Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane says the city has made much progress during her eight years in office. Michael Villa, her opponent in the November election, doesn’t see it that way.
Thane and Villa squared off in a debate Thursday night held at the Riverfront Center. The two-hour session was sponsored by radio station WCSS and featured questions from four panelists: Tim Becker, publisher of the Mohawk Valley Compass, Nicole Hemsley, director of the Amsterdam Free Library, Michael LaCoppola, Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency board member, and retired engineer Larry Delarm. Brandon Hillier, an intern at WCSS, served as moderator. Each candidate gave an opening statement, then responded to questions from the panelists.
“For eight years I’ve done nothing but fight for the good of the community, and we’ve made great strides,” Thane said in her opening statement. “I took a city without an economic development department and re-instituted one to spearhead strategic planning, attract retail commercial growth, support historic preservation and facilitate neighborhood revitalization.”
She also said there had been “zero oversight” of the city’s finances before she took office.
“I am extraordinarily proud of the work we’ve done to stabilize taxes and enhance revenues,” she said. “We’ve brokered new deals to bring in an additional $927,000 and save another $200,000 in avoided expenses to the general fund…We’ve retooled the water and sewer rates that add $1.7 million to these funds and saved the sanitation fund $150,000 by taking recycling in-house. These are annual totals. Over the years they add up to millions of dollars to benefit our city. And because my administration has been so proactive in these matters, we have avoided what would have been a 35 percent bump in property taxes.”
Villa said he and all the members of the audience were “here for the same reason. We love our city and we want to see it grow and prosper.”
Villa, a retired Amsterdam police officer and the son of former Mayor Mario Villa, announced his candidacy nearly a year ago.
“I said back then, and I still feel the same today, that I believe I have the qualities, the ability and the leadership capability to bring back positive change to our great city.”
Villa made a brief reference to a “personal financial situation” from 16 years ago, saying, “We should not be judged on the mistakes that we make, but on what we do after we make a mistake. When we walk this path of life, there are pitfalls along the way. It’s not easy to stand in front of a public audience and have to explain your past failures or your weaknesses. But they happen. At some point we get older and we get smarter and we get wiser, and we transfer that ability to take our weaknesses and our failures and turn them into our strengths. And that’s where I feel I am today. I believe that to our many detractors that we need to answer tonight, and I hope that this situation is addressed now and we can move forward and discuss what needs to be discussed – the last eight years of this administration and the next four years, where do we want to take the city of Amsterdam.”
Both Thane and Villa weighed in on the idea of the city fire department taking over ambulance service in the city, but from opposite points of view.
“This was first proposed by my administration, and I feel very positively about this,” Thane said. “I know 10 years ago when this first was proposed for the city of Amsterdam there was quite a push-back because GAVAC was considered a volunteer organization and there was a lot of emotion and sentimentality around that,” Thane said. “Over the ensuing 10 years things have changed radically, and we do know now that this is a very positive action to take to protect our municipalities and to bring new revenue into this city that is not dependent on property taxes.”
Thane estimated at the time that the change could bring $600,000 per year into the city’s coffers, “which would be tremendously helpful to our general fund. So I’m very positive about this. We have to look toward new areas for revenue because the city taxpayers cannot bear the burden of more city taxes.”
Villa acknowledged that the issue is an emotional one, but said the city charter prohibits such a change.
“As the mayor said, we revisited this issue several months ago,” he said. “My opinion then is the same as it is now. This is a very emotional issue in this community. I’ve worked in law enforcement and I’ve worked closely with the fire department, and I know the outstanding job they do and how well they represent the city. And I know how well GAVAC performs. So again, it is an emotional issue in this community. But we have to understand that there are two barriers to this, and one is that the charter of the city of Amsterdam states that the City of Amsterdam shall not operate an ambulance service. The second is, the people of this city voted unanimously, I believe, in 2001 not to transfer that service over to the fire department, so in my opinion this would need to go back to the voters even though…I understand we have a rule that states that it does not need to go to referendum, I am a believer that if the people stated one thing, the people have to reverse that.”
The candidates also squared off on the subject of capital projects in response to a question about borrowing money.
“We have to look at how and why we are borrowing what we’re borrowing,” Villa said. “I’ll give you an example that we’ve allowed City Hall, the Public Safety building and DPW to fall into such disrepair in the last eight years that it is required millions of dollars to repair them. So had we had in place a plan or an inspection whereby instead of putting Band-Aids on these buildings we did actual maintenance, instead we just borrowed 3 point whatever million dollars to repair them. So I think it goes–you can’t just say we’re borrowing for needless things or borrowing for this or that. We have to be more fiscally responsible in how we manage what we borrow. And had we had a capital projects plan in place for these three buildings, we would not be in a position where City Hall–let’s take City Hall for one example–in 2012 there was a bond and $81,000 was used to fix a partial repair of the roof. But that’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It is requiring now, how many hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair it. So I think we have to be more fiscally responsible, more proactive instead of reactive. We can’t wait for a disaster to happen and then we have to borrow money to fix it.”
Thane responded by saying, “I think Mr. Villa must have missed some of the work we’ve been doing to our public facilities.” she said. “Because I have been very proactive, and probably for the first time in decades, in taking care of our buildings, especially City Hall. When I came to City Hall, there hadn’t been any maintenance on the building for probably 40 years, as was evidenced by the rust-colored carpeting and the problem with the roof and the problem with the boiler. So we set about incrementally making improvements to the building. It’s beautiful today. People were talking about selling City Hall, which would have been a great disservice to our community, because it has become a source of great pride and an example of what we can do when we preserve our heritage. The borrowing that we have done has been as a council, in cooperation with the council, and has all been for needs, not wants. We have crumbling infrastructure, we have big capital projects, we have storm recovery; we have all these instances where borrowing is necessary. And it was determined by the council and the budget committee that borrowing was the responsible thing to do., given the information we had on our finances at the time, and I’m glad that we did, our waste water treatment plant by $3 million, our water filtration plant by $10 million, we put that new roof on City Hall, which originally was estimated to be a quarter of a million dollars and we did it for $81,000. We put in a new boiler there, we re-wrapped the pipes, and now that building is saving $17,000 a year. So we’re proactive. The work we do is good work, to protect the city’s taxpayers and their assets.”
In response to a question about civility between the mayor and the aldermen, Villa said his background as a police officer and Department of Social Services investigator will be helpful.
“As many of you know, I spent 20 years in the police department, eight of them in the detective bureau, and my ability to interact and to lead investigations has given me a great background for me to interact in any environment,” he said. “I can’t wrap my arms around why this council and this administration–and it goes back to previous administrations–where councils and mayors have not been able to interact and do what is necessary to move our city forward–to put our personalities aside for the betterment of this city.”
Thane said the issue of cooperation is not a new one.
“This is not, as Mr. Villa pointed out, a problem that is unique to my administration,” Thane said. In an exchange of ideas oftentimes there is discord, but in fact in eight years we have moved the city forward in almost every facet of municipal operations. We’ve improved our infrastructure, we have worked on public safety, we have dealt with matters of finance, we have engaged our community in neighborhood revitalization.”
She said her association with many community and state organizations contradicts any perception that she is hard to get along with.
“I have … a record of really working well with other people,” Thane said. “I’m on the executive board of NYCOM (the New York Council of Mayors), I’m commissioner for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, I work with URA, I work with Catholic Charities, I work with St. Mary’s Healthcare, I work with the Greater Amsterdam School District. I have a long record of cooperation.”
Both candidates were given the opportunity to make a closing statement.
Thane said, “It’s the quality of life amenities and programs that will drive the fortunes of our city. It will be our waterfront, our downtown, and our cultural and recreational activities that will set us apart, and draw new business, more families, and significant investment to Amsterdam.”
Thane also said, “We have unrivaled waterfront development. Our downtown and Bridge Street are coming back to life. Our parks and community recreation sites, including the municipal golf course, have been greatly improved. None of this would have been possible without vision, strategies, or responsible management. More importantly, the next four years will set us on the path to realize our full potential.”
Villa referenced Thane’s criticism of him not having a specific plan and said, “We have priorities that we will implement into a plan if elected. Let me bring you all back to a time when my opponent first ran for office, and she was posed a question by a news reporter, the news reporter was asking her, ‘Ann Thane, what is your platform?’ And I’ll quote, ‘I’m so new at this so it’s been hard to figure out what to do. Not knowing any process, there’s a lot to learn about it.’”
“We will institute a special codes team. We will do neighborhood sweeps. We will take those findings and we will have a dedicated attorney that is going to handle code enforcement only. We will work with city court to not plea-bargain down fines for out of town and absentee landlords. We will work with state and federal leaders to make they keep us in their vision.”