Mayor Matt Driscoll: The exit interview – part II

Walt Shepperd 12/23/09More articles
Mayor Matt Driscoll on the job at City Hall December 2009. photo by Ellen Leahy
Matt Driscoll’s last word on the Destiny project as mayor focuses on its relation to city taxpayers. “To raise that kind of money,” he characterizes the deal his team made with developer Robert Congel, “you’d have to raise everybody’s property taxes 9 percent. We’ve been able not to raise property taxes for three or four years. I’ve been able to invest. I’ve got a half a million dollars going into Kennedy Street, half a million in the St. Joe’s area.”

“The city of Syracuse taxpayers,” he emphasizes, “don’t have one dime into that project. Congel said, ‘I want to build a new something on my parking lot.’ We said, “OK. If you build that something, you’ve got to pay.’ That’s where the $60 million came from.”

With all the projects on the drawing boards, should we be anticipating an explosion of residential and other development downtown?

There has been an explosion, but people haven’t seen it, and here’s why. All of the build out that has been going on in our downtown, has been in the old buildings. Many of them have been resurrected. They have been converted into loft and apartment market rate projects. So when people walk by, they didn’t see a crane on the outside. We’ve built 476 new units of housing downtown. They’re all filled, 720 totally when you add in the Lakefront and University Hill.

Urban Outfitters just didn’t fall out of the sky and say, “We want to end up in Armory Square.” They had been talking and looking in this area for a couple of years. They’ve seen the tremendous growth of downtown housing. Part of their business model is apartment furnishings. Most people think they’re all about the ripped jeans and T-shirts. They see the icing on the cake now: 300 new young professionals making good money working every day in downtown Syracuse.

Building a new building down here, O’Brien and Gere, bringing 300 new jobs, where people are spending money, and I suspect a percentage of those will be living downtown. Joe Hucko just opened doors on a new building. The city of Syracuse hasn’t had a new building built in it since 1992. In my administration there’s been two. There’s 18 units of housing in Joe Hucko’s project. He sold 12. Nine of them are from people outside our area. What does that say?

So there’s been an explosion, but it’s not just downtown. We’re doing it all across the board. Neighborhoods have been strengthened. But having said all that, there’s still always a ton of challenges. I just left the Syrastat meeting with the School District, and the challenges of our poorer population, the social challenge that we face falls to the city taxpayer, which does not have the resources to pay for all that. The county has just eliminated four very critical mental health clinicians in schools because of the budget. The public doesn’t see those things, but with the mental health problems students bring to the schools, that’s a big blow.

Much of the hope for change in the City School District comes from discussion of the Say Yes Program. Can you put that program in perspective?

Let me tell you what it really is. There’s two things. Most people see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, which is, “I can get free college.” That’s a worthy endeavor. There’s no question about that. For those people we want to keep or entice into the city, if their son or daughter goes through a high school program for three years and they can get free college, that is a pot of gold. That’s a great thing.

But the bigger part of the program is about the mentoring and nurturing of kids from the very earliest ages, who come from homes with nothing. They have no parents, or a parent, maybe, or a grandmother, maybe. They have few role models. These kids go to school hungry every day. There’s a reason why we’re about 80-some-odd percent in our free lunch program. There are challenges that people who don’t live in an urban setting, or a challenged environment, would probably never understand.

But back in 2006 I put $350,000 into a program called the Westside Strategy. Back then people said, “Look, we’ve got to mentor and figure out how we’re going to identify families in crisis and find out ways to give support to those very young children who go to school from a troubled home, no shoes on their feet, they’re hungry. How can you learn? We started it before Say Yes. We knocked on over 1,000 doors in the Fowler quadrant.

In one of your State of the City addresses, you talked about the possibility of getting an NCAA Final Four here. Was that something you wanted to work for?

Well, I’ve had plenty of other things to work for, and I’ve tried to use my time wisely. It’s something I’d like to see for our city and our region. But it’s not something the city can do alone. It would take the University putting an addition on the Carrier Dome, and building out that facility to accommodate what would be required for that type of event. The city can’t do that. We don’t own the Dome. We’re not the University. But the economic benefit would be more than just for the city. It would be spread out wider, so if you’re staying in a hotel in Auburn, Auburn benefits. It could be done, but it’s going to take a capital investment on the University’s behalf. The Dome has to be wired for a global show.

Is metropolitan government on the horizon?
It’s been on the table and discussed for many, many years. The fact of the matter is, for the first time the county government is really seeing what it’s like to face challenges that, historically, they haven’t been used to. Certain county legislators told me excitedly, “We’ve never had to do this before.”

I said, “Get used to it. We’ve been doing it for 25 years.”

It’s not sustainable any longer for the duplication we’ve seen across the board, and it’s not just any one entity. It’s true of everywhere. The whole business model of this economy, of this country, or the world has changed. That’s why you see companies reinventing themselves, downsizing, modernizing with infrastructure and technology based assets that are unfortunately also eliminating jobs. But people are looking for more efficient ways to manage and operate themselves. Government needs to do the same thing as well, because it’s not sustainable.

You’ve got a big issue coming up with sales tax debate next year. In many respects that’s going to be a very poignant time in the life of Central New York. It can’t be fighting just over the money, which is historically what’s happened. I’ve never been involved in that negotiation on that ten year plan. I think, data, history, facts show what happened to the city when the county changed the funding formula back in 1990. The city lost $72 million, and that’s when you saw schools start to slip, roads start to slip, infrastructure start to slip.

When Mayor Bernardi and county officials merged police services in the towns of Solvay and Liverpool with Syracuse. The public overwhelmingly rejected it. Take the whole pot of sales tax money that’s collected every year, it’s about $335 million. Put that on the table, and everybody pays for public safety, police service across the board, right off the top. So if you’re running the police department in Manlius or Camillus or the city or the sheriffs, all of that cost comes off the top of sales tax. The remaining pie would be split, per the formula, as it currently is, amongst all the towns, villages, and the city.

In the city I can reduce the amount I take from my general fund for police service and put it into new housing, or job training for the underprivileged. It’s a fair way to look at what, on a broad base everybody in this community wants. But we need to look at a municipal police force. I know people are intrigued with the whole issue of volunteer firemen. That’s not where the money is. All the police departments are paid. So if you can have a municipal police force Camillus division, a municipal police force East Syracuse division, Manlius division, city division, we’re going to get greater economies of scale. One set of command versus 19 right now. And everybody can keep the emblems on their cars.

Can you do that with the schools?

I don’t know that. I think that there are still far too many human traits that will prohibit that.

We’ve got a national ranking, but people don’t seem to understand how green you got our valley.

I would agree with you.

What prevents us from seeing it?

It’s new. In 1998, when I was the Council President, I was talking about and urging the Council and the administration to think of ways that would be more cost effective for us in terms of energy management. And I was talking about environmental issues.

Everybody looked at me like I had two heads. The perk I got was when I became mayor, I could make that a charge in the administration. Back story, when I was a younger person my goal was to become a national park ranger. What the hell happened? I took a wrong turn somewhere. When I became mayor in 2001 and elected in 2002, I made it a fundamental part of the organizational chart, and established that in the department of engineering.

I spent $2 million in capital funding. I changed energy systems, people were somewhat critical saying, “You’re spending money when you’ve got all these other things.” Well, we reduced our energy consumption by 20 percent. That $2 million has come back now to deposits of over $3.4 million, and that return on investment will keep giving for the next 30 years.

Why though, aren’t people seeing that? And when are they going to? They started tuning in when gas hit $4.50 a gallon. Nobody ever sees things until it hits them in the pocketbook. We saved the city taxpayers $166,000 a year just changing our traffic lights from bulbs to LED.

Syracuse is now the 15th greenest city in America, and is known nationally for the very progressive policies and the programs we’ve done.

CATEGORY: Government
TAGS: Walt Shepperd,Matt Driscoll,Destiny Project,greenest city in America,Syracuse,Urban Outfitters,mayor,city taxpayers
EDITION: The Eagle

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