Yonkers State of the City By Hon. Mayor MIKE SPANO
Thank you City Council President, Yonkers City Council Members, our District Attorney and Honorable Judges.
Thank you Commissioners, Yonkers Union Leaders, members of the business community and other elected officials and distinguished guests.
And a special thank you to the families watching at home, and members of the public who came out tonight, joining me for my first look at the State of Yonkers, as it stands today.
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to be mayor of our great city. From growing up in Park Hill to raising my own family in Colonial Heights, I am humbled and honored to stand here today working on your behalf and addressing you as Yonkers’ mayor.
Let me start by saying, the days of conducting business as usual are over. We face an enormous financial challenge. Solving, it needs to be a group effort, working with city and community leaders who represent you.
We didn’t ask for this. Every city is facing the same crisis. Some are facing utter bankruptcy.
In fact, the next biggest crisis facing our nation is the systematic failure of our cities. To succeed we must step up and right the wrongs of the past in the city’s finances and make the tough choices now that will provide for a brighter future.
Fortunately, here in Yonkers we love to meet a challenge. In fact we thrive on it. While the challenges that we face this year may seem greater than ever, we will overcome them because our solutions will be better. Our dedication will be greater. Our determination will be stronger.
We did not enter this crisis overnight. So, we will not solve it overnight.
Together, we have one thing in common. We believe in this city and we need it to succeed.
We want our neighborhoods to be clean and safe. The kind of neighborhoods where property values grow, where you can shop and talk to your neighbors, and where your children are protected.
You deserve top notch police and fire protection, and streets and parks that are properly maintained. Most of all … you want good schools, not only for your own children or grandchildren, but because you know no city can thrive if it fails to provide a quality education. And you need the assurance that your well-being won’t be threatened by a government that spends more than what you the taxpayers can afford.
As mayor, I take responsibility to resolve the issues at hand. I assure you that we will flourish again. But to do so we need partnership at every level.
I invite the City Council to craft practical solutions. I invite our unions to sit at the table with us. I invite the business communities and banks to work with us. I ask the community leaders to join with us and take part in active discussions on how, together, we can move this city forward.
First, there is the fiscal challenge. Next year we face a shortfall of $72 million in the City and School District combined budgets. That’s $72 million out of a $930 million dollar budget, or about 8 percent. And that shortfall assumes we do no more than maintain services at the current level.
The main reasons for the shortfall are the economy, the mandated increases in pensions and health costs, continuing erosion of our tax base, and the irresponsible gimmicks of the past. The blame goes to everyone, Republicans and Democrats.
Let’s talk about pensions and healthcare costs. Pension costs are increasing $12.7 million dollars this year alone. Health insurance costs also are skyrocketing, and will increase $4.5 million dollars next year. In fact, they have increased 267 percent over the last 20 years.
This is more than the taxpayers can bear.
So how do we fix it?
While most of our city employees pay for some of their healthcare, managers and commissioners never had to … until now. This will save the taxpayers over $100,000 immediately.
Starting today, I am putting in place a HIRING FREEZE for non-essential personnel. I also am appointing a city employee vacancy committee, headed by our Deputy Mayor, Sue Gerry. The committee will make sure only absolutely necessary positions are filled.
We also face erosion of our tax base caused by the decrease in the assessment rolls. When the assessment on one property goes down, the taxes on other properties go up just to stay even. In the last two years tax certiorari reductions have cost the City of Yonkers an average of $14.5 million per year.
So, why do we have this problem? We have it because, like most Westchester cities, towns and villages, we have not reassessed properties for many years. In fact the last time Yonkers reassessed city properties was in 1954.
Just take a look at how times have changed since then…you can see it’s time to catch up to 2012.
Even worse, Yonkers has had to borrow more than $52 million dollars over the past 10 years just to pay the cost of certiorari challenges. That is money that could have been used to build new schools, repair our streets and improve our parks.
It is time to do something about this drain on the taxpayer.
It is time for a Westchester wide reassessment. I, along with Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, am inviting County Executive Rob Astorino to join us in supporting state legislation to provide a mandatory countywide reassessment, and to make every effort to see that it passes this year, so that by this time next year we can begin to stem the tide of assessment losses due to tax certioraris that are impacting the tax rolls of every city, town and village in Westchester.
Next, we must adopt honest and straightforward budgets. Of the $72 million shortfall, nearly 26 million is because last year the City used spin-ups and one shots to balance the budget. Let me explain how a spin-up works. It means you take revenues that are owed to you next year, and use them this year. It’s like taking an advance on your paycheck. Now that money is gone, and we are left to pay the piper.
The budget we are working on, which we will propose in several weeks, will be a difficult one. But it will be an honest one. If we are going to put our City on the path to prosperity, we must bring our expenses in line with our income. Every taxpayer must do it and so must city government.
So how do we do that? We will look to see where we can consolidate operations and cut costs.
We have already eliminated 40 take-home cars that were previously assigned to commissioners, deputies, and other management staff. They will now pay for their own commute rather than charge the taxpayer. We will save thousands just on wear and tear and insurance and gas on the cars. Over the next few years, that alone, will make a dent in our budget.
We have begun evaluating which agencies can be combined to save money. Our first target will be the Parking Authority and the Parking Violations Bureau. Putting all parking services and enforcement under one roof will eliminate duplication and save money.
And we are looking at other departmental consolidations.
For government to succeed, it must have the people’s trust. Last year, while I was still a member of the State Assembly, I sponsored and passed sweeping ethics reform regulations including some of the strictest disclosure requirements in the nation. That law covers the City of Yonkers. Now as mayor, I intend to see that the law is followed.
I am issuing an executive order to require mandatory ethics training for every city employee who sets policy or who spends the public’s money. This training, which will be repeated at least once a year, will assure that City employees understand that all lobbying must be publicly registered and disclosed, that gifts of any significant value to public employees are prohibited, and that violations of the law will have serious consequences, including loss of employment or prosecution.
Now, let’s talk about development. We have begun coordinating our various development agencies, simplifying them, and jump-starting the City’s stalled downtown redevelopment efforts.
We have too many overlapping development agencies. We have a Department of Planning and Development, a Department of Downtown and Waterfront Development, an Industrial Development Agency, and numerous specially-created corporations for the various development initiatives. What we don’t have is a simple and logical system to reach out to potential developers and investors in our city, find out what they need to build new manufacturing, office and commercial development, and help them get the job done.
A few days ago my staff showed me the flow chart for just one of those downtown agencies, the Larkin Garage development corporation. Here it is. If you can’t understand it don’t feel bad. Most of the experts can’t figure it out either. Can you imagine being a business who wants to invest in the City and being told this is the way we do it?
It is time to bring openness, clarity, and efficiency to the City’s development efforts.
Under the leadership of our new commissioner of Planning and Development, Jeff Williams, we will undertake a reset of existing development plans.
We are working to reevaluate the stalled downtown development plan. This was to have included new commercial and residential development and an anchor attraction. It is essential we move forward with concrete and practical steps to restart a plan. As the national economy begins to recover, Yonkers must be prepared to assume a leadership role in redeveloping the downtown core.
For generations, immigrants have come to make a better life for them and their families. My own family came here at the turn of the century. They all proved even humble beginnings can lead to success. We need to encourage that can-do spirit so that others will invest in Yonkers.
We have great stories of those who have invested in Yonkers, particularly in the downtown area. Alfonso Alvarez, who is here with us tonight, along with his family, came to the United States in 1980 from Mexico. After many years of hard work in the Manhattan restaurant industry, Alfonso moved to Yonkers and opened Tacos El Pablano on Nepperhan Ave. And after even more hard work and commitment, he was able to open two more restaurants, all here in the downtown area – participating and investing in our city’s revitalization.
Today, Alfonso is the first president of the Mexican Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the Yonkers Chamber of Commerce. Alfonso and his family are the very definition of what Yonkers is about -- a true success story – taking advantage of endless opportunities that the city and its people have to offer.
Alfonso please stand up and be recognized.
Just like Alfonso’s story, much has happened in our downtown and waterfront already.
We continue to welcome television and movie production crews to the area. We are actively inviting them to film here and utilize our breathtaking landscape and architecture as their backdrop. In fact, as I speak now, just outside the library tonight, the crew of TV series “The Good Wife” is filming on our waterfront and at our train station. Exposure like this puts Yonkers on the map in a positive light.
Also, as you know, the daylighting of the Saw Mill River is well underway, and will provide a magnificent central promenade in front of the train station. We expect this to be completed this summer. I welcome you all to visit with your families and see first-hand what downtown Yonkers has to offer.
As we look at the waterfront, we see its potential. But we also see something that does not belong there, which is the MTA bus garage. This facility, standing in the midst of other properties that investors would like to redevelop as part of a waterfront master plan, is holding up progress. We will be asking the City of New York, which controls this property, to work with us to find an alternate site that will meet their transit needs while also allowing the City to develop our own waterfront to its full potential. In fact, when this garage is relocated we have interest from a developer to build a multi-billion dollar mixed-use project.
We already have interest from private companies to visit our waterfront. This October, for the first time in a long time, a commercial cruise ship traveling the Hudson Valley and carrying almost 150 people will dock in Yonkers. What a great opportunity to showcase our city and emerging downtown waterfront to visitors. It illustrates what I’ve believed for years – that our economic development can be accessible by car, train, bus AND boat. Let this be the beginning. Let’s set the wheels in motion for creating a Yonkers Marina – where boats, commercial and private, can visit and invest in our city.
We also are transforming some of our most challenged areas of Yonkers with new housing opportunities with the Warburton Lofts and Ashburton Avenue program, providing affordable housing to hundreds of families. Future economic developments also in the works include the Alexander Street project, which will include apartments, commercial development and acres of new public open space.
School 6, an eye-sore for too many years, will be torn down and will become a $100 million dollar mixed used residential center. I was proud, that with my former colleagues in state government, we secured a nearly $30 million dollar State tax credit
And, as we move ahead with economic development, we will take steps to assure that everyone shares in its benefits, particularly small businesses and businesses owned by people of color and women. In the past, although the City entered into development deals amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, little attention was paid to whether the beneficiaries reflected the diversity of our City.
In the future, we will make sure that they do.
We will require that every developer who receives economic assistance from the city, or who develops land that involves incentives provided by the City, agree to robust goals for participation by minority and women-owned businesses, and that their workforce reflect the mosaic that is our city, our state, and our nation.
We will also establish MWBE goals for other city purchasing and contracts where-ever possible.
In addition, it’s time that Yonkers has a living wage requirement for contractors and developers doing business with the City of Yonkers. My administration will be working with the City Council to move this initiative forward.
This leads us to our next issue. To further these projects and keep up the City’s momentum, we must provide additional arterials to access them. Much of the redevelopment has taken place on the Yonkers waterfront – which houses unobstructed views of the magnificent Palisades of New Jersey. However, like most cities, the waterfront is the oldest section of the City. While this area has the greatest potential in all of Yonkers, we need to improve access to the waterfront. Let’s open up our roadways, like Yonkers and Ashburton Avenues so we can rightfully connect the east and west sides of the city.
The New York State Thruway corridor is a model from which we can learn. Over the years, that roadway has become not only Yonkers’, but Westchester’s retail hub. This includes not only Central Ave., but Cross County Shopping Center, Ridge Hill and Stew Leonard’s, Costco and Home Depot. We need to do the same for our downtown area. Let’s pave the way with the right infrastructure and build that anchor attraction that is necessary to get people, near and far, to south Yonkers.
We also have begun an inventory of the hundreds of properties that are vacant. In many cases, owners of commercial and residential properties have simply stopped paying their taxes. In fact an inventory by the Yonkers Fire Department indicates there are approximately 400 empty buildings in the City. Those are 400 properties that could be providing housing, providing stores, providing businesses, providing taxes, and providing jobs.
Just to give you an example, our Corporation Counsel currently is investigating five open cases in which property owners have been delinquent in taxes in a net total of over 60 years. Can you imagine – 60 years? This includes gas stations, restaurants and storage facilities. With these cases alone, Yonkers now will recover close to $1 million dollars in tax delinquencies. These properties among others will then be returned to the active tax rolls.
As you can see, the city has long ignored the problem. Until now the City’s response to tax-delinquent properties or empty properties has been benign neglect. That’s no solution, as it leads to continued decline.
We will institute a program to take these properties over where appropriate, seek to restore or redevelop them, and return them to the tax rolls so that they can again become assets rather than eyesores.
The City is also working closely with Empire City Casino to develop the next phase as the State moves forward with full casino gaming at the Racetracks. My administration fully supports legalizing full gaming in New York State. This will enable the Raceway to increase its investment in our City beyond the $40 million dollar expansion already on the way.
It was not so long ago that a money-losing Yonkers Raceway seemed in danger of closing altogether. But with the legalization of slot machines, the Racino now contributes $7.35 million dollars a year directly to the City’s treasury and another $19.6 million a year directly towards education in Yonkers. With full casino gaming, the Racetrack is prepared to make an additional investment in the City, with a resort-style hotel and other facilities that will add more jobs, more revenues, and improve the tax base.
Ten years ago, I successfully convinced the state legislature to allow the racetracks to have video slot machines.
I will now lobby the state legislature to make sure that any consideration of casino gaming must include Empire City Casino. The raceway’s owners, the Rooney’s, have been great neighbors and the city's largest employer and largest taxpayer. An expansion of gaming would be a benefit to our city as well to our continued commitment to education.
We also believe that Yonkers Raceway is the right location for a sports and entertainment center, one that would provide a venue for a minor league sports team, concerts, small conventions and even use by our local public schools. We will be encouraging the Raceway to work with the City’s economic development team on this concept as the State moves forward to legalize full casino gambling.
Let us turn now to the single greatest challenge facing Yonkers, which is education.
It is a tribute to Yonkers that the population of our schools continues to grow. It means that families see our City as a place with a future. A place where their children can grow, and perhaps raise families of their own.
But let’s look at education in Yonkers. We have a real mixed bag. We have nationally recognized high schools like Yonkers and Saunders. In contrast we have new schools under review. And while we have the highest graduation rate of the Big Five City School Districts unfortunately over a quarter of our students fail to achieve a high school diploma.
In response, I have appointed an Education Redesign Team consisting of educators, parents, business people, and civic leaders whose job it will be to think outside the box and come up with ways to improve the education we provide to the young people of this city.
Funding for our schools will continue to be a struggle, so the Education Redesign Team will look to see where the School District and City Government can combine resources to save on overhead, fixed costs and administrative costs, so that precious dollars can be used in the classroom where we need them the most.
For example, there is no reason to have two personnel departments and two purchasing departments. This is an area where consolidation would make perfect sense.
The Team will look at how to increase parental and community involvement in the schools, because support at home is as important to students as support in the classroom.
The Team will take a hard look at what is working and what needs to work better, and at what is not working at all.
The Team will forge alliances with the Governor’s Office and the Education Department to increase their awareness and focus on the education issues that are particular to Yonkers and which need their partnership.
I want to emphasize the word partnership. We are fortunate to have a superintendent, a board of education, and a staff that is wholly committed to doing the best for our children. The Education Redesign Team is not here to second guess or substitute for their outstanding work. It is to provide them with the resources and partnership that they need to put their talents to work for our kids.
Let’s give our superintendent the opportunity to focus on the education of our kids rather than use his time and energy on worrying whether the school’s lawn is cut or whether its driveway is re-paved.
So, I have asked that the Education Redesign Team to provide short term recommendations that might be suitable for the upcoming budget year, and that they also focus on a multi-year plan going forward.
I have also indicated to the Superintendent and the Board of Education that I am intrigued by the idea of the proposed Public Private Partnership – also known as the P3 program -- to build much-needed new schools in Yonkers, especially on the west side of the City.
The traditional way of building a school means the City issues bonds and borrows money to build the schools. Not only do operating costs immediately rise, but you also have the cost of debt service. The P3 program saves money by partnering with the private sector to reduce upfront debt service and associated construction costs.
Yonkers is leading the way nationally in seeking to implement a P3 school program, and we will work in partnership with the Board of Education and investigate ways to see how this works.
We have already begun evaluating proposals from nationwide firms to put together a plan for Yonkers. In fact this type of funding may be helpful in west Yonkers where we would build a multi-story and multi-use structure, the first of its kind, in which the school portion of the facility would be used for a new grade school. Investing in a project like this is a win-win. We can reduce the cost of busing and reinvest those same dollars in the cost of building a new school.
It is also time that the State University System established a four-year college presence in Yonkers. We are the only one of the five largest cities in New York State not to have a SUNY facility within our bounds. I will be asking the State University System to engage in discussions as to how we can establish a four year institution of learning in the City of Yonkers, or even a SUNY annex. As college becomes ever more expensive, more and more New York high school graduates are seeking to attend SUNY institutions of higher learning. It is high time that one of those institutions had a presence in the City of Yonkers. In fact, the superintendent and I are currently working on a plan that will include the partial or full take-over of Roosevelt High School for a SUNY campus.
And while tonight I comment on the challenges that face our schools, let’s not forget what happens when we do come together and harness great potential in our students. Here tonight, we have some of those exceptional students and the dedicated teachers. We have the top students from our high schools, along with the teachers of award winning IB Program at Yonkers High School -- the fifth ranked program in the country. Yonkers High School, itself, is ranked number 41, out of 21,000 high schools in the America, and ranked number 1 in Westchester County. Students and Teachers, please stand up.
Tonight, the students we have here with us are:
Mykola Terskih from Gorton; Chris Toribio from Lincoln; Frank Thomson from Palisade Preparatory; Brianna Rohlehr from Riverside; Shahara Ingram from Roosevelt; Chloe Jones from Saunders and Jovan Irving from Yonkers Middle/High School
And the IB teachers joining us are John Andreassi and Mary Reynolds.
Let’s give them a round of applause for their hard-work and dedication.
This Gold Medal High School is just an example of the potential of our schools. The great progress we’ve made so far should give you assurance that we are on our way in reforming our schools.
Now let’s talk about safety in our neighborhoods.
No City can be a great City unless it is safe. There have been many changes in the police department due to budgetary constraints. Due to budget cuts, we no longer have a burglary unit, a domestic violence unit, or resource officers in the schools. Our police department is under-manned, and overtime has been poorly-managed. This year, under the new leadership of police commissioner Chuck Gardner, I am committed to working with our police department and its labor leaders. Together we need to bring overtime costs under control, restructure the department and redeploy officers to deal with critical safety issues affecting our city.
Despite some of these shortfalls, Yonkers’ finest have made great strides to ensure our People feel safe as they walk the streets. In fact over the last year, violent crimes have decreased. Violent crimes involving guns are down thirty-eight percent and violent crimes involving knives are down twenty-two percent.
Despite our success in fighting violent crime, some types of crimes such as burglaries are increasing, not just in Yonkers but in the county. That’s why our police department has made it a priority to make sure Yonkers residents are aware of our safety measures and know they, too, can be active partners in fighting crime. The Yonkers P.D. has increased its community outreach with department social media initiatives such as its Citizen Alerts and Tips 411, where residents can anonymously report crimes by texting the Yonkers Police Department. Measures such as this make it possible for our streets and neighborhoods to be safer. We encourage you to engage in our virtual crime stopping techniques. Every tip, every posting, is one step closer to lowering our city’s crime rates.
When it comes to public safety, I am confident that Commissioner Gardner along with Fire Commissioner Kielb are leading the charge in ensuring our homes and streets are safe and well-protected.
We also are the stewards of our environment, and we must do more to encourage energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. We are launching an Energy Action Plan with every City Department to make Yonkers a leader in this area. This year, the City will lead provide energy upgrades to municipal buildings including the replacement of outdated windows at City Hall. We also are replacing all city street lights with energy saving LED lights. This will save taxpayers over $2 million over five years and reduce our carbon footprint by 13-percent.
In the same vein, we will also formulate a Yonkers Green Policy Advisory Committee. This committee of leaders in environmental and civic communities will help develop and implement sustainability initiatives and advise the Mayor on green policy issues.
We also will see to improve the recycling rate in the City. Every ton of refuse that we can recycle, reduces the taxpayers cost of disposal. It’s also better for the environment.
In response, I’ve asked DPW commissioner Meier for a plan of action to increase the city’s rate of recycling from 37 percent to 50 percent in the next year.
This leads to my next call to action – giving back. Volunteer. In order for any us to care about the outcome of our city, we need to witness first-hand what so many of us take for granted. For many of us, that requires us to visit those less fortunate than us, or visit an area of town that needs assistance. I had the distinct honor recently of meeting Jim Killoran, of Habitat for Humanity of Westchester, who is here with us tonight. Jim has led the charge in renovating veteran homes in Yonkers – buying foreclosed homes and preparing them for our brave men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. His team also is taking pride in our streets – rehabbing business storefronts, donating planters and flowers along the Ashburton corridor, from Yonkers to Warburton Avenues.
Jim is even encouraging volunteerism among our students – starting Habitat clubs at Saunders, Yonkers, Roosevelt, Riverside and Gorton High Schools.
Jim, thanks for all you do.
Government works best when it works in partnership with the people, and when it communicates with the people. One of the things I enjoyed the most about running for mayor was the opportunity to walk the streets of Yonkers, knock on doors, and hear what the people had to say. I want to keep that communication going.
We will engage in a robust community outreach program. I will be announcing a series of community meetings convenient to every neighborhood in the City. During those town hall meetings we will have the chance to discuss the issues that are important, and explore the solutions to them.
I’ve outlined a number of challenges that face the City of Yonkers. But I have also introduced you to some outstanding people who are meeting the challenge of making a better life for themselves and their neighbors.
That, really, is the strength of our City. The people. It is why we will overcome the challenges that we face and why Yonkers will become a better place to live, work and raise a family.
I can’t begin to describe the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism that I’ve witnessed in the people of Yonkers over the past year. The best thing about being mayor is that you get to work with those same people. You get to harness the incredible spirit that they have. The love they have for their families. The dedication they have for their neighborhoods. The faith that they have in the future.
You all have one thing, one great thing, in common. You are Yonkers. You are why this City’s greatest days are yet to come, and why generations from now will look back and be glad that we worked so hard today to make it better for them tomorrow.
You are why the rest of Westchester County, and the rest of New York State, look at this city, this scrappy and feisty city, and marvel at how we succeed in the face of adversity.
You are why people still come to this city from all over the world to follow the American dream, asking nothing more than a chance to show what they can do, a chance to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, confident that from the sweat of their brow each day can be just a little better than the one before.
You are why this city has a spirit, an attitude, and a determination that no one else can match.
You are why the City of Yonkers is the greatest city in Westchester County and New York State, and why we turn adversity into opportunity, turn problems into solutions, turn difficulties into achievements, and why at the end of the day I can think of no better hope than that our children will grow up together, love this city as we do, and make it even better for those to follow.
Thank you so much for the privilege of serving as your mayor, and let us go forward together on an agenda for a better tomorrow.
Thank you and Good Night.