Urban CNY News Publisher Ken Jackson sat down with Mayor-Elect Ben Walsh at his campaign headquarters, for one of his first post-election interviews. After a grueling campaign schedule, it doesn’t stop. After our interview he’s heading to a public meeting with the progressive group, CNY Coalition. Mr. Walsh’s post-election outreach has continued as he’s addressed Central New York’s “body politic “which has grown increasingly “Progressive” under the leadership of outgoing Mayor Stephanie A. Miner.
In this Q & A Mayor-Elect Ben Walsh was asked 10 questions which touch on a variety of topics. Our hope is to give the reader a sense of who the incoming mayor is, and how he relates to issues he’ll face as he prepares to become the city’s 54th Mayor. For exclusive behind the scenes coverage of this historic mayoral campaign “click” on Urban CNY Special Report: How the Ben Walsh Campaign Won the Syracuse Mayoral Election.
What’s the greatest challenge facing the city of Syracuse?
There are two immediate things that come to mind. We’re on an unsustainable fiscal path right now; we’re operating a 15 million dollar structural deficit at least, with no immediate end in sight. So, righting the city’s financial ship is critical and our time to do that is limited. I would qualify that as the greatest challenge internally and externally. And as we talked a lot about during the campaign poverty, we have too many people in this community living in poverty, more specifically in concentrated poverty. We’ve gotta lot of work to do to change the trajectory and establish more pathways out of poverty for people”
How do we address the problem of concentrated poverty?
We have to attack it at multiple levels from a neighborhood housing perspective; we have to be intentional in our policies to deconcentrate the poverty. In neighborhoods where we have high concentrations of low income residents, we have to look at ways in which we can develop more homeownership opportunities. So people, instead of paying rent they’re paying down a mortgage and building wealth for themselves.
We need to look at our rental housing policies. Historically new affording housing projects tend to go into low income communities because there’s the least amount of resistance. We have to start looking at where we’re putting our housing. We know we need more quality affordable housing. But we need to be putting it in neighborhoods where we have more mixed income instead of continuing to concentrate our poverty.
Also, on the flip side in our more stable and higher end neighborhoods, including downtown, whereas a project might otherwise just be exclusively market rate. We need to look at ways to incorporate affordable housing into new projects, so we achieve mixed income neighborhoods throughout the city.
From a workforce development standpoint, we need to continue to do a better job training people for jobs that are actually available; bringing our employers together with our perspective employees to align our workforce development strategies. We need to get more job opportunities for our young people, I talked a lot about the fact that I want to double the number of summer youth jobs that we have in the city. I’m working with CNY Works; they’re going to submit an application to do just that, to the Alliance for Economic Opportunity.
In general, we need to support businesses that are already doing business in the city. Identify what their barriers are to growth; whether it be municipal permitting approvals, or finding talent and helping remove some of those barriers to grow jobs from within.
Do you have any Immediate economic development plans that will impact our poorest neighborhoods
I want to really focus in on our neighborhood business districts and fully inventory our properties that are available for development. So instead of bringing people to jobs, I want to concentrate on bringing jobs to the people. I’m excited about the fact that I have relationships within the business community that I think I can leverage, to get more businesses thinking about investing in our neighborhoods and in our neighborhood business districts, and bringing jobs to the people.
What are your thoughts on Interstate 81?
I’ve been a strong proponent of the community grid option for a long time now, a vocal proponent. When I had a chance to speak with Gov. Cuomo, I told him as a community we were ready to move that project forward. I felt strongly that the community grid option is what’s was best for the city, and more importantly, the majority of city residents that I’ve spoken to feel the same way. So anything that he can do to move that process forward, would be very much appreciated.
You are quoted as saying you want to merge city/county development agencies, what would that accomplish?
Right now we have the problem of our Syracuse Industrial Development Agency and Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency, occasionally competing against each other for projects within the city. OCIDA has the ability to support projects in the city, and in recent years they’ve done that on a number of occasions and ultimately it creates a race to the bottom, where taxpayers always lose. They’re negotiating the two agencies against each other to get the best deal for themselves. It’s critical we develop this new industrial development agency. I’m not proposing that we hand over the reins to OCIDA. I think that there needs to be a new Industrial Development Agency that adequately represents everyone in the community and ultimately is making decisions with the best interests of the city at heart. It has to be a new entity; it’s not a matter of one or the other of the existing agencies. It’s going to take negotiations with the county and likely new state legislation. There are a number of steps that need to be taken, but I’ve already been clear with the county, that’s the direction I want to take.
Will there be any change to the formula of incentives offered developers that will generate more up-front funds for the city of Syracuse?
When I took over Economic Development in 2010, we updated our Tax Exemption policy. We shortened the number of years of the exemption, in some cases only gave the recording tax and mortgage interest tax and maybe not a payment in lieu of taxes.
Since I left, the state has passed legislation that retains a portion of the mortgage interest tax that goes to Centro, it used to be that Centro would lose out on that. It was a positive step. We have to strike that balance between giving projects what they need in order for them to be able to move forward and generate more revenue for us the long term. While also maximizing the amount of revenue we can generate in the short term, by negotiating the best deal for taxpayers.
Do you feel unfairly tasked with solving all of Syracuse’s problems?
No, I knew what I was signing up for. The reality is that no one person or one government is going to be able to solve all the problems of the city. I ran for mayor to solve problems and to build coalitions and develop relationships that would put us in a position to solve these problems. So I want the bar set high, I’m going to do everything I can, not only to meet expectations, but exceed them. But, I can’t do it alone.
How will you select key staff for City Hall/Mayor appointed positions?
I’m formalizing that process right now. We’re setting up a transition team. I’ve said consistently throughout this campaign, I want a staff that reflects the diversity of the city. And I want the best person for the job in every case. For each department, I’m casting a wide net to make sure we have plenty of options. Taking into consideration the diversity of the administration, and making sure that key members of the community that represent different constituencies are involved in that process. And to make sure that the selections are representative of the entire city.
What can a Mayor do to stop gun violence?
I’m certainly going to do everything in my power, including making sure we have a police chief that understands the importance of addressing gun violence. That oversees a department that is willing to combat it on multiple levels. I’m anxious to look at every case study and every best practice out there as far as getting guns off the streets. From gun buyback programs to gun courts, to working with state and federal agencies to cutoff the pipeline of guns from other communities and other states. We have to tackle it at multiple levels and again, I can’t do it alone. But, I think by making sure we have a Police Chief and a Police Department that’s out pulling in the same direction, and working effectively with other partners throughout the community and beyond, that we’re doing everything we can to stop gun violence.
How do we operate a city with limited resources in light of possible Federal cuts to needed programs?
We are already dealing with a fiscal crisis, depending on what comes out of the federal government it could get worse. I talked throughout the campaign about the importance of the need to generate more revenue, both in the short term and in the long term. In the long term, we need to grow our way out of this problem.
We need to get more businesses in the city creating more jobs, creating more investment generating more tax revenue. In the short term, we need to generate more revenue to address our current deficit. I’ve talked about creative solutions, like repurposing city owned properties that are not currently in productive use, former school buildings, underperforming garages, we have a lot of assets.
While I’m not looking to hold a fire sale, a lot of those assets are important for us. I do think there are opportunities to put more properties back into productive use and in doing so, generate short term revenue from sale proceeds, and create long term revenue by getting those properties back on the tax rolls.
I talked about raising certain fees. I think we need to look hard at our water fees especially in light of our water infrastructure problems. Make sure we’re charging a fair amount that gives us the ability to invest back into our infrastructure. We need to look at certain special assessments; the downtown special assessment is something I’m interested in looking at. As I’ve talked about before, property taxes are down towards the bottom of the list. Given the severity of our financial challenges, everything needs to be on the table right now. But we also need help, we need to develop and nurture relationships at the state and federal level. That put us in a better position to secure outside resources that can help, as well.