Jennings' first veto sinks funds for bath
Published on 12/11/2010 by the Times Union written by by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist
ALBANY -- It took 17 years for Mayor Jerry Jennings to reach this first -- and he did it with a splash.
Jennings vetoed funding for Public Bath No. 2 and $95,000 in cuts to overtime for blue collar city workers on Friday, marking what appears to be the first time an Albany mayor has wielded his veto power in at least seven decades -- and possibly even longer.
Jennings had earlier cut funding for the little-used, 105-year-old South End pool in his proposed 2011 budget as part of an effort to close an estimated $23 million budget gap. But the Common Council -- despite Jennings' threat to veto it -- restored most of the nearly $225,000 needed to run the pool last month.
"I don't want anyone taking it personally," Jennings told reporters at an afternoon news conference. "It was a business decision."
Swimmers and South End residents rallied noisily to save the heated Fourth Avenue pool, ultimately swaying nine of the council's 15 members that $216,000 should be moved from the city's contingency account to fund it through next year.
The council also voted to borrow $90,000 for basic improvements to the building, which was one of three built near the turn of the 20th century to give residents of Albany's working class immigrant neighborhoods a place to bathe in warm water, an amenity that many tenements back then lacked. Bath No. 2 is the last one still standing.
Citing what he said was a daily average attendance of just 19 people, Jennings said he could not justify spending the money to keep the pool open when his budget calls for deep cuts to other programs and laying off nearly three dozen city workers.
But bath boosters countered that the attendance lagged because the city did virtually nothing to promote the facility or offer programming there.
Cutting funds for a rare public amenity in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, they said, sends the wrong message about Albany's priorities and its commitment to its most needy residents.
"It's a disservice to the South End," said Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, noting that the city golf course in the mayor's neighborhood is facing only a proposed $10,000 cut. "What is the message you're sending to the people?"
Administration officials have countered that criticism by noting that the golf course generates enough money to pay for itself.
In his veto message, Jennings rejected Calsolaro's argument as "disingenuous."
"Nearly half of those using the facility on daily basis do not reside in the neighborhood," Jennings said, "and many are not even city residents."
Jennings said the pool will close at year's end and its three lifeguards will likely be transferred to the newer pool at the Arbor Hill Community Center across town. He said the city is working arranging a shuttle for South End residents to visit the community center to see if they would like to swim there during public hours.
The mayor said that whether the community center pool's hours will be expanded hours, which was discussed as a way to make up for the bath's closure, depends on what happens next year to the building that houses it: the now-empty home of the defunct New Covenant Charter School.
South End resident Jacqui Williams is among those who said she knew little about the bath until she joined the fight to save it. She said while she understands the budget pressure facing officials at all levels of government, she questioned how the decision could be made to close the pool without a full assessment of the needed repairs.
Jennings acknowledged Friday that an engineering study of the building wasn't yet complete.
The mayor's other veto overturned a 10 percent cut to overtime earned by workers in the city's recreation and general services departments, a cut Jennings said could limit the city's ability to collect trash, pick up recycling and plow snow from roads.
Jennings did not veto the entire budget, just two individual amendments made by the council.
He left untouched the council's amendment restoring $65,000 in grants to small arts groups, less than a quarter of the nearly $350,000 in arts funding originally cut by Jennings.
Neither the amendments nor Jennings' vetoes change the impact of the budget on homeowners' tax bills, which will rise an estimated 7.5 percent next year.
While complete records were not immediately available Friday, the vetoes were certainly the first of Jennings' 17-year tenure at City Hall and appeared to have also been the first at least since the beginning of the reign of Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd in 1941.
Jennings' vetoes may, in fact, have been ended a 93-year drought, dating to 1917 when Republican Mayor Joseph Stevens vetoed a bid by the Common Council to establish the colors of the city flag as red, white and blue, not the orange, white and blue that exists today.
Lawmakers have until Dec. 20 to override Jennings' vetoes, but to do so would require a super majority of 10 votes. Neither amendments won more than nine votes the first time around, and one of their supporters, Councilman Anton Konev, won't be at the council's Dec. 20 meeting.
The only council member absent at that meeting was Lester Freeman, whose South End ward includes the bath house but who nonetheless said Friday that he still supports closing it.
Councilman Ron Bailey, who represents the 3rd Ward in Arbor Hill and West Hill, also said he won't change his vote for closing the pool.
"We don't have the money, and I can't see wasting the money on that building," Bailey said.
Calsolaro said he's not optimistic about the chances of an override but wants to force the issue.
"I would like to have a vote on it," he said, "just to get people on the record."