Dominick Calsolaro

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Albany gets a bailout just in time to save a certain someone’s tanned behind

Published on 7/3/2008 by Metroland written by David King

Jerry Jennings has been making it clear for weeks that Albany is strapped for cash. There is an unofficial hiring freeze in the city, and even Jennings’ pet project, the proposed Albany Convention Center, may be in trouble because of the worsening economy and the state’s tight budget. But Jennings, with help from local legislators, pushed to have the state pay his city $11 million annually for the next 30 years.

Critics say Jennings knew that the specter of a financially deteriorating capital city—one that could possibly make negative headlines for the state’s legislators and executive—would likely be enough to get him a few million every year in payments in lieu of taxes. Thanks to one last slap on the back from Sen. Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick), Jennings’ gamble paid off, and a bill designed to give Albany payment in lieu of taxes for the Harriman Campus passed through the Senate.

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) said the bill miraculously came back from the brink of oblivion, thanks to Bruno: “It was absolutely dead till he took control. I guess he was giving us one more gift for Albany, and it was needed. But again we had to go to the state and ask for money. But it probably is something we should have been getting anyway.”

Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), who worked to get the bill through the Assembly, said the PILOT funding will help dig the city out of a deficit. “This picks up next year’s deficit, which I hear is around 5 or 6 million dollars. There are rumors for higher amounts, but whatever the deficit for next year is, it makes it go away. As with all cities, we have a lot of problems with crime, abandoned buildings, deteriorating streets, just to name a few. And hopefully this money can help.”

Although Jennings’ public complaining about hiring freezes and department cutbacks was potentially self-damaging in light of the fact that Jennings is in charge of presenting the Common Council with the city’s budget, it turns out to have given Jennings the financial wiggle room he needed to avoid disaster for a few more years.

If the bill is signed by Gov. David Paterson, the city will receive payments for 30 years, and the payments will decrease only if taxpaying businesses take up space on the Harriman Campus. But critics say Jennings has displayed his ability to squander financial windfalls time and time again.

Calsolaro, who has been a constant critic of Jennings and his spending policies, said that although he sees this as another bailout for Jennings, it is a financial boost the city deserves. “What they are paying us is 2 percent of its assessed value, and that is a deal for them. And it is great for us. We get 5.5 this year and then 11 million annually for the next 30 years. So that’s nice, and it’s kind of good timing, too. The city needs money.”

Calsolaro pointed out that the city’s PILOT funding for the proposed Convention Center drops from $22.5 to 15 million a year starting in 2011.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” said Calsolaro of the Harriman PILOT payments. “We provide services for the campus: EMT, fire and police.”

On the other hand, Calsolaro said he is concerned that the city has to rely yet again on the state for a bailout. “It does bother me a little bit that we had to ask the state for money. I don’t think we can keep doing that. It doesn’t show that we are running our budget how it should be run.”

Calsolaro’s message to City Hall is that with Bruno’s departure, this is probably the last bit of money Albany will be handed by the state for the foreseeable future.

“We can’t keep hoping the state is going to bail us out. This is probably the last one . . . for a long time. We have to look long-range and better manage the city’s finances and reduce our debt service. Our city has a shrinking population, and we need to figure out how to keep services up without breaking the back of our remaining taxpayers.”

The buzz in political circles before the Harriman PILOT payments came through was that Jennings, faced with financial shortfalls, an escalating gun violence problem and an unpopular police chief, might not run again.

Calsolaro said he expects this Harriman deal will boost the prospect that Jennings will run again in 2009.

“I think anything that is good government is good politics,” said McEneny. “If the government has major problems that are not being addressed and then some of the problems go away, it puts the mayor in a stronger position. But as I told the speaker, I really wanted it for my people, not necessarily for Jerry or the council or anybody else.”

Calsolaro said he suspects that the initial PILOT payment might not be used to directly address any of the city’s more pressing problems.

“I expect he may actually cut taxes next year,” said Calsolaro. “We may see that 11 million used to have no tax increase or a slight cut in taxes, because 2009 is an election year, and you know us ‘electeds’ like to show no tax increase or a reduction in taxes during election years!”

Calls to Jennings’ office for this story were not returned.