We're gonna rock to the rules that I make. I want to be elected.
— Alice Cooper
If you're interested in seeing the not-so-fine art of "not in my backyard" on display, by all means attend an Albany City Commission meeting some Tuesday morning.
Even with the knowledge that they had to "borrow" more than $5 million to balance the city's current fiscal year budget, and even with a city manager who reminds them on something of a daily basis that they have to cut costs, commissioners can't seem to find the will to deny any sum of money requested by various special interest groups that come before them.
In just the past few weeks, the commission has:
— Allocated $150,000 more than was budgeted this year for Code Enforcement's blight cleanup program and OK'd another $125,000 for next year, despite City Manager James Taylor's suggestion that the program could be put on hold while finances were tight.
— Refused to end monthly Medicare B reimbursements to over-65 city retirees, pushing through a measure that will cost the city almost a half-million dollars a year and, according to a recent audit, more than $7.3 million during the life of the payments.
— Tentatively voted to give some $150,000 in funding to the Flint RiverQuarium over the next three months without that tourist attraction having a plan in place showing how it will continue to survive at the end of those three months.
— Refused to designate funds from a 1 percent hotel/motel tax increase (expected to net an additional $200,000 a year) for use in covering the almost $800,000 yearly shortfall the city must pay to operate the Albany Civic Center.
— Refused to return occupational taxes for smaller city businesses to 2007 levels or increase the amount that mid-size and larger businesses pay as part of a plan that would increase the general fund by as much as $180,000 a year.
Had the commission chosen to enact these measures suggested by Taylor and by city staff, the general fund would have realized a net increase of more than $1 million and the city would have found itself on more stable financial footing.
A little more than two months ago, Taylor outlined a proposed five-year strategic plan for the commission, noting that it included "eliminating some sacred cows." As he's watched the board vote down cost-cutting recommendation after cost-cutting recommendation, his frustration has become palpable.
"I'll keep making suggestions," he recently told me. "That's the way this system works: I make suggestions, and the commission makes decisions. But at some point, something's going to have to give.
"There are issues looming that we have no control over. But there are some things we can do. I think this board knows they can't just sit around this table and pretend they don't know what's going on. At some point, we'll have to take corrective action."
That point may be now. The Environmental Protection Division-ordered cleanup of a manufactured gas plant that could cost as much as $10 million will start early next year. Potentially costly litigation involving city personnel is something of a foregone conclusion. And recently announced closures or relocations of some well-established businesses in the city will further chip away at a once-solid tax base.
Only those without compassion would coldly declare that the City Commission should make every suggested cut that's come before it — chop expected funding from some of the oldest citizens in the city, refuse to help a struggling signature attraction that brings a great deal of joy and thousands of visitors to the city, stop taking down dilapidated buildings that are eyesores and havens for criminal activity.
As much as I believe there is a tremendous amount of waste in the city, I don't know that I would personally have the heart to look an 80-year-old former employee in the eye and tell her I'm taking away that $96 she's been relying on to supplement her meager income every month, and I don't know that I could visit the shop of a struggling small business owner and tell him he's going to have to pay another $50 to do business in the city.
But that's me. And I didn't make any promises to citizens of this city that I was willing to make such hard decisions if they'd elect me to represent them. The time is at hand for the seven people who did just that to start making good on those campaign promises.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.