"We're not threatening them. It's a fact of life," Jennings said of the DGS workers before delivering one parting shot to Commisso and others on the council who have repeatedly questioned the city's handling of the landfill.

"What am I going to do, lay you guys off on the council?" Jennings asked. "I'd like to."

Meanwhile Friday, city Treasurer Kathy Sheehan said she believes "from a financial standpoint" the city would be better off borrowing because a failure to do could cause the landfill to shut down next year, leaving the city with no revenue to pay down its debt.

"The situation is made worse if it's not allowed to be completed so there's absolutely no way to recoup the costs that have been incurred in that part of the expansion," Sheehan said, adding, however, that the city must become disciplined about not incurring more debt on the facility while also committing itself to aggressively paying down the existing bonds, even if it means harder budget decisions.

The council has agreed to shorten the length of the borrowing to no more than 10 years, roughly the life that would be left on the landfill itself.

"In my view, this should be the last year that we bond. Everything else should be paid for out of operating revenue," Sheehan said. "At the end of the day, we're either going to have to make difficult decisions today or catastrophic decisions down the road. The problem is not going to go away."

The bonding ordinances will need a super majority of 10 votes to pass. - 518-454-5445 - @JCEvangelist_TU