Irene Collins, a candidate for third ward alderwoman, said she first realized Amsterdam’s potential over 20 years ago, when a friend recommended she look at buying real estate in the city. At an interview at the Amsterdam Free Library on Monday, Collins talked about her experience as a current property owner in the city, her past experience with municipal finances, as well as her vision for the future direction of the city.
At the first house in the city that she looked at with her friend, Collins remembered having a hard time believing that she could get such a large house for so little money.
“So I came up and I looked at this house,” she recalled. “And I was like – really? Are you for real? This house is only ten grand?”
After first considering the rental market in the city, Collins then decided to take the plunge and purchase the property and later purchased several others as well.
For six years, Collins commuted every weekend from her hometown of Mount Vernon, NY to Amsterdam in order to work on fixing up her properties. One day, however, she spotted a house on Guy Park that she wanted for herself and immediately called the real estate agent to set up a showing.
“I walked in, looked around. I was only on the first floor. I just looked around and I said ‘I want the house.’”
“I don’t need to see anything else. I said I want this house. This is my dream house,” she said. “And I could afford it here. I couldn’t afford it downstate.”
Collins said that if elected to the common council, she will advocate for better city marketing to “sell the dream” and promote the opportunities and the long-range vision of city to area investors.
“There are great properties here that can be put back on the market, fixed up. But they have to bring the investors in,” she said.
As a landlord, Collins says that she has worked closely with the city codes inspectors to make sure her properties are compliant. However, she feels that new owners who have bought foreclosed properties at auction need to be given some time to bring their properties up to code. She also sees a need to educate first time buyers about the city’s building codes and who in the city government to contact about different issues, in order to avoid an overwhelming experience.
“Sometimes it makes it so difficult for them that they walk away. Then the city gets [the property] back again,” she said. “If you want them to come and buy the property and do something with it, you’ve got to give them a little leeway.”
Collins said that she supports the proposed apartment and restaurant/banquet facility proposed by KCG Development to be built on the former Chalmers site.
“It’s the first big project that’s revenue producing,” she said. “It’s a great project, we need this.”
She expressed concern about the tone of the public criticism of the project.
“It’s so negative, and it’s not good. If you want something positive, you’ve got to talk positive.”
Collins said that potential parking problems that could be caused by the development due to the loss of the use of the Chalmers site as a parking lot during large festivals such as the recent ItaliaFest could be solved with remote parking and bussing.
In her opinion, aspects of the project such as shared laundry rooms and lack of balconies will not deter renters.
“I don’t think they’re going to stay away from it. It’s brand new,” she said.
“It will bring other investors in,” she added.
“You’ve got to bring more people in, you have to bring their money in. New people bring new ideas, new energy.”
However, she stressed that improving the city’s financial position is important to make sure the city is attractive for businesses and developers.
“We have to attract businesses here. In order to do that our finances have to be in order,” said Collins.
“They don’t want to see a double digit tax increase. They’re trying to make money. They’re trying to build a business here, stay here. And they’re not going to do it if they feel they’re going to get a 20% [for example] increase.”
Collins said that the general fund balance deficit needs to be addressed during the next budget session and the council should put a plan in place to get the finances back on track.
Having previously worked as a deputy controller for the City of Mount Vernon for 12 years, Collins said she has a broad range of experience with municipal finances that she can bring to the council.
At her former position, Collins said that she oversaw a staff of about a dozen people, was involved with budget preparation, auditing departments, property auctions, checking purchase orders and flagging expenses that were over budget limits.
She said that she sees many similarities between Mount Vernon and Amsterdam, including the economic impact of the exodus of manufacturing businesses over the decades.
“I understand what’s going on, what the politics are, and what the troubles are,” said Collins.
In regards to rectifying the city’s deficit, Collins said that the only short-term solution is to cut expenses.
However she added, “You don’t want to cut people…city hall is bare bones.”
Collins said she sees a need for a central purchasing agent as a way of saving money. Currently each city department handles their own purchasing.
She also wants to make sure the city is utilizing vendors who have existing contracts with the state, which could also save the city money.
In order to make sure the city remains current on its financial reporting, Collins said that she believes the controller’s office needs to have an accountant as part of its regular staff.
In regards to the municipal golf course, which has contributed to the city’s total deficit for the past several years, Collins said that she is open to the idea of leasing the facility to a third-party to operate, but does not consider selling the course as an option.
Talking about the golf course grounds, Collins said, “It’s absolutely beautiful. I was very surprised when I first saw it,” but added, “it’s very expensive to manage.”
She said that leasing the facility to a third-party operator would not only relieve the financial burden on the city, but also reduce the time and energy that the common council has to spend on golf course issues.
“It’s less headache, for the council, for the mayor,” she said. “Instead of putting our money in the golf course, let’s put that money where it’s needed.”
She suggested that lease payments for the facility should at least cover the payments on the debt associated with the golf course.
Overall, Collins said she is positive about the overall direction the city is going in and is in favor of the multi-modal transportation hub which is proposed to be built on the north shore of the Mohawk River near the downtown area. She believes that connecting transportation options with the Riverlink Park, the MVGO pedestrian bridge, and the proposed apartment complex and restaurant/banquet hall, will generate the word-of-mouth advertising the city needs to grow.
She added, “It’s a great place to be.”
Collins faces Art Iannuzzi in a Democratic primary for the council seat today.