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November 30, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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November 30, 2007

Jerry Jenning’s Exit Strategy

The Mayor chooses his successor and lets him tackle the vacant building crisis

The other night The Wife and I were lingering at a table at the Elbo Room after everyone else had left a neighborhood walk-and-watch meeting. The neighborhood tavern and eatery is a great place to hold meetings of this sort. Comestibles tend to encourage participation.

Elbo Room
Elbo Room In The Sunshine

Around nine PM our First Ward Common Council representative showed up, hoping to catch the end of the meeting. He was fresh from voting against the 2008 City budget and quite agitated as a result. I immediately set to purchasing influence by buying him a tall, frosty glass of a popular name brand cola. He sucked it down absently as he talked.

In interests of disclosure, I should point out that the cola was loaded with high fructose corn syrup, a substance which has been linked to the obesity epidemic and may be responsible for various other endemic health problems. The Wife and I, on the other hand, were consuming ethanol (grape and grain, respectively) which, as we all know, is good for one’s digestion and clarity of thinking.

“The Mayor says I’m crazy,” said Dominick, waving his hands around. “He told that to channel six news. When they asked him about my saying that the new City budget is unbalanced, he said, ‘Calsolaro is crazy.’ That’s what he said.”

Is This Man Crazy?
Is This Man Crazy?

Specifically, Dominick had questioned why the Albany Municipal golf course runs a multimillion dollar deficit when other nearby golf courses make profits. The Troy golf course, for example, finances Frear Park and its’ facilities, yet still is in the black. “They can subsidize the golf course but they balk at $25 thousand to keep the City youth centers open on weekends,” he said.

[UPDATE: The golf course is running a deficit in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. My error.]

I pointed out that calling him crazy was a big improvement from a year or so back when The Mayor publicly called him “That a--hole.” Dominick waved off my smart comment. Literally.

The disastrous 2008 budget handed down by The Mayor to the Common Council has been discussed extensively in the corporate media, so I won’t bore the reader with random details. But I will say that I was impressed by the salient predictions by our anonymous friend Democracy in Albany (DIA) who saw the new budget a mile away last November 5:

Artist's Conception
Artist's Conception Of DIA

There doesn't appear to be much concern for the overall financial health of the city. So here is what I predict. The common council has until the end of November to make any changes to the proposed budget. At the end of the month they will make some big fuss about not raising parking fines, and they might not raise them. Nothing will be done about the fact that despite raising taxes this year's budget includes a ton of borrowing to "balance" it.

Maybe if I put a paper bag over my head I’ll become as prescient as DIA. I’ll just mention a little detail Dominick pointed out to us at the Elbo Room. Disbursements have way more than doubled during Jerry Jenning’s mayorship.

“I looked up the Albany City budgets,” said Dominick. “In 1996, which was Jenning’s first budget, the debt was $70 million. In 2007 it was $153 million. And they’re adding another $25 million to that in 2008.”

What’s going on? Dominick is sure that this is The Mayor’s last term, and the evidence is that he is spending the City insolvent and leaving the mess for his successor.

But he appears to have already chosen his successor, Police Chief James Tuffey. Jennings, who is well known to allow no City employee to act independently or express dissent, is shifting enormous amounts of his personal power over to the chief. “He even lets Tuffey hold his own press conferences,” Dominick said.

Chief Tuffey
Chief Tuffey

The Mayor’s most extraordinary act of power transference is the placing of Chief Tuffey at the head of his newly created Division of Community Development. Priority number one for the new head is to create a database that links all City departments. “I’m taking the model we are using for the Police Department,” Tuffey said at a meeting the other day, “and using it for the whole City.”

When it comes to communications, data gathering, neighborhood buildings and code issues, vacant buildings and community development, all of the other City departments now answer to Chief Tuffey. Wow. “I’m the coordinator,” Tuffey said. “We’re gonna coordinate things.”

And there’s going to be a whole bunch of new City employees under him, most notably a Vacant Buildings Coordinator. This manager will analyze and determine the fates of the numerous vacant and abandoned buildings throughout the City. He or she will deal with the owners, absentee or otherwise. The goal is to get these buildings renovated and occupied.

Well, I guess that’s good. That’s the sort of thing that some of us citizen activists and troublemakers have been demanding for some time.

Recently we had a discussion at a meeting of the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) Buildings and Codes Committee about how a total reorganization of the City database would come about. Some members thought that outside consultants would best do the job, others thought it would take a powerful “czar” backed by The Mayor. I guess that debate has been settled.

James Tuffey With Kids
James Tuffey With Kids

Oh, and the Vacant Buildings Coordinator will coordinate the Strategic Acquisition Fund (SAF) which is a revolving pile of money to be used to acquire vacant buildings. I mentioned to Dominick, who had paused a moment to suck brown fructose through his straw, that I had heard that afternoon the City Industrial Development Agency (IDA) had approved $250 thousand to start the new SAF.

Dominick slammed down his glass, threw his head back sideways, tossed his hands up in the air where they quivered. He made several angry urking noises. “The IDA approved $1.7 MILLION for the acquisition fund,” he finally got out. “The Mayor originally put that into the general fund to balance the budget. He only released $250 thousand of that money after I complained.”

“He can do that?” I said. “I thought that kind of stuff was illegal.”

“He can do anything he wants. And another thing. Albany County already has a Housing Land Trust which could be used for acquiring vacant buildings.”

“So he’s reinventing the wheel in His own name,” I said. “I overheard a discussion this afternoon between several public officials about who exactly would hold title to the vacant buildings once the new SAF acquired them. They hadn’t quite figured out that detail. It seems that the main worry was liability.”

Dominick nodded. “They wouldn’t have to worry about that if they did it through the County,” he said. I bought him another cola, even though he was driving.

If the police chief inherits the mayor’s office he will also inherit a serious financial mess. Surely he is cognizant of this fact. I wonder what the man thinks he’s going to do about it.

We can always think positively. The most solid way to increase City revenues is to expand the population of the City. In other words, fix up those many hundreds of vacant houses and build more houses in the gaps between them. Then fill them with taxpayers. Apparently that’s exactly what Chief Tuffey is doing, with Jenning’s full support.

Recently Destroyed Houses On Morton
Recently Destroyed Houses On Morton

Unfortunately The Mayor and his minions are still intent on destruction and corporatization. We recently saw a repeat of the Alexander Street debacle on lower Morton Avenue. Four vacant buildings were destroyed by the City’s demolition machine, two of which had been slated for renovation.

The good news is that the two buildings are going to be replaced. “The funding is in the pipeline,” I was told by Darren Scott of Albany Housing Authority (AHA.) “They’ll be in line with the street and historically compatible. We hope to have them up in a year,” he added optimistically.

But it appears that the City government is making these positive changes reluctantly. For example, the City Planning Department used to be staffed with young, progressive planners with a real understanding of urbanism. Most of them have quit. Experienced planners don’t seem to want to work there, and the department remains terribly understaffed.

The new Director of Planning, Mike Yevoli, was promoted by The Mayor over the heads of longtime planning employees, even though he has only been there for two years. He has made it clear that he thinks that the City could use more chain drugstores like Walgreens. Earlier this month Yevoli told a CANA meeting:

"There are 96 thousand people in Albany and CANA and the neighborhood associations don't represent most of those people."

And Mike Yevoli does? Granted, CANA does not represent corporate developers, commuting suburbanites and addle headed political appointees. But the neighborhood associations do indeed represent the taxpayers who pay Yevoli’s salary, better than anybody else does.

After Urban Removal
After Urban Removal

Well, obviously we need a new mayor. But could Chief Tuffey do the job properly, or would he become another Jerry Jennings? The man is showing a lot of enthusiasm for his role as coordinator of City reorganization. And he certainly has a variety of experience that he is bringing into the moribund City government.

But Tuffey is first and foremost a cop. Like when he was interviewed by Ray Feliciano of The Informed Constituent last February, he said:

If I were sittin’ in my house and somebody kicks my door in, ya know; and again, the key here is, if you’re not dealin’ drugs, you’re not dealin’ guns, and you don’t possess weapons, and you’re not doing anything illegally, you don’t have to worry about them coming in with a search warrant. ...So, if you’re not doing anything illegally, you don’t have to worry about the cops kicking in your door.”

Chief Tuffey With Ray Feliciano
Chief Tuffey With Ray Feliciano

That statement is dangerous nonsense. But it is certainly the kind of thing an authoritarian might be expected to say. The reason we have search warrants in our society is because law enforcement throughout history has always had a tendency to kick down doors for no good reason. If you follow the news, you know that our political leaders are trying to eliminate search warrants altogether.

Is this the kind of mindset we want for our top elected official in the City of Albany? I’m rather alarmed at the prospect of Albany cops going door to door in the next election strongly suggesting that it would be a good idea to vote for Tuffey. And what would Albany be like under a guy who thinks like that?

Dominick doesn’t think that the regular cops like Tuffey very much, and they wouldn’t campaign for him. I’m not sure about that. I’ve been talking to an informant from deep within the police department who tells me that the cops all talk among themselves about how Tuffey is going to be the next mayor. He/she tells me that they like the idea.

At the Elbo Room it was getting late. The Wife had finished emptying container number three (or was it four?) of grape ethanol when she started bugging Dominick about running for mayor.

He demurred. He doesn’t have the cash to run a citywide campaign, he’d rather be a legislator than an administrator, he doesn’t want to deal with Jenning’s financial mess, etc. etc.

But then he told a story about going to the supermarket the other day. “It seemed like everybody in the place came up to me and asked me if I was going to run. I couldn’t get out of the produce aisle. I was in there for hours.”

I have only one reservation about Dominick running for the top job. Can a guy who sits in a tavern for a couple of hours and drink nothing but soda be an effective mayor?

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