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Making my case for reelection

When I first ran to represent Ward 4 on Canandaigua City Council, my platform included making public safety a higher priority, sharing services with the Town and County to spread our tax dollars further, and ensuring responsive, transparent representation.  Now as I face reelection, having had the benefit of serving one term on Council, I understand that the issues facing us are far more serious than what I had believed and certainly more serious than can be addressed by superficial political bromides:

  • The health of Canandaigua Lake: The Lake is not only our drinking water; it is our region’s economic engine. It is a driver of our property values.  It is the cornerstone of our city’s quality of life.  If we fail to protect it and recreation becomes impossible due to harmful algae blooms, our visitors will stay away and our city will wither away.
  • Looming economic downturn: Key indicators are signaling that the US economy is headed for recession.  While our city is currently in terrific financial condition due to a conscientious city staff and the fiscally responsible governance of our current Council, a downturn will still have serious consequences.  It will mean higher costs as pension plans become underfunded and lower tax revenues as people stop eating out, buying cars and traveling.
  • Tax giveaways: Development projects like Pinnacle North and the Finger Lakes Resort contribute additional strain on infrastructure and add volume to the services the city must deliver (e.g., more calls to the fire department, more garbage to pick up).  However, thanks to the PILOTs granted by an unelected county IDA, developers do not pay their fair share in the taxes that make those services possible, so the individual taxpayer is making up the difference.

These issues demand critical thinkers and leaders with experience and imagination.  Most importantly, they demand the political courage necessary for aggressive action.

I have that courage.  I have advocated for aggressive measures to protect Canandaigua Lake in the face of majority apathy.  I have rigorously evaluated every policy decision and been the sole vote against expenditures that fail to deliver value to taxpayers and benefit to city residents. I have spoken out against tax giveaways for billionaire real estate developers and challenged their rosy (and dubious) predictions of prosperity and empty threats of “well, we’ll just take the project somewhere else.”

I ask for your support on November 5th to grant me the privilege of serving you on Canandaigua City Council, this time as an at-large representative who will continue to work hard for you.  I will continue to hold quarterly meetings so you can share your concerns and ideas with me. I will make representing you a priority through diligent preparation and exemplary attendance.  I will be resolute and act in our city’s best interest, even in the face of critical opposition and condemnation.  The challenges that lie ahead for Canandaigua require nothing less, and I am up to the task.

It’s time to do more about Canandaigua’s fire protection

Buckle in kids: this is gonna be a long one….

A few months back when Nolan’s was destroyed by fire, and the community erupted in debate as to whether or not Canandaigua needed more on-duty professional firefighters, I reserved judgement and had far many more questions than answers (you can read about those questions here).  I wanted to hear from City Council on the topic, and I didn’t have long to wait:  in a July 23rd Messenger Post  editorial, City Council laid out the financial in-feasibility of such an increase and asserted that there were other strategies (increasing the numbers of volunteers, increasing student-volunteer participation, better mutual aid arrangements) that wouldn’t bust the budget.  Council’s editorial was helpful, reassuring and well-reasoned, and it clearly articulated the authors’ commitment to manage our city’s finances responsibly.

But who I hadn’t yet heard from directly were the folks that actually suit up and do the job.  Fortunately, I was invited to meet recently with the Executive Board of the union serving Canandaigua’s professional firefighters, I.A.F.F. Local 2098.  The members of that board are firefighters Jay Boock, Ben Cramer and Sam Loiacono.  And after 90 minutes with these gentleman, I finally feel as if I have what I need to generate a better informed opinion. And that opinion is this:

The City of Canandaigua needs to devote more resources to its fire protection.  Two on-duty firefighters at a time is not sufficient to protect a city the size of Canandaigua.  And it’s definitely not enough to ensure the safety of its firefighters. 

Before I get into my thinking that led to this conclusion, let me be clear and say that this statement is not equal to my believing that Canandaigua is an unsafe place.  Our city is a very safe place, and I appreciate the service of all who work to protect our city. Whether it’s the firefighters themselves, City Council, city staff or code enforcement, there are a lot of folks who care deeply and work hard to keep our city safe, and I’m grateful

So, here are some points of reasoning that informed that conclusion above:

Vital as they are, volunteers are not the sole solution: there aren’t enough of them and they can’t always get to fires as quickly as they may be needed   Canandaigua is experiencing locally a trend repeated across the United States: the struggle to recruit and retain volunteers.  (You can read about the forces driving this trend in the excellent New York Times feature, “The Disappearing Volunteer Firefighter.”)  The professional firefighters with whom I met expressed nothing but respect and gratitude for volunteers, and agreed that increasing their numbers is important.  But they also pointed out that volunteers’ ability to arrive within 5 ½ minutes (a national fire response standard) was inconsistent: most volunteers live outside of the City of Canandaigua and many are unavailable during the day because of their paid employment commitments.

While the number of on-duty firefighters remains static at two, Canandaigua’s multi-use and commercial development is on the rise   Canandaigua has several large, commercial or multi-use properties in city limits (including a major one in Ward 4, the Constellation Brands facility on Buffalo St) and quite a few more on the way.  Consider the way Canandaigua will look a few years from now:

  • a fully occupied Pinnacle North
  • a completed Finger Lakes Resort (fingers crossed!)
  • a bustling retail, residential and artisan space spread out over 12 acres at the Lisk Manufacturing site
  • the Labelon property comprised of apartments and office space.

As our city grows and changes, so too must the resources in hand to protect it.

Mutual aid is not automatic aid, and the VA Fire Department cannot and will not contract with us for automatic aid    The VA is allowed to send two to three firefighters if requested and available.  And if you look at all the VA fire department is responsible for here, you can understand why they are sometimes not available.  Even when available, they have not always been able to arrive within that critical 5 ½ minutes.  During our meeting, Ben recounted his experience at the fire on Scotland Road.  In that instance, while waiting for mutual aid to arrive, he and the other firefighter responding were luckily able to rescue residents via ladder from a second-story window.  But until VA and other resources arrived, he was powerless to go into that house and rescue folks who might have been unable to reach the windows.

Slashed funding for the fire department has slashed safety and fire prevention education in our community   With only two firefighters on duty at a time, fire prevention education and other prevention services like fire extinguisher training are now only available to community organizations at a price.  Some of those organizations (including daycares and private schools) have been priced out of these services, so their employees or students go without the education that could prevent a fire or save a life.

The human cost   While all of the factors above are important as we contemplate with adequate fire protection looks like for Canandaigua, there has been one thing rattling around in my head since I met with the I.A.F.F. 2098: the personal impact from this staffing situation on these firefighters.

The guys talked about the experience of returning back to the station after a fire like Scotland Road.  Like two boxers going to their separate corners, each firefighter goes alone back to his own station.  And there he is, alone, as the adrenalin drains from his body and his mind races, replaying the events of just an hour or two prior.  Jay mentioned that firefighters die from heart attacks at a greater rate than the general population (read more about that here) and said that if he returned from a fire and had a heart attack, he’d likely die there alone and be found by the guy coming in to relieve him.

From the moment I heard that, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  There are plenty of sound reasons to devote more resources to fire protection, but the human cost for not doing it should not be overlooked.  If you think that’s an emotional response that has no place in decisions like these, then I may not be the candidate for you.  Because I think the best decision-making is derived from the application of sound judgement that is informed not just by facts, but also by our values.  Caring for those who care and fight for us is a value I’m not ashamed to own.

That’s my thinking behind my support for additional resources for Canandaigua’s fire protection.  I wasn’t always convinced, but I am now.

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So how can Canandaigua afford additional resources?  Here are a few of my ideas:

We can prioritize fire protection as a shared-services opportunity in the short-term  –  At the September 21st Joint Canandaigua City Council/Canandaigua Town Board meeting, fire protection was listed as a long-term opportunity.  We need to explore this sooner rather than later, and we need to consider expanding the fire protection district beyond just the Town in order to consolidate existing professional departments, leverage savings in areas of common overhead, and spread out fixed costs across a wider municipal base.

We can stop renewing the PILOTs of for-profit companies  –  I appreciate the necessity of some PILOTs in order to attract businesses that contribute to the economic development of Canandaigua.  But when we are renewing PILOTs for entities that are already established, we are in effect improving the operating margin of that business at the expense of city revenues that support fire protection.

 

We can think differently about Code Enforcement  –  There are aspects of code enforcement that dovetail with the competencies of the professional firefighter.  Why can’t one of the two code enforcement FTEs be allocated to the fire department for a full-time professional fire fighter and, in turn, some appropriate code enforcement responsibilities be assigned to the fire department?

We can collaborate with tax-exempt property owners to find ways to help with the costs of the fire protection they receive but currently do not support  –  Across Ontario County, up to 25% of the full market value of real property is tax exempt (I wasn’t able to find the rate in the City of Canandaigua).  In 2012 in Syracuse NY, a full 56% of the property value was tax-exempt.  To address the impact on city’s finances, Syracuse entered into voluntary PILOT arrangements with a number of non-profit, tax-exempt property owners to help support the municipal services they use and benefit from.  Canandaigua city government should explore the potential to make similar appeals based on fairness and good citizenship to our tax-exempt property owners and encourage Ontario County and the Town to do the same.

Some of these ideas may be good, some may be crap.  I will have to wait to have the benefit of sitting on Council and proposing these ideas for consideration and review by Council and city staff to better understand their worth.  But the greater point is that we must stop operating under the supposition that additional fire protection resources aren’t needed because we cannot afford them.  If they are needed, and a 2007 study commissioned by the City of Canandaigua determined that they were, then we need to figure out how to afford it.  Even incremental increases in staffing can help: Sam Loicano commented to me that while four on-duty firefighters is ideal, any increase in staffing will benefit the department and improve safety.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is a trite expression, but it has never been truer than when applied to this issue.  I want to help City Council buy-in to the “will,” so together we can find the way to accomplish ongoing improvement in safety services for the City of Canandaigua without hammering residents with higher property taxes.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…

Getting to like you
Getting to hope you like me!

Forgive me, but that old chestnut from The King and I seemed like an appropriate title for this post about my experience canvassing this past week.

Before I get into what that experience has been, I should remind you that I am a first-time candidate for office.  While I did go door to door as part of the ballot petition process, this was a little different.  This time I wasn’t asking for a signature, I was asking for something so much more precious:  your vote.  And it is precious because it represents so much: your confidence in me that I have the skills to do a good job, your belief that I will exercise good judgement if I’m elected, and your trust that I will hold to the values that I’ve expressed.  With stakes that high, you can forgive me, I hope, for being a little nervous about it.

But all that apprehension has evaporated after hours spent in the doorways, vestibules and foyers of my neighbors in Ward 4!  As always the kindness and graciousness of fellow Canandaiguans is what stands in high relief.  There was the gentleman who disagreed with my comments about the Finger Lakes Resort developer (read them yourself here)  but who still invited me in for a glass of water.  And the lovely couple who invited me into the air conditioning when they could see me suffering after 15 minutes of conversing about overweight vehicles on Buffalo Street.  (It was 85 degrees with what felt like 10,000% humidity at the time!)  I spoke with a lot of folks on a lot of topics, but the common thread was this:  our neighbors care deeply about Canandaigua, and while they think our city is a wonderful place to live, they (and I) know that there is still more we can accomplish together.

But as upbeat as many folks were, there was still a great deal of concern about the challenges facing us and uncertainty that Canandaigua is headed in the right direction.  I heard that people are anxious about the opioid crisis that is impacting so many families in our community.  I listened to moms and dads worried that Canandaigua and the region around it might not offer enough opportunities to ensure that their kids would stay and raise their families here.  And of course, I heard that the birdcage has got to go!

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be adding more posts about my thoughts on how I can contribute to solution to the challenges facing our city.  But for now, I’ll sign off by expressing heartfelt gratitude to my Ward 4 neighbors.  Thank you for coming to the door.  Thank you for both your time and the water bottles!  Thank  you for sharing what you think city government does right and what you think I could play a role in improving.  To those who said I earned their vote, thank you!  To those for whom I didn’t, thank you just the same for sharing your insights about why: you’ll make me a better candidate for it.

I’ve got six more weeks of canvassing to go, so I hope you’ll be home when I drop by.   Thanks for reading!

 

 

I have jumped to a conclusion ….

In the days following the terrible fire that destroyed Nolan’s on Canandaigua Lake, I have seen the public conversation shift away from initial sadness for the loss of a beloved community gathering place and concern for the business’s owners and employees to tilting headlong into full-throated condemnation of city government and its perceived failure to prioritize the safety of our community and the firefighting professionals serving it.  There are a number of parties out in front of this debate:

  • Two former fire chiefs accusing city government of either apathy (at best) or reckless indifference to the safety of our community (at worst).
  • The city’s Republicans characterizing the fire response as a symbol of a Democratic-controlled city government’s incompetence.
  • Area residents expressing valid concerns about the safety of their families and their property.

Most of these voices have coalesced around this conclusion: that Canandaigua would be safer if it had more career firefighters and that City Council is obstinately refusing to fund it, even though it really wouldn’t cost taxpayers that much.  That’s the hasty conclusion and blame assignment currently percolating across social media, so grab the tar and feathers and go get ‘em!

But there’s an entirely different conclusion that I’ve reached and it’s this:  I don’t have enough information to jump to a conclusion – all I have right now are more questions:

  • What exactly are the national standards for a community of our size?
  • Other communities depend entirely on volunteer departments, so what does the data say about the efficacy of departments like those?
  • Are there opportunities to share more services with other local municipalities?
  • If data support the staffing increased to the levels being discussed, what is the accompanying price tag and impact to property taxes?
  • If additional staffing is possible, what can the firefighters union do to keep salaries and benefits affordable for the city?
  • What’s the opportunity cost, i.e., the future initiatives that can’t be enacted because resources are going to increased fire department staffing?
  • What services/amenities will we lose if the tax base can’t cover increased staffing?
  • What do our property owners think is a reasonable increase in taxes to cover increased staffing?

And the questions go on and on, but that’s only appropriate, because the best approach in collaborative and transparent government is one in which questions, respectful inquiry and thoughtful deliberation lead to decision making.

Of course, I appreciate that safety issues by their very nature are urgent, but we must recognize that some of that urgency is driven by our human nature to “what if” this problem: what if there were more firefighters, couldn’t the building have been saved?  What if people were trapped in the building and help didn’t arrive in time to get them out?   But there aren’t enough resources in the world to answer every “what if” possible.  And, one such scenario has occurred and thankfully did end well: the March 2017 house fire on Scotland Road from which three people were successfully rescued by the Canandaigua Fire Department under the leadership of acting Chief Ben Cramer and with the assistance of other area departments.

Of course, part of the reason none of us have more context about this debate is because there is a voice missing, and that’s the voice of City Council itself.  I hope that our leaders will respond and respond soon with answers to some of these questions and with some historical context that illustrates the reasoning behind the decisions leading to our current state of affairs.  Until I hear more of the facts around this issue, I have to reserve judgement.  And that’s an important thing to know about me: if I am elected to represent Ward 4 on City Council, every vote I cast will based on careful consideration of the facts weighed against the best interests of our residents, and informed by the opinions of as wide a cross-section of my constituents as I can obtain.  We are not always going to agree, but you will always know that even a vote you didn’t agree with was cast thoughtfully.

Start a conversation with me, and let me know what you think by adding a comment below.

 

Enough is enough. The Finger Lakes Resort project needs a new developer.

I just came from the Canandaigua City Finance Committee meeting where the request by the project’s developers to add docks for the exclusive use of condo owners to the project scope was debated yet again. I was glad that the Finance Committee did not agree to recommend approval of the dock request to the full Council: Council should not take any action that threatens the beauty of our lakefront, the lake’s environmental well-being, and the quality of our drinking water.

That said, I am 100% in support of the resort project as originally conceived. The benefits to our city are many: increased tax revenue for the city, growth opportunities for businesses serving hotel guests and conference attendees, and an increase in inventory that will help make hotel rooms more affordable in Canandaigua. That was the promise of the original proposal, and the project’s potential to deliver on that promise is still very real, albeit threatened. What’s threatening it? An incompetent and disingenuous developer.

Does anyone truly have confidence in the current developers’ ability to bring the Finger Lakes Resort project to completion after four years of false starts, even with the docks? I myself do not. The current gambit with the dock request, paired with highly dubious claims that Hilton International is panting to hang its logo on the property, is just the latest attempt to convince our City Council and us that the only thing standing in the way of the project’s completion is Council’s own reluctance to agree to any and all concessions.

We need to identify a developer with a proven track record of bringing projects like the Finger Lakes Resort to fruition. A developer who knows how to secure financing, manage a budget and project timelines, and deliver on the promises made to the community with which he seeks to partner. The faster the current developers are forced to cut bait, the better.

When I am serving Ward 4 on City Council, my constituents can count on me to vote against any request from the current developer that prolongs their involvement in this project. I want it done as much as any of you, but these developers just don’t have the juice to get it done.

Leave a comment below and tell me what you think.