How about  them  apples?

By  Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
         For the Sunday Gazette

 

                                                        

 

I love Bob Cudmore’s stories about Nero, the fictional upstate mill town whose industries have moved south. I think the real-life analogy works better for places like Amsterdam, Cohoes, and Mechanicville than it does for Schenectady. A good part of our industry “went south” only figuratively—Alco doesn’t exist anymore—but there is no mistaking that our fair city, financially at least, is in critical condition. Mayor Stratton’s efforts to right the ship will have to be truly Herculean (which, as Ed Dague told us one night, former-Governor Malcolm Wilson taught him to pronounce as “Hur-kyoo’-le-an”).

            Having done just about everything possible to cut expenses to the bone—the city’s per capita spending is comparable to those of the much more prosperous surrounding towns—the mayor’s attention has turned to increasing revenues. And since the city is close to its statutory limit on property taxes, that revenue must come from some other source. One of the lesser-known labors of Hercules imposed by Apollo was to gather certain “golden apples” even though he wasn’t even told the location of the garden where they grew. So one place the mayor has been looking for the apples we need is the State’s revenue sharing program.

            The first thing the mayor noted was the glaring per capita disparity between the unrestricted state aid granted to cities of comparable size. Both Utica and Schenectady, the example he gave, each have a population of about 61,000, but Utica receives $10.3 million per year and Schenectady only $5.7 million. Troy, with only 49,000 people, gets $8 million. What is going on here?

            First, it is a misnomer to label this state aid “per capita” (per head) because population is only one of several factors used in the formula used to compute it. That formula, a blend of population, tax effort, need, and up to nine other factors, is embodied in Section 54 of the state finance law. Directly contrary to the generally accepted principle that fair legislation should be understandable, that section contains more than 18,000 words. Since that is 20 times the size of an average op ed piece, I would be hard pressed to explain it within my word limit.

            Second, the state stubbornly refuses to use the most recent population figures. Allotments today are based on a mix of head counts from the 1970 and 1980 censuses. Using 2000 data would not necessarily hurt either Schenectady or Utica because the populations of all upstate cities have declined drastically since 1970.

            Third, formulaic aid can be “supplemented.” $4.7 million of Utica’s aid and $4.2 million of Troy’s, but only $1.3 million of Schenectady’s is called  “Supplemental Municipal Aid.” A chunk of change as large as Troy’s would go a long way to solving Schenectady’s annual structural deficit. Could it be that Troy has a powerful state senator who helps with supplementation?

            Fourth, but perhaps most important, Section 54 also says that the state must share eight percent of all tax revenues with its constituent municipalities. But what the Legislature can do, the Legislature can legally disregard. It does this by passing budget clauses that begin with the noisome word “Notwithstanding.” Roughly, this is a synonym for “we didn’t really mean it,” and so much of the promised aid has now been “notwithstood” that revenue sharing has declined to less than two percent of state tax revenue. The NY State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM) has advocated that the state constitution be amended to require adherence to the 8% level, but chances of that happening in time to be of help are exceedingly poor.

            So, is there anything in the offing that could force the state to deal more fairly with its municipalities? Yes. What it has done by using old data for revenue sharing is similar, though not identical, to the “hold harmless” provisions that so messed up school aid formulas that the courts have ruled that that aid formula must be reformed so as to help the poorer districts. Perhaps similar court action will help the poorer municipalities.

            Despite the apparently declining revenue-sharing importance of raw population, I have been looking at the relative populations of Schenectady, Utica, and my native city of Troy over the last 100 years. As an interesting piece of trivia, I note that the population of Troy in 1900, when it was the 62nd largest city in the country, was exactly the same as that of  Utica now: 60,651. At that time, Utica, the nation’s 66th largest city, already had 56, 383 people. Schenectady had only 31,682.

By 1910, when General Electric started to purr, Schenectady had reached 72, 826 and was on the verge of catching Utica at 74, 419. Our peak seems to have been 1930, though our 95,692 was still short of Utica’s 101,740, still the country’s 89th largest city. By 1950, we did catch up, with both at about 92,000. The parity has continued to this day when both now have about 61,000 residents, but that’s a third less than their peak values. Troy has declined more slowly, but its population is now down to about 49,000.

            As it turned out, Hercules didn’t find the golden apples by himself. Prometheus, grateful to Hercules for saving him from a punishment imposed by Zeus, sent Atlas to fetch the apples while Hercules relieved him of his job of holding up the world, supposedly forever. But when Atlas returned with them, Hercules tricked him into taking the world back long enough for him to make off with the apples.

The moral of the story is that we should ask Senator Atlas to come over here so that Mayor Stratton can say to him “How about them apples?”


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.