Churchill: Budget woes? Albany should look in mirror

| Times Union

The city’s annual beg-a-thon is in high gear, and Mayor Sheehan is looking for help.

Listen up, suburbanites. Sheehan, arguing that Albany’s fiscal health is of regional importance, hopes you’ll also aid the campaign for $12.5 million in state money by calling Gov. Cuomo and leaders in the Legislature and telling them how much you care.

But before you grab your phone, let’s pause to weigh how much sympathy the city really deserves. Is it a victim of circumstances? Or is Albany, which paid 123 employees more than $100,000 last year, to blame for its predicament?

To listen to Sheehan and some others, New York’s capital is being victimized.

The city has too much tax-exempt land to support what its population requires, they say. The state’s massive workforce requires services but doesn’t pay for them. New York doesn’t give the city a fair amount of annual state aid.

There’s truth to each of those claims.

Albany does have a lot of tax-exempt land. Many state workers pay property taxes elsewhere. And the $129 in per-capita aid Albany receives is dwarfed by the $617 and $419 that Buffalo and Rochester get, respectively.

Yet there are flaws with the Albany-as-victim narrative, given that state government is also a tremendous benefit — a boon no other New York city can claim.

“Albany without state government is Utica,” says E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “It’s not even Schenectady or Troy. It’s Utica.”

If you’ve been to Utica, you know that’s no compliment.

The crux of the argument is property values. You see, the per-capita value of the tax base in Albany — $44,387 — is higher than in most upstate cities, according to data compiled by the Empire Center.

In Buffalo, it’s $25,382.

It’s $22,900 in poor Utica.

What that means, essentially, is that a building is worth more and pays more taxes if it’s in Albany rather than most cities upstate. The presence of state government explains why.

That Albany is the capital is therefore a gift to its coffers, not a detriment, and a reason the city doesn’t need as much state aid as others.

A quick caveat: Upstate cities are generally in miserable shape. So noting that Albany’s taxable value is high among upstate cities is like calling it the tallest leprechaun near a rainbow.

Not much of an honor, really.

Still, given its upstate context, Albany is fortunate — and that’s before we begin noting the $15 million it gets from the state each year for Empire State Plaza, the other economic benefits of state workers or the $78 million New York is bestowing on the city for a convention center.

McMahon said the most pressing problem is that Albany — prepare to be shocked — spends too much, particularly on employees and benefits. It also has a two-tier tax structure that is especially cruel to commercial properties, forcing development to suburbs like Colonie.

McMahon said nobody articulates those issues better than Sheehan. Yet she hasn’t done enough to address them, he says, because like every other mayor hoping to be re-elected, she has avoided politically painful decisions.

That’s hard to argue. Sheehan calls the budget troubles “a crisis,” but hasn’t acted with the urgency a real crisis demands.

How is it that the city initiated a hiring freeze just this month and only after learning the $12.5 million wasn’t in Cuomo’s budget amendments? Why did Sheehan’s budget include raises for staff?

And why-oh-why did Sheehan back the school district’s plan for one of the most expensive high schools ever to be built nationally?

“A mayor has to be willing to break eggs and upset old friends,” McMahon said. “In an overtaxed small city whose independent school district generates close to two-thirds of the tax burden, it’s surprising when a mayor is not in conflict with a school board — especially when the board seems to have an edifice complex.”

On Friday, City Hall sent me a list — I’ll post it to my Facebook page — of the mostly smaller ways the administration has managed to cut spending or generate revenue. It also said the number of city employees has dropped from 1,282 to 1,241 during Sheehan’s tenure.

I hate to say it, but the police department might be a place for additional savings.

Only 10 cities nationally have more police employees per-capita, according to Governing magazine. And no upstate city spends more per-capita on police, according to the Empire Center. (Acting Police Chief Robert Sears told me per-capita statistics are a flawed measurement.)

The point here isn’t that Albany shouldn’t get the $12.5 million. At this stage, the resulting budget hole would induce too much pain too quickly.

But if you are looking to make calls on behalf of a perceived victim, I’d choose one that has been more willing to help itself.

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