WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Here in Albany, this capital city of a struggling state is bracing for a major reset that will be painful. In less than a fortnight new leadership will arrive that has pledged to take the first steps on the path of restoring the faded "Empire State."
In the transition, the vast castle complex that is New York's capitol building feels near empty and still.
It is the between-time. The old regime has just days left. Control in the Senate is expected to shift to the Republicans and a Democratic governor is coming in promising to cut government. There are cardboard boxes and blank nameplates.
Ironically, as the new incoming Governor and legislative leaders try and marshall the political courage to restore the state, they will do so in a building that itself continues to be under going a major makeover to repair decades of neglect and deferred maintenance. In the post-Civil War era, New York was the beating heart of an industrial giant in ascendancy. New York's capitol building started in 1867 was in the same colossal scale as the state's visionary Erie Canal and its mighty railroads. The capitol building took 30 years to complete at a cost of $25 million dollars — equivalent these days of to a half billion dollars. It was the larger than life Theodore Roosevelt, who as Governor, declared it complete.
And so today, the hint of the state's historic greatness endures in the details created by long gone artists and craftsmen. Walking around the capitol complex, I crossed paths with the state's Master Mason Andrez Jurak who is trying to preserve much of that detail. In his thick Polish accent, he took me on an impromptu tour of his handiwork. He's lovingly restored so much of the masonry details that was the art that graced 19th century architecture.
"It was not just the roof that leaked," Jurak says. "It was the joints," between the massive granite blocks that failed overtime, letting the elements in. The water from the rain would get in and run down the interior walls eroding the interior plaster ornamental moldings and ceilings in the process.
One of the few visitors working the corridors is Steven Acquario, the director of the New York Association of Counties. He says times have never been harder for the 57 counties that make up the state that lays beyond New York City. "It is very difficult to run government these days, when essentially you have two forms of revenue: property tax revenue and sales tax revenue," Acquario says. "And both of them are on the decline."
Acquario says the state mandates that the counties provide services, but then the state holds back the money the state is legally bound to send to thecounties to pay for the services. For larger counties, the backlog can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. For the smaller ones with smaller budgets, it is in the tens of millions. "I think all of them are having cash flow problems," says Acquario. "Delays in reimbursement from the state can extend up to three years, so if the state can't pay its bills, it should not provide these programs and services. That's the message from counties to the state."
Even as the county revenues decline, demand for welfare and health services goes up as out of work local residents turn to the county to cope with the protracted economic slowdown. Acquario says Albany is going to have to find a way to rollback public employee pension deals made in more prosperous times. He says every county is in a hiring freeze or laying off people. "The county where we are standing now, Albany County, which hosts the state capital, the county executive proposed a layoff of 500 just six weeks ago."
So what's Acquario's advice for the incoming governor?
"He has to make dramatic sweeping reforms. He has to reduce agencies expenditures, work force reductions, and with all that said, he wills still be billions of dollars short," warns Acquario. "And with a pledge of no new taxes and a property tax cap across this state there are going to be some tough choices that lay ahead."
A quick phone call to one returning statewide office holder backs up Acquario's on the ground assessment. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli says the economic squeeze on all levels of government is unprecedented.
"The counties are getting hit with increased expenses, such as Medicaid, which they don't really control. Their revenue is down. Nobody wants to see property taxes raised," says DiNapoli. "They are in a very tough situation and if you have the state cutting back on local aid or d
elaying payments and reimbursements. All of the creates a real perfect storm."
And the comptroller says its all about to get even harder because of two things: the end of federal stimulus and the expiration of the state's tax on the wealthiest households. "So you have the revenue cliff of both the stimulus money, and some of the tax increases that are in place and are not permanent," says the Comptroller. DiNapoli says just as the private sector begins to crawl back, the public sector is laying off. He says cutting public workers could further stall the economic recovery in parts of the state where the government is the major employer.
"Albany is probably the strongest example where if you took out the business of government, and you took out SUNY and public higher education, you can just imagine what that town would be like," says DiNapoli. "Go to other parts of upstate New York where it still is education, government employment, health care employment, medical centers. That is such a key part of whatever economic activity and growth there is."
It's nightfall outside the capitol complex and the mercury plunges. On State Street, immediately across from the capitol are several empty vacant buildings in major disrepair that give the streetscape the look of a broken smile with missing teeth.
Dozens of bundled commuters huddle near a bus stop. I asked Albany resident Hasheem Jeffries what would he tell Governor-elect Cuomo what he needed to do first. "Pretty much the job market is pretty much the biggest thing that is affecting everyone around here," says Jeffries. "So any increases in jobs would pretty much pick up community morale and be an overall boost to everyone. So that it probably his main concern I would say."
He’s working now, but it’s an anxious Christmas. “I got some news that that may not be lasting much longer,” he says. “I am in county government. so there are a lot of cutbacks. I am not the only one.”
Jeffries is a foreclosure inspector here in Albany.