Panel Transcript – Can Upstate Cities Save Themselves? (7)



MR. EDMUND J. MCMAHON: We’ve discussed a whole lot of interesting issues this morning, and one that we’ve just touched upon, or just lightly, has been the issue, of course, that’s very important in cities, in particular, is public safety. The cities that have been successful — New York City in particular — at renewing themselves, or being renewed, of course, also are able to accomplish significant reductions in crime, both real and perceived. And that’s another issue that’s certainly worthy of discussion here, and it’s something that, in the context of the broader Upstate city concerns that we’re discussing today, that our next speaker is uniquely qualified to talk about. I’m referring, of course, to Mayor Robert Duffy of Rochester.

Mayor Duffy is Rochester through and through. He’s a native of Rochester. He went to high school at Aquinas High School in Rochester, and in case you can’t tell, he played basketball there. He went to RIT, as well as a sojourn to Syracuse. He joined the Rochester Police Department in 1976, rose through the ranks, became Deputy Chief and then Chief of Police, and then stepped down from that position in 2005 to run for mayor, and he was elected.

He stressed community collaboration and customer service as two of his twin priorities as mayor, and he certainly has his hands full. We’re very interested in hearing from him today and then, if there’s a little time after he’s done, I’ll try to manage a Q&A with him and hopefully we’ll have an interesting discussion. So, without any further ado, thank you very much, here’s Mayor Duffy.

HON. ROBERT J. DUFFY: Thank you, EJ. Good morning, everybody. I’m honored to be here. I am not going to go through a presentation. I know we are very, very tight on time, and I’d like to have some time for questions. But the first thing I would like to address is the title, and “Can Upstate Cities Save Themselves?” And I believe yes, they can. And Rochester being an example of a city that, while we have certainly taken a knee, in the old boxing metaphor, over the years, we have lost 41% of our manufacturing base, we have a school district, currently, with a 39% graduation rate, we’ve had crime and violence problems, a pronounced violence problem in Rochester since the late 1980s, when it began – there’s been an awful lot that has changed. Eastman Kodak, which was the beacon for Rochester, had 65,000 employees back in the 1980s; today it has 12,000. And that gives you a sense of some of the changes and dynamics.

But we are two cities. We are a city that, on one hand, is very affluent, very successful, and beautiful. There’s so much to be proud of in our city. We have reinvented ourselves and our economy in so many different ways. Our University of Rochester is our number one employer today. It has a huge impact. Our university system and our local college presence have played a major factor. The spin-off companies, it’s a very high tech area. I think we have one of the highest numbers of PhDs per capita. We have, I think, the number one in patents per capita in the country, so you have a lot of great things.

But also, we have an incredible rate of poverty. We have 37.9% of our kids live below the rate of poverty which, to me, is abominable. We have a path through our city called the Crescent, which, quite frankly, is probably the magnet for so much that we see in terms of crime. It’s not that the issues that we face were not so much the entire city, it really was, it’s a very focused area, and it’s tragic. John Klofas is here. He’s one of our professors at RIT. A tremendous asset to us in terms of crime and looking at different ways of fighting crime, is in the audience today. But this area of the Crescent, where the national average for homicide for the last ten years, I think, is between six and eight per 100,000. For a young African-American male living in the Crescent, the chances are 500 to 100,000. That’s 65 times the national average of homicide in this one area.

And what we are looking at is focusing on a number of things. I never thought I would be in this position today. I never had any political aspirations at all. This is not something I ever sought to do. I love this city. I think we have great hope and great promise, but there are things that we have to change. I believe in not having a new program. I believe in fundamentals, looking at basics. We have to really go back and look at, in terms of crime, what are the undercurrents of crime? What can we change? What can a mayor change, versus a police chief, for a community?

And we have three priorities in Rochester. And I stick to three. I think if a government has too many goals, it takes on too many things, you become ineffective. It’s public safety, it’s economic development, and it’s education, and those three are linked. I mentioned the graduation rate before. In Rochester, some unofficial research that was done a few years ago that has proved to be right on point is that 100% of young men, and specifically young men in our city who choose to sell drugs on the street are high school dropouts. And that research was done by a sergeant in the police department and it shows you a clear connection to failures in education and crime, and also the issue of jobs.

So I’ve going to kind of switch gears and point to some things that I think are effective in terms of what a mayor can do and a mayoral perspective on crime. You have to focus on all three. It can’t just be one area. But one of the things that we are doing in a very, very tight budget year, we’re adding more police officers. We’ve hired more. I hired more last year, I’m hiring more this year. I believe in having a very strong presence on the street, uniform presence and visibility.

And one thing that we have to do — and I think we’re getting much better at it — but as a community, we have to have an absolutely relentless focus on crime. Everything that the police department does has to be focused on that because, to me, public safety is the number one responsibility of government, protect its citizens. If they are not safe, you can’t expect jobs, you can’t expect kids to learn. So it is looking at things, we’re adding more police officers.

We have a cop stat model that New York City has adopted. And I think New York City has done an extraordinary job with their work, going back to Commissioner Bratton, Mayor Giuliani up to the present. I think they have really shown not just a short-term decrease, but long-term. But they have done some things fundamentally. It’s the presence on the street. It’s the use of data. It’s trying to create an operational link to data and research, which we are doing through the help of John Klofas with the police department. It is making sure that we are extremely aggressive in areas with gun strategies. And I think that we are getting much better, but we have, still, a long ways to go.

We have to create an environment where young men will not carry guns. And that seems to be at the forefront of what we’re facing in Rochester, is it’s an argument, it’s something that can be innocuous as a boyfriend-girlfriend situation, a disagreement, guns come out and you have a homicide. This year we’ve had about a 25% reduction in crime categories for the first five and a half months of the year, but our violent crime rate is still very high. It’s still almost on par with the homicide rate of the last year. And while homicides are not easy to prevent, sometimes it could be an argument in someone’s basement on a dead end street. It could be something that just flares up quickly without any kind of information or warning. I still do think we can impact it. I think we can impact homicide through very specific strategies. Maybe not stopping everything, but I think we do have the ability to do it.

And a lot of it is looking at — and we’re trying to look at — merging a lot of different areas. I mentioned economic development. We had a program last year called The Summer of Opportunity. Had summer jobs for 560 kids. We’re trying to get to 1,000 this year. Having jobs for these children, putting money in their pocket, getting them off the street, has a huge effect. And we have enlisted help from the business community. They’ve been very responsive so far, but we’re hoping to have well over 1,000 this year. But putting kids to work is incredibly important.

There’s a program in Rochester called The Hillside Work Scholarship Connection Program funded through Wegmans Food Markets, which is extraordinary, and Hillside, which is a not-for-profit youth agency. It combines three components. It has a tutor, a mentor and a job for kids that are selected. It costs about $30,000 per student. It has doubled graduation rates. We are giving a million dollars this year to that program. We’re, in a very tight budget year, shifting a million dollars over because the more kids they can get in this program, the more it will spark the graduation rate increase. But it works. Someone to help a child out with some tough issues with school work, someone to help a child out with challenges in their lives, and these kids have many challenges, and a job to put money in their pocket. And you see how these kids can succeed.

But part of what I’m going to say, and part of our fundamental flaw, I think, in government, we spend so much money, and we live in the most highly taxed state, the most expensive state, I think, in the union to live in, and we have to ask ourselves one thing: do citizens who pay taxes, are they getting a fair share at the right price for their government?

And we just had an author, the co-author of “The Price of Government” in Rochester this week. He’s from Rochester. His name is Peter Hutchinson. And he raised a point which I thought just hit a bell with me. We have citizens in our city, if they’re paying taxes, and almost an ungodly amount of money every year, and they’re waiting two hours for a police officer to respond, and if they are not getting the services that they deserve or want, what are they going to do? They’re going to vote with their feet and they’re going to leave. And what we have to do is merge the interests from labor, from government and the people who we serve to make sure the money that we spend, which is extraordinary, is focused on these areas.

And I do think, in terms of a mayor and crime, what we can’t do is keep on doing the same things that we’ve done. And I mentioned before that the percentage of kids in Rochester living below the level of poverty — our pockets of poverty are just growing exponentially. It is having a huge impact on our city. And, as I said before, you could draw a direct correlation to this area that really cuts this path throughout Rochester and almost every indicator from crime, and violent crime, down to property crimes, high school dropouts, and go right on down through jobs lost, everything in the spectrum of what you would call a failure is right there, it’s right there in that one area. And those are the things that we have to change.

Housing makes a huge difference for a mayor. There’s an area in the southern part of our downtown right now being transformed. Streets that I used to run on and chased a few people through back yards when I was a police officer have been just transformed with absolutely beautiful housing stock. It is housing stock for people — there are those that live below the poverty level, there’s really some mixed use, but it is fabulous. And I think as mayors, to be absolutely focused on crime, but also in other areas as well, housing and education.

Education is something that we — I think Mayor Jennings would agree with me on this one — we give a lot of money to, but the results have not been there. And we’re not blaming. I could not sit here and just blame any school district, blame teachers; that’s wrong. But we have to look at, fundamentally, what we’re doing with education. As I mentioned, our district, 39%, according to state Ed statistics – one school in our city has a 12% graduation rate, one high school. And you have to wonder, how can that happen? We give $50 million more a year to our district than Buffalo gives their district. Rochester has been extremely generous to its district over the years, going back two administrations ago. They give an extraordinary amount of money. But what you see is that money does not just translate into results. We have to take a step back and look at what we are doing. I mentioned the Hillside program before. It’s a partnership with the school district, with the city, with private sector, but it works. If you focus on fundamentals, it does work.

Some other things that I think work: engaging our community. We have a PACTAC program, Police and Citizens Together Against Crime. It’s neighbors walking with police officers. In the 1970s it started that way. It kind of devolved over the years to just citizens walking. We’re bringing that back. We’re bringing cops out walking with citizens. We have to engage people that live in neighborhoods, get them actively involved.

We’ve got to stop this mentality, you see the t-shirts, “Do not snitch.” One of the most heartbreaking things that you would see, and especially our poorest neighborhoods, is there is a fear — in some cases a fear — but also, perhaps, just a desire not to, in any way, cooperate and bring information forward when there is a violent crime. When a life is lost there is almost pressure put on people not to, in any way, cooperate with the police. And if somebody kills once, they’re going to kill two, three, four, five times. And it’s about really looking at ways that we can help reshape the culture on our streets.

And I could go into strategies. I don’t want to bore you with just specific strategies. But I do think we have to be relentless. We have to allow police officers to do their jobs. It’s a very, very difficult job. I’m a stickler for doing things the right way, and right by the numbers.

But it’s a job we want our police officers to feel supported to go out, because taking guns off the street and doing some of the distasteful things, they’re important or critically important, but sometimes police officers get mixed messages, where they’re not sure where they stand, where the support is. And I think if you put yourself in their position, and I certainly have been on both sides before, and probably criticized by the rank and file for taking a position where we were wrong when I was the police chief. But the bottom line is, I think we have to make sure that they are fully engaged and fully involved with taking these guns off the street.

Now I’m going to switch gears real quick because I want to throw something out that’s something I’d like to look at in the future. We are a collective bargaining state, and it’s an environment we live under. There are interests of labor, interests of cities, interests of people, that I mentioned before, we have to merge. What would be an interesting study is to look at can we start to create and incentivize results? Because that has not been the case before. And perhaps looking at it differently. Not — it would be, perhaps, a fear of labor leaders to hear this brought up, but I think we could look at results that we want in our city and start looking at ways that we can gear, we can structure, whether it be labor contracts, incentives, to get to those results, be it about jobs, be it about crime, be it about education. And one of the things I would like to do is look for ways that we can just think outside of the box and strike a system where we can reward performance, where we can reward results. And to get everybody tied in, where everybody’s interests are merged.

And it goes back to my point before, when we have citizens who pay an incredible amount of taxes who do not get the services that they want, what happens is cities like Rochester lose their tax base. People move, they go elsewhere. And it’s so important that we look at ways that we can become a magnet. I look at the city as a business. We have customers that we want to keep in a city; we want to bring new customers in. We are competing with cities across Upstate, cities in the south, cities in different regions, and if we are not competitive, if we can’t provide a better product for a price, then we’re going to find ourselves shrinking in population.

We’re down from 360, 350 back in the ’60s to just under 220,000 right now in terms of our population. I don’t think that we’ll get back up to that mid 300s again, just by virtue of I think our society has changed drastically. But I do think we can increase our population. I think people will come back to the city. We see it every year. They’ll make decisions to come back, again, if they feel safe, if they feel the schools are producing, and if they feel it’s exciting, there are jobs, and there are opportunities.

So I would just close off — I don’t want to go off into a lot of statistics here, but one thing that I believe that mayors can do is impact those areas. And I think every mayor — I know Mayor Jennings, we just talked outside — every Upstate city struggles with the same issues. It might be a little bit different from city to city. Albany may have some issues that maybe Rochester doesn’t have as bad, but I think we’re all pretty much the same. And if you from Albany to Buffalo, you close your eyes and you see it.

And one of the things that New York State has to face is that Upstate — New York City is doing tremendously well. I think financially, economically they are very strong. But it’s the Upstate cities which I think have declined the most. And what we have to look at, and we talk about can we save these cities, the answers come from within. I don’t think we can ever sit there and wait for a handout and wait for the state to bail us out or the federal government to bail us out. We have to look at the disinvestment in our cities over time, which I think is clear. Federally there’s been that disinvestment. And in the state, we do not have a process that I think looks at the issues that each city faces. I think sometimes political decisions don’t take all the data into effect when they make these decisions. We have to look at a way to take a process and try to stabilize these cities.

One great step, I think the governor has made a big step with having Dan Gundersen be appointed the Upstate economic development czar. I think Governor Spitzer realizes that Upstate is different. It’s a different region, it requires, perhaps, different strategies. I know Dan is here today to speak at 1:00. But I think that’s a great first step. There are a number of other things I think we have to do as well.

You look at crime, there’s no doubt, from the cities, there is a connection. The same things, the same issues that really become fertile grounds for crime, and we have to focus resources in areas that work. Uniform police officers, I mentioned. Drug treatment, drug court. And Rochester is a classic example. When drug court first came into being, it was fought so viciously politically by people that wouldn’t know crime if it bit them in the back end, and instead they fought it. That program came into place, it really has made a difference. You cure the addiction, you really cure the behavior. So things like that. Prisoner re-entry programs. They work. And I know the state and the federal government are very diligent with that. I think those are areas that do make a big difference.

But it goes back to all those things, I think, do have an impact. But each city — and I speak for Rochester — I think what we have to do is put the new innovations aside, sometimes, and go back to fundamentals, and just look at the basics. And we have to provide an environment where, both in terms of data and in terms of perception, that the issue of crime changes. Because the perception of Rochester, it’s painful, but people have that perception, sometimes, in terms of what they read. The occasional New York Times article which has not been flattering in the last few years, the stories that come up that I think impact people’s perceptions.

It’s a city that I see as being a fabulous place. It’s a city that I have great confidence in. I think it’s a city that not only will come back, is coming back. And I’m sure I speak the same way about my city as other mayors speak about theirs.

But we do need to make some fundamental changes across the board in the state. We do need to invest in priorities. We do need to make some tough decisions. And some of those decisions are painful political decisions to say no to some things and yes to others, but I think it can be done. And I know that E.J. is moving, so I know we’re getting to the time. I’m trying to talk as fast as I can, but I’m happy to take any questions.

MR. MCMAHON: Great. We have time for for one or two questions. Sir?

MALE VOICE: You have a school where you’re only graduating 12%, why don’t you just close it?

MAYOR DUFFY: Well, it’s on the?yeah, I agree. There’s no explanation. I don’t know why it’s at that point. I think it certainly was put on the (state Education Department) list this year. But the difficult thing is why 12%? And we’re looking at — I have no say with the school district. We give $119.1 million a year, but there are no issues in terms of the city having any type of authority over the district. But what we will do is do everything we can in the surrounding area with those children to help in our way. But you’re absolutely right. There are some things that are fundamentally wrong.

MR. MCMAHON: One more. Question? Any questions? Yes, Dick?

MALE VOICE: Just a follow-up on that. What about choice? What about charter schools, and what about — it seems to me to say two things. One about performance management, using data, getting ways to incentivize and showcase agencies that, you know, or the big unions involved, how to work with them and do better? That’s good. But what about what Mayor Norquist said about ways to change school systems?

MAYOR DUFFY: Well, here’s one thing. There are — speaking for Rochester — there are clearly some successes. One school was rated 27th in the country, Wilson Magnet High School, it’s a great success. Systems have to change because people are seeking their own solutions. People are making decisions — and I can just speak quickly. You look at the housing in Rochester, home ownership. You can draw a graph. About five to six years the houses sold. People are buying houses, they’re having children. And when those kids are — either it’s going to be kindergarten or it’s going to be middle school, they’re moving. They’re leaving or putting their kids in private school. So we have charter schools. We’ve had some issues. Some schools have not been successful, they’ve closed, and some new ones have emerged. But people do have a choice. And, you know, I think that’s a huge issue, a legislative issue. The governor, I think, put language in this year in the budget for expanding charter schools.

You know what? People can say it’s a bad thing. Here’s my thought. The customer defines the market. If the customer is not happy with this school, they’re going to go over here. Same thing with the cities. And that’s one thing we have to realize. There’s an old saying, “If the cow dies, nobody gets milk.” And looking at our communities as a cow. The cow may be in intensive care — it’s not dead, but you know what? It may be in intensive care. And if cities end up crashing, then nobody walks away with anything. And that’s why that merging of those interests and what becomes, perhaps, somewhat of a tough issue, say, for labor or for management, or for citizens, we have to merge those interests, because all three are important. We live in a state where there’s a balance, but those have to merge someplace, and in the end, the citizen has to benefit. If not, our cities will keep on shrinking.

I have to ask one question. Is Jeff Straussman in the room? I saw him on the list. Oh, no? Okay. I saw him on the last. He was my first professor at the Maxwell School. Okay, thank you very much.

MR. MCMAHON: Thank you very much. We’re honored to have a number of senior state and local officials in the room. I did want to recognize — he’s now talking with Mayor Duffy — Mayor Jennings of Albany is with us, and we’re very honored to have him.