“I really felt like when I moved back here, I wanted to make a difference,” said mayoral candidate Michael Villa during an interview last week at the Amsterdam Free Library. “Sometimes you just want to be able to leave something behind that was positive, that you made an effort, and that you’re doing it for all the right reasons. And in my heart, that’s exactly how I feel.”
When asked about his approach to economic development for the city, Villa, said “If you study what other cities have done to be successful, especially after coming out of industrial or manufacturing backgrounds like we have, they’ve all had terrible times re-igniting their economy. But the ones that have been successful, really, have done so with tourism. That’s what has really propelled them into being successful again.”
“Manufacturing, for us, is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Industrial left decades ago. Retail is all up on Route 30. How do we ever invite retail into the city when they see the corridor up there? So, we’re very limited…so what’s left? You have bedroom community or tourism.”
“If you look at bedroom community…we have to improve where we are. We just have to. We cannot invite people in and not be able to offer them anything,” said Villa.
Villa said that when going door-to-door talking with city residents, blight was the problem that the majority of the people identified. Villa said he believes that if the city improves it’s residential housing, businesses will follow.
“We need to look at the areas around us that are going to improve our ability to attract. That is neighborhoods, schools…If you’re going to advance, those two have to be partners.”
Villa said that there were great opportunities in the city for people who can afford to live in the better neighborhoods. However, he said the options for people just starting out aren’t as good.
“When I got married, I lived on Lincoln Ave. That’s a beautiful street, I had beautiful neighbors, people I talked to every day. And it’s deteriorated. The first block is not very good. The second block is gone way down,” he said.
Villa said he is looking at the entire picture of the city’s condition.
“East End has been neglected for years. Milton, Grand, Fourth Avenue, you go up there, it’s horrific. Union, Garden, Dunn, Academy, Gardiner, they’re just atrocious. And it’s within walking distance of the middle school. And people see that. How are you going to say we’re going to get better?”
“I know we have to start somewhere. And I don’t have a magic wand. And I can’t make promises that I can’t keep. All I can say is that we have to involve everyone. Whether it be the private sector…obviously we’re going to need state and federal help. We can’t do this on our own. It’s impossible for any city to handle this amount of blight, you can’t do it.”
As a starting point, Villa said he wants to work more closely with Montgomery County take advantage of their demolition team.
In regards to the Capital Region Land bank, Villa said, “It’s good, it’s absolutely a positive, but it’s not enough.”
Villa said he sees the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook bridge as positive for the city and the region, however he feels that when applying for grants or asking for aid from NY State, that blight related or infrastructure projects should have a greater priority.
“I don’t want to say the money for the bridge was wrong. I don’t want anybody to misconstrue this,” said Villa. “We want to embrace it and we need to embrace it. But we can’t just say that this is the life vest, just put it on and we’ll be okay.”
“If the state wants to help us, let them match the grant, match the grant for $325,000, that gives us $650,000 to do the decking that was needed. And give us a million dollars for this blight. We could have taken care of three or four streets that are full of this disastrous appearance.”
Villa said that having a hotel in the downtown area is crucial for capitalizing on the draw that the bridge will provide.
“If we’re going to have people coming off the Thruway, if there’s no hotel, they’re going to come and look at this bridge once and they’re not coming back,” said Villa.
The conduct of government meetings is another area that Villa sees need for improvement in order to attract businesses.
“It doesn’t help when we don’t present ourselves well at meetings,” said Villa. “It does not help when we have this discourse publicly. I don’t care whose fault it is. There’s enough blame to go around everywhere. But when you have a public forum or a meeting, we have to be able to present ourselves in a positive light. Like we know what we’re doing. Businesses are afraid to come here…they get chastised, they get brutalized, they get talked about…that has to change. Whether we agree or disagree with whatever a project may be, we have to disagree in a light that presents ourselves well…you can make your points politely and move on.”
“Sometimes we’re at the mercy of the marketplace,” said Villa in regards to the local economy. “We can’t control those factors…but as an elected official, I think the thing you are elected to do, and that you are obligated to do is to make your city a place where people want to live, and a place where businesses want to do business.”
One change Villa said he would make is to employ legal counsel for different purposes on a contractual basis rather than to maintain a full-time corporation counsel position.
Villa said he would like to hire one attorney on a contractual basis just to handle codes violations. He said he would also organize neighborhood codes sweeps, documenting every codes violation in a targeted area and then following up with the problems, bringing them to city court if necessary.
“Not plea bargaining these cases down to absentee landlords, but being bull-dog aggressive and getting the enforcement done,” added Villa.
Villa also took aim at Mayor Ann Thane’s handling of the city’s budget and finances.
In regards to the past problems with operations in the controller’s office, Villa said, “You have to make it clear. I read all her states of the city, and I don’t see anywhere…that we were financially in trouble, that we had horrible audit reports, that the controller’s office was completely messed up. None of that is mentioned. When you’re a leader, you have to take the blame sometimes. Sometimes you have to stand up and take the hit. I just didn’t see enough.”
Villa said that Thane should be held accountable for her role in the city’s budgets over the past years which he says have reduced the general fund balance to a level that is too low.
“If you look at the state’s recommendation to all cities, 10% of your budget should be fund balance. We should have a $3 million fund balance. And we’re not even anywhere, we don’t know where we are,” said Villa.
Asked if he thought it was feasible to go back and correct records from 2011 and 2012 to the point where they could be audited, Villa replied, “I don’t think you can do that. I don’t think you can go back that far. I don’t think we’re ever going to know.”
However, he said he would ensure that financial operations are correct going forward, and would be in favor of bringing in additional consultants if needed.
Villa said he wanted to address one rumor he had heard that he would layoff city employees if elected.
“Here’s what happens when you layoff, you absolutely destroy the morale of anyone that is in your employ. Instead of becoming more cost effective, and cost efficient, and more productive, you become less in all three of those areas.”
Villa said he had served previously as both a union president and vice president during his time on the Amsterdam Police Department. Although he said he could not promise there would never be any layoffs, he said, “To think that the answer is layoffs, it does not work. It just simply does not work.”
Currently, Villa works on a contractual basis for Montgomery County Social Services as a welfare fraud investigator. He said that if elected, he would work full time as mayor and had the flexibility to adjust the amount of time he spent working at his county job accordingly.
Villa is endorsed by the CSEA and will appear on November’s ballot on the Republican, Conservative, and Independence lines. He will face incumbent candidate Ann Thane who is running on the Democratic and Rebuilding Amsterdam party lines.