On November 7, voters in Syracuse will choose their next mayor. There are four candidates on the ballot: Democrat Juanita Perez Williams, Republican Laura Lavine, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, and Ben Walsh, an independent candidate who will be on the Upstate Jobs, Reform and Independence Party lines. All four candidates sat down with Grant Reeher for their first debate on WRVO.
Note: This debate was recorded Thursday, September 28. Full audio and transcript are below.
Reeher: Welcome to the special, hour-long edition of the Campbell Conversations, a debate among the four candidates for mayor of the City of Syracuse. I’m Grant Reeher and I’ll be the moderator for tonight’s debate. Joining me are the Democratic nominee, Juanita Perez Williams; Republican nominee, Laura Lavine; Green party nominee, Howie Hawkins; and Ben Walsh, who is running as an independent and appearing on the ballot on the Independence, Reform and Upstate Jobs party line. I want thank all of you for making the time to speak with me today.
All: Thanks for having us; thank you so much.
Reeher: A brief note on our format. This IS a debate but it’s structured more as a group conversation that will emphasize differences, where they exist. I will often direct a question to one candidate and then provide an opportunity for others to disagree. There are no opening or closing statements, and there is no timer on each response but I’ll make sure that each candidate gets a fair chance to participate. I’ve also asked each candidate to be brief and to try to answer the question posed and I may intervene if they are not.
A reminder that each of the candidates has been interviewed individually for the Campbell Conversations and I encourage our listeners wanting to dig deeper into any or all of the candidates they are about to hear from in this debate to check out those interviews (links found at the bottom of this page.) Some of my questions today are derived from those individual conversations and indeed on that note, let me start. Let me pose the first question.
To the best of my knowledge and to my ears anyway, I’ve only heard one of the four of you put forward specific, concrete proposals for raising additional revenues for the city, outside of setting aside the desire to see the city more effectively lobby for money from the state or other entities. And that one person to put forward for concrete proposals for raising additional revenues is Howie Hawkins. So Howie, if you could very briefly to set the stage here, set forward the new revenue generating mechanisms that you’re proposing and why they’re necessary.
Hawkins: Well I’m proposing a progressive city income tax, as a more sustainable, and a broader, and a fairer revenue tax base for the city. I mean I’ve been saying I want to be the next mayor of Syracuse, not its last mayor. We’re on the brink of insolvency. We could face a state imposed financial control board, which would dissolve the city or could dissolve the city into the county metro government, like the Consensus proposal, put forward without us having much say in it. And if we don’t solve this fiscal problem, everything else we say is beside the point because the next mayor will be the last mayor. So, this city income tax, we need to get home rule from the state so it’s a political question, how do you build a coalition of municipalities across the state to support home rule where the cities besides Yonkers and New York, which do have an income tax, need home rule on the income tax and I think also you mentioned state aid. Revenue sharing in the state has been, it used to be eight percent of state revenue in the late 70’s, now its one-half of one percent and they’re not paying for their mandates on local government. The least the state should do is pay for its own programs. That would help us. So a broader, fairer, more sustainable tax base would be based on income, both state income for the revenue sharing and then a local tax that would not just be on residents but on commuters and absentee landlords as well.
Reeher: So, Ben Walsh, does the city need to raise additional revenues somehow?
Walsh: We do indeed. I have a number of proposals that I think will help with that, with that issue. One area that I think there’s a real opportunity that hasn’t been spoken about much is the amount of surplus property that the city owns. There are a lot of old school buildings that are currently no longer in use. The city owns garages, parking garages and in my experience, the city has not been an effective property owner and those properties provide us an opportunity to generate revenue both in the short-term, in terms of sales or leases, also in the long-term, in terms of property taxes, those properties are not currently on the tax rolls.
Reeher: You’re not proposing any new taxes then, let’s get clear on that.
Walsh: I think we need to look really hard at our water rates, especially since the recent situation with the algae in Skaneateles Lake. Our water infrastructure is critical. We know it’s in desperate need of repair. I understand that we did recently increase water rates but I think we need to look again at water rates in light of recent information.
Reeher: And Laura Lavine, do you see a problem with either what Howie Hawkins has proposed in terms of a progressive income tax or what Ben Walsh is talking about in terms of the water rates? Do you see problems there?
Lavine: Only a little more than half of our properties are on the tax rolls. What our problem is, in my view, is that not enough people want to live in the City of Syracuse, buy homes here. If we had a more desirable city in which to live, where people would choose to live, work and go to school, more of those places would be on the tax rolls, we would be generating. Increasing, for example, real estate taxes, isn’t really going to hit the mark. If we increase our real estate taxes by one percent, that’s going to generate somewhere in the vicinity of $400,000, that’s not going to do enough for us. We really need to turn the whole city around and make it a more desirable place to live.
Reeher: Juanita Perez Williams, similar question to what I just asked Laura Lavine, but if we don’t use the measures that Howie Hawkins is talking about and I think on a smaller scale, what Ben Walsh is talking about, are we left with just citizens hoping that whoever gets elected among the four of you is going to be able to leverage more money from the state? I mean is that what we’re putting all our hope on?
Perez Williams: Well I think it’s you know a mixture of things, I mean both of them have good ideas, but at the end of the day we have to talk short-term and we have to talk long-term and as corporation counsel, I recall this being the issue again when we began the term with Mayor Miner eight years ago. I was one of the few leads in the city that took that as a serious request and we immediately began to figure out ways to hone in on collecting thousands of dollars with regard to revenue on judgements that we have for collections, whether its water, whether its housing, whether its code enforcement. We have all these attorneys and no one was thinking about the ways to move forward quickly on raising revenue with the very judgements we have in court that are just sitting there because no one is enforcing them. So, we need to be creative short-term. We can do that with collections. We can do that with codes enforcement. We have codes enforcement that could be quickly outsourced to assist the county and the region and we could raise revenue by utilizing what they provide to towns and villages. We could do this with our own asphalt and paving system that we have been talking about, really collecting millions of dollars if you will by utilizing that resource we have in our own city. We spend dollars to pave our streets, we put them on the tax rolls for individuals in our city. We could do that ourself and begin to collect on revenues. Again, we need to speak short-term, we need it speak long-term, but we need to have a mixture of ideas and not make people feel that we have to focus on any one type of raising taxes.
Reeher: So, Howie Hawkins, are you hearing anything here that you think is going to get the job done revenue-wise because, Laura Lavine, you introduced a bigger topic that I want to come back to later, but are you hearing anything in terms of the revenue side that you think is going to get us where the city needs to be?
Hawkins: I am not and I think the only fiscally responsible thing to do is to raise 15 to 20 million dollars more, that’s the structural deficit we’re facing and we’ve got to do that like in the next year, otherwise, we’re insolvent and the state may impose that financial control board. I think one percent of the city payroll, which is about three billion dollars, is 30 million dollars. You have a graduated income tax, low income would be exempt, maybe go up to a top bracket of a percent and a half for people making 6 figures. It would be graduated in between and average one percent yield 30 million dollars a year. That would cover the gap. There are other things the state could do, if they pass single-payer care health care, the city would save 80 million dollars a year, city and county.
Reeher: Well I want to focus on the things Syracuse can do, so that’s a bigger one.
Hawkins: Well we’re one vote away from that state senate from that passing and Cuomo said he likes the idea recently so that’s another possibility but we got to find something in the next year really.
Reeher: Let me pose the question back to the 3 of you on this and any of you who want to jump in, go ahead. Is the situation as dire as Howie Hawkins has just presented it? He’s saying we need a fair amount of money right away or else we’re going to face insolvency. Is he right about that?
Perez Williams: I think he’s right about that, but at the end of the day we have to get to short-term solutions and long-term solutions but even short-term, our relationships with the state government, we’ll be able to repair them right away when I am mayor and talk about the resources that we can get from the state. We have missed huge opportunities with the lack of relationships that we have now. Clearly there’s no dispute that that has impacted the city. So speaking short-term on some of the ideas I’ve talked about, speaking long-term with trying to ensure that we’re focusing on areas like tourism and what we’ll get out of 81. There are ways that we can do this, yes, we need to do it quickly but it is not hopeless and we should not put our city thinking that in-fact there are no answers and that its hopeless.
Reeher: I know that Ben Walsh and Laura Lavine wanted to get in on this so Laura go ahead.
Lavine: There are debates on whether or not certain employees should be required to have residency in the city of Syracuse, school teachers, officers. Why are we even having a city that has to require residency? There’s something wrong when we have to make people live in the city where they work. We should have a city that is a desirable place to live, where people choose to live. Raising taxes is not going to be an incentive for people to move into the city.
Reeher: And Ben Walsh, last word on this and we’ll move on to another topic.
Walsh: Well just that I agree, we are in a dire situation and we are fiscally unsustainable. In my platform, Syracuse Rising, I’m proposing that we pull together a fiscal policy summit, at the very beginning of the administration. I worked in city hall for six years under the current administration and I can tell you that there is no silver bullet. We’ve turned over all the stones, the only way that we can get ourselves out of this in the short-term is to identify some revenue generating opportunities, also to ask for help and to develop the relationships and nurture the relationships at the county, state and federal level that help us to do that. But in the long-term I think we need to think about growth and encourage industry and business to set up shop here in Syracuse and to grow here because long-term we’re going to need that if we want to continue to be sustainable.
Reeher: I definitely want to come back and cover that topic just a little bit later in the program. Let me switch now to a different issue which is I-81 and this is an important issue, it’s been covered a lot, you’ve all been interviewed on the topic in the past, so let me summarize in a couple of sentences what I understand to be our positions on this and then I have a different kind of question that I want to try to pose here. I believe that all of you, except for Laura Lavine, are in favor of a community grid option and Laura, I understand that you are in favor of a hybrid community grid and tunnel or depressed highway. So, is that basically correct? Hearing any voices of dissent?
All: Yes, that is correct; correct.
Reeher: Here’s my question then about I-81, and Juanita Perez Williams, I’ll direct it to you. Let’s say that you’re mayor, alright, and the decision comes down from the state, maybe it will be delayed again so it will be after that time period when you’ve taken the oath of office, so the decision comes down from the state that the elevated highway is going to be replaced with another elevated highway, that’s the decision. What do you do then as leader of the city? What would you do?
Perez Williams: I’m going to assume that we have an opportunity to respond back. I’m going to assume that as a city we’ll have the opportunity to offer our input and why that wouldn’t work for the city of Syracuse and why is that? Because we know we have a highway now that has divided the city. It has caused a spiraling down if you will with relationships in our city, with businesses in our city and clearly with economic development. So I’m going to offer to you that as a mayor I would stand up, and I would continue to argue that we need to focus on a street scenario, that we need to focus on the ability to create new tax revenue, raise our property values and rebuild an urban core, not only on a street scenario that would replace 81 but our additional corridors that are now created in ways where it’s difficult for development or industry.
Reeher: Well I understand that’s the argument for the community grid that you and others have made, but I wanted to focus on this what if question. So Ben Walsh you’ve got your hand up, and the question to the rest of the three of you is, do you have contingency plans in mind if something like this should happen? I mean it’s not necessarily the case that you’re going to get what you think we should get.
Walsh: Well one of the points of frustration I know for me and many in the community is that I suspect that proposing to build a new bridge won’t be a viable option because I suspect that the draft environmental impact statement is going to say what we all know, which is that would have a significant negative impact on the community. The frustration is that the state hasn’t released the draft environmental impact study. It was supposed to be done at the end of this summer as was the tunnel study and yet, here we are, still waiting for that information. Those of us that have been paying attention to this issue and have been involved with this issue for a long time know that the community grid is the right option for the city. It’s time for us to stop studying, to stop analyzing. We have a paralysis of analysis here. We need to get the information in front of us, confirm what we already know that the community grid is the right option and we need to move that forward and if the state disagrees with that then we’re going to have a conversation, I’m going to stand up for the city and continue to call for a community grid.
Reeher: Is anybody hearing anything that they disagree with, that they’d want to add to?
Lavine: I agree that we need to get the information in front of us and I don’t think we have all the information that we need. I’m interested in seeing the results of the independent study including the environmental impact study and worst-case scenario, I would do what I’ve always done as a leader which is to stand up for my stake holders and make the case for what’s in their best interest.
Hawkins: The fourth candidate did not get to comment on the question.
Reeher: The fourth candidate go right ahead. That would be Howie Hawkins. Go right ahead sir.
Hawkins: Um, if they made the dumb decision to rebuild that elevated viaduct, you know, I would fight back.
Hawkins: It creates more traffic jams than a grid does. That’s prime real estate for the city that can expand the property base which is a long-term answer to some of our fiscal problems. It has divided the community. My contingency plan is focused on how we do the community grid right. It needs to be mixed income, mixed use. Syracuse Housing Authority, south of Adams St. has got plans in that direction. My question is what are we going to do about north of Adams? The city needs to be involved there so it doesn’t become an upscale, gated community and segregated from the rest of the city. So, I’m focused on how we do the community grid right.
Reeher: So, let me stick with this topic of, I guess, resistance to a decision that one doesn’t like and you don’t think is best for the city. Under the current mayoral administration, the city has taken on a very public resistance to President Donald Trump. Ben Walsh, let me start with you on this one. Are we at about the right level of push back here? Should we go further? Should we dial this back? Is this the appropriate thing to be happening at the city level and get the attention it does within the city administration?
Walsh: I’m always going to stand up for what’s right and for what’s most important for the city of Syracuse. I think that the key is to make sure you do it in a respectful way. I think that the problem we’ve had in this community with some of our leadership is not just that they disagree but that they walk away from the table. When I disagree with someone, I sit down across the table from them, I look them in the eye and I explain why I disagree and I hope to work towards a compromise, and more often than not, in my experience, a compromise is there to be had. When it’s not, you get up, you walk away but you come back to the table. That’s the problem right now in our community. Our leaders are not at the table and I have a track record of bringing people to the table to get things done. That’s what I’ll do as mayor.
Reeher: Juanita Perez Williams, do you think that this resistance to the President is a distraction from things that we should be focusing on in the city?
Perez Williams: No. I think we need to be focusing on all issues at all levels. Local politics are so important now to ensure that when we have concerns as a city, as a region, that we stand up to our federal government and to what’s being pushed back, but what I’ll offer to you is simply this, I have done this before. I have done this as a leader in the Ccty of Syracuse. Eight years ago, we didn’t have time to think about this issue, we didn’t have the luxury of putting together task forces and what have you. We had to close a highway down within a two-hour span. The city had a building that was falling over. We were concerned about it falling onto 81. The mayor gave me the authority to be at the helm of how we were going to do this. I reached out to Governor Paterson. We quickly closed 81 with Frank Fowler and Pete O’Connor from DPW. We created easy ingress into the city for the 60,000 people that come in and get out. We did it seamlessly, there were no complaints, and at the end of the day it was the state that took the cost of bringing this building down that we were all very consumed over, but we demonstrated the ability to get people in and out of the city without a major highway like 81 and we did it in a way where we didn’t have time to plan and yet few complaints, few concerns and it worked.
Reeher: Let me jump in on this and I want to come back to this because it’s a question of where leadership spends its time and attention so Laura Lavine, what’s your take on this? Has the city spent too much time worrying about President Trumps policies?
Lavine: The census bureau revealed last week that the national poverty rate decreased to 12 percent but Syracuse’s increased from 31 to 32-plus percent. We went from being the 29th most impoverished city in the country to the 13th most impoverished city in the country. Syracuse is on the wrong track. We need a leader that focuses on what our residents need and not be distracted by anything else. House Speaker Tip O’Neill said all politics is local politics. As a leader, I will be focused solely on what’s in the best interest of the residents of the city, and turning the place around.
Reeher: Okay and Howie Hawkins, any other thoughts on that question?
Hawkins: I think this is a time for progressive federalism. Municipalities and states in our system have enormous powers and Trump is hopeless. I mean I think we should protest him but not lose our focus on what we can do locally. And then the question becomes, how do you build the coalitions to get changes at state policy? I ran against Cuomo twice. There are about 10 issues where he was on the other side, he’s now on my side. Fifteen dollar minimum wage, millionaires tax, the ban on fracking and I believe, in terms of getting the state aid we need to municipalities. When I ran for governor, I was getting calls from rural Republican town counselors saying ‘this property tax cap and lack of revenue sharing is killing us too’ and I think we can build a coalition and then go to Cuomo and not shame him but say ‘hey, here’s your opportunity to be the hero and reduce property taxes across the state and let local communities decide their own priorities’. I think that’s politically feasible and rather than worrying about what Trump’s doing too much, we should focus on what we can do at the local and state level.
Reeher: Laura Lavine, let me come back to you at this next question. During the Democratic primary debate that we had here on the Campbell Conversations, which obviously you weren’t a part of as the Republican nominee, but we spent quite a bit of time discussing the problem of poverty in Syracuse and you just brought it up and the different facets of it. And my individual conversation with you, you emphasized crime very heavily as a key factor not only in the effort to address poverty but also as a key to the improvement of the school system too, you saw these things as linked, so I was wondering if you could sketch out for our listeners the connection that you see there between the problem of crime as you understand it in the city and these other two big issues, of poverty and the school system and what can be done then about crime that isn’t being done at present?
Lavine: We had a record homicide rate last year, 31 people died on our streets. I don’t relish being able to say what we’ve already heard this week which is that two more homicides were committed this week. Again, we’re on the wrong track. When you knock on the doors and talk to the people who live in Syracuse, far and away, the top two concerns are the school system and crime. That’s 90 percent of what I hear – “What can you do about the schools? What can you do about the crime?” They’re connected. Does crime
lead to poverty? Does poverty lead to crime? There is a relationship. Whether its cause and effect is almost immaterial, but with the concentration we have of poverty, and that’s different from situational poverty, the key to turning the city around is to improve the schools and that means that we have to do something about a 60 percent graduation rate. Yes, it’s increased, we want to be celebrating that increase, but that means that 40 percent of our students are either graduating late or they’re dropping out all-together. The way to be successful in terms of breaking out of the poverty and the research shows, if you’re beyond your third generation of poverty, it’s extremely difficult to extract yourself from that. We need to make sure that our students graduate from high school on time with adequate post-secondary plans so that they have the skills necessary. Do we need to bring more jobs to Syracuse? Yes, but we actually have jobs in central New York, we have manufacturing jobs that aren’t getting filled because the potential employees don’t have the right skills for those jobs. So we have to make sure people have the right skills for the jobs that are available, bring more jobs in. We have an understaffed police department. One of my opponents said police don’t prevent crime. I could not disagree more. We don’t have enough officers in order to implement true community policing and by that, I mean officers who know the names of the youth, who knock on the doors of the businesses, “How are you today? What’s going on?” So that people won’t be afraid to call the police, which they are now and the police acknowledge it. It’s difficult when we get calls and there’s so few of us. We swoop in, we take somebody, we don’t have the opportunity to build rapport and relationships. All of these things are connected. We need a fully staffed police department with true community policing that knows where the concentration of crimes are committed because crimes are committed in concentrated places and they need to able to be tasked to address all of those issues. Those are connected to poverty, connected to education, all triangulating.
Reeher:Juanita Perez Williams, does Syracuse have a crime problem as severe as Laura Lavine is painting it to be?
Perez Williams: We do have a crime problem at all levels but as you pointed out, it is truly a result of poverty and until we focus on poverty, we are always going to have a crime problem whether its minor crime which many of our neighborhoods are talking about. In the many doors that I knocked on that’s all I hear is “when are we going to deal with the issues involving someone breaking into my car?”, you know, someone involved in vandalism. There’s a concern for that, why, because there is very little response and there’s very little voice that’s provided to communities. So until we focus on poverty, we’re going to continue to have it. So, you need to focus on poverty and when I talk about crime, what I talk about is how we deter it. How we deter it of course involves dealing with the issues of making sure our young people have options, that we’re focusing on activities before and after school, that we’re dealing with ways to put people to work. That said, when it comes to dealing with crime, in addition to the factors of focusing on poverty, we have to make sure as my opponent has said, that we are looking at community policing options. What I have said is that more police, more police, are not going to stop the many crimes that we have in our city. We know that many cities the same size as Syracuse have less police officers per capita, so what is the response? The response is to ensure that we are deterring crime. We deter it by focusing on poverty. We deter it by focusing on community policing. We deter it by ensuring that people in this community know that their neighborhoods are being looked after and that we are caring for their very needs. So, when we talk about crime, we must focus on poverty, but we must focus on ways additionally to deter crime from occurring.
Reeher: Howie Hawkins, what’s your take on this? The extent of crime as a problem. Its connection to these other large problems and then the police issue that has been introduced here?
Hawkins: Well high crime as well as underperforming or struggling schools in Syracuse and across the country over decades of research, those things happen when you have concentrated poverty. Concentrated poverty means the poor are segregated. We have hyper-segregation in Syracuse and the metro region. So I think the next mayor should focus resources and policies on uplifting poor and working-class people. That will reduce crime. It will help the problems in the schools, the city will become more attractive to middle-class people and businesses and everybody can prosper. In terms of immediate priorities, we have 260 people on the city payroll that make over 100 thousand dollars a year. One is the mayor, there are some upper level fire fighters, and the rest are police officers. They’re expensive. They can catch criminals but in terms of deterring crime, the only crime that has been going up over the last two decades is youth shootings. We rank sixth since 2014 to June of this year, it was in the USA Today and AP study and these are young people that are disconnected, they’re shooting each other over status, respect and revenge. They need help. For every one officer you can get three out-reach workers on the street working with these people and then at the tail end, like we have the Syracuse Truce Program. The cops go to these guys and say you know if you do something wrong we’re going to get you but here, call this number. If you call that number, there’s not many resources for those kids. I think we should go to the UpState Revitalization Initiative with a Marshall Plan for the city to rebuild our high poverty census tracks and neighbors and that should include public jobs, so at risk youth as well as people coming back from being incarcerated can get a job, get a job record and get into the larger labor market. So, the focus needs to be on fighting crime and then that will help the school, I mean, fighting the poverty and then the crime and school problems will be easier to solve.
Reeher:Ben Walsh, I saw you nodding your head, vigorously at several points. What would you add here?
Walsh: I think there’s a lot of good points there. It’s about poverty. That’s the issue. When you look at our school district and you look at other school districts, there’s almost a direct correlation between median income level and academic achievement. Look, our kids are coming into the classrooms with so many barriers ahead of them, whether it’s the lead they’re being poisoned by in their homes, whether it’s the fact they’re hungry. We have to deal with the root causes of poverty. It is about housing and segregation and we need to deal with those issues head on. It is about jobs, we need to create jobs not only career opportunities for people, but we have to engage young people and get them opportunities, give them reasons to not be on the street. I am proposing a youth jobs program, partnering with local businesses, creating internships, it’s about poverty.
Reeher: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m moderating a debate among the four candidates for Syracuse Mayor. Independent, Ben Walsh; Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins; Republican, Laura Levine; and Democrat, Juanita Perez Williams. The election is November 7th.
Well, where we broke off was wrestling with this enormous problem this city is facing. And I think all of you, collectively, did a wonderful job of explaining how interconnected these problems of crime, poverty, education, and economic opportunity for the future, are all linked. And so I want to try to continue to unpack that and get at it this way. And Ben Walsh, I’ll come back to you with this. So Syracuse’s economy, it seems to me when you look at it, is at this point – it’s education – it’s driven by education and medicine, and then some light and specialty manufacturing, and then some services. And then you have concentrated poverty that Howie Hawkins was describing in detail. So, that’s the situation. So how do you take those two things together and try to create something going forward, that’s going to provide more opportunity for more people, and turn this city around? It seems quite daunting. I mean, Howie Hawkins before was talking about this Marshall Plan – he’s invoking some pretty strong metaphors there for what we need to do. How do you see this working in terms of our future economic development?
Walsh: These issues are inextricably connected. You mentioned some of our assets; we do have educational and medical institutions here that are large employers but maybe more importantly, are regularly turning out talented, young people that we need to keep in this community. It’s a lot easier to help a business grow or to get a business started if someone has already made the conscious decision to be here, rather than to go out and try to find a silver bullet in some other community. So we have to do a better job, and in my experience in economic development, the most effective way is to engage businesses that are already here, identify what their barriers to growth are, and then help them through those barriers. A lot of the issues that affect our economy are global macroeconomic forces that we have very little control over. We have to focus on where we have control. That has to do with permitting, zoning, making it easy to do business here, and also on how we sell our community. We have problems. We’ve talked a lot about them and will continue to talk a lot about them – we have to. But we also have to celebrate our successes. We don’t want a mayor who’s going to be all “doom-and-gloom” and tell you all the reasons why Syracuse is such a bad place. We need to speak to the positives as well. In taking on that approach in helping businesses grow, the next step is then to connect those people to the businesses. In as much as we talk about looking at transportation options to connect people to jobs – in some cases – we need to look at how we bring the jobs to the people. And I think we have a great opportunity in our neighborhood business districts. We have underutilized industrial building stock that is more conducive now than ever for light manufacturing – for jobs. We need to inventory those properties, we need to sell those properties, we need to bring the jobs to the people to help to deconcentrate poverty.
Reeher: So, Laura Lavine, what’s your take on this? I mean you are the Republican in the race. Do you have a particularly different vision and approach about how to try to get the economy working better here?
Lavine: Well I can only guess that when Ben refers to the “doom-and-gloom”, he’s probably referring to me--
Walsh: That’s true.
Lavine: I believe it’s important that we put the facts out there. He mentions getting all the information out there about Route 81 – I get all the information out there about the whole city. We have business owners in the city of Syracuse who can’t get work done because people pick fights and there’s too much red tape, too much bureaucracy, job crushing fees, and tasks and procedures.
There’s a business owner on Westcott Street who went from one side of the street to the other. He said “Laura, all I did was change from selling fish to falafel, from one side of the street to the other”. It took him two years to get a straight answer from City Hall on how to get his business back to where it should be – up and running, so that he was legal. And then, when all was said and done, they said they were going to charge him a 100 dollar per-day fee for the previous two years because he hadn’t done something right. Who can operate this way? It’s just not common sense. If things were all happy and great, you wouldn’t hear me putting out all of these facts – but I’m not making up the facts. I’m not making up the data. I’m not creating the list. We’re the worst city for the millennials. Highest concentration of poverty among Blacks and Hispanics of any city our size. Judge Wilson affirmed that Syracuse students have been deprived of a sound basic education. Put it out there. Talk about it. That’s not gloom and doom – that’s reality. We have to be realistic about what our city is facing because if we aren’t realistic, we’re not going to be able to identify how to create a strategic plan, what the goals will be and how we’re going be accountable for accomplishing the strategic goal.
Reeher: So, let me follow up with you, though. The one specific thing I heard there about what we would do would be make this city more business friendly, in terms of permitting and the regulations. So is there something else other than that, that you would have in your short term plan for boosting the economy?
Lavine: Well in addition to everything else I’ve talked about, which is to turn the schools around and what I’ve said is, if I’m elected Mayor I’ll be seeking mayoral control of the school district--
Lavine: That term is off-putting. The word “control” is off-putting and I understand that, but that is the term for it. Some people call it “Mayoral Responsibility”, some people call it “Integrated Governance.” But I would be doing is with the advice and consent of the Common Council, so that there is an assurance of engagement and participation, the part of elected officials appointing school board members. The way the school board operates right now is that they run on the odd number of years. Four of them ran two years ago, this year the other three are running. There’s the potential for approximately 50 percent turnover of the school board every two years, and potential for 100 percent turnover every four years. This school board is the key controlling, governing body for a school district. They set policies, they hire superintendents, they weigh in on discipline. Attorney General Schniederman came in and said we can’t dismiss…suspend out of school, destructive students, but there was no plan in place except for restorative justice. Restorative justice doesn’t work for anybody. With mayoral responsibility of the schools, the message is sent to the community. One person – I, will be responsible and accountable for what goes on. I will be able to bring more resources so that the superintendent can do his or her job and you’ll have people on the school board for longer periods of time – whose sole purpose in being on the board is to focus on increasing student achievement.
Reeher: Juanita Perez Williams, I seem to remember that you have taken issue of the question of the control of the schools but back to the bigger questions about economic opportunity and what can the city do with what it has to advance opportunity, and try to boost the economy. Are there things that either Ben Walsh or Laura Lavine have said that you would add to or that you would disagree with?
Perez Williams: Well, I have been the Regional Director for the Department of Labor for a number of years and so I know that this is possible. And it’s unfortunate that our city has never come up with a jobs plan – that we have never tried to enforce criteria with regard to industry that we have incentivized to come to Syracuse – to ensure that we create local jobs. To ensure that we have good paying jobs with benefits. So I go back to what we’ve been doing with the Department of Labor and where we’ve been very successful. First of all, people can look at our unemployment rate. Over the last couple years, under my leadership, we’ve brought it down lower than it was before our recession. And more importantly, we have been matching people in this city with very low skill sets with local employers. We need to focus on the very people that hire and the city has just not done a good job of that, and I will do that as mayor. We have great small businesses here, from manufacturing to retail. You name it – we have good local industry. That with a little support, with their marketing enhancing their growth, with loans, with grants – we can provide more jobs for people in this city because we know these local businesses hire. We know that they are focused in on employees such as those that have been incarcerated – those who have low skills. They want to put local people to work, and we need to help them. They have great ideas and great ambition. And we need to stop getting in their way with regard to these issues that have been brought up by my opponents – with regard to zoning or any type of permit concerns. A very good example was Hotel Syracuse. Ed Reilly wanted to hire local people. And it was my office that came together with Hotel Syracuse – we ensured that everyone in this city had an opportunity – up at front – not waiting for other people to come in from other parts of the city. We created almost 100 local jobs with the business that was inspired to hire local people. We need to keep doing that.
Reeher: Let me jump in. Howie Hawkins –is what you’re hearing enough on this or do we need to do something else, fundamentally?
Hawkins: Yes, I think we do. Short term, the city has a lot of city-funded jobs, both in city departments and the city contractors. We need to make sure that city residents and minorities are getting their fair share of those jobs. There is an old ordinance from 1973 that monitors minority hiring on contracting – the records haven’t been made public since 2008 – but up until then, about a quarter…black people were getting a quarter of their proportionate share of those jobs. So, we need an equal employment opportunity program that is enforced/monitored - and that’s the short term. Longer term is, you know the big boss isn’t coming back. We’re not going to be, you know, having Carrier and these big companies coming here and save us. Andres Duany had a quote and I can’t remember exactly, but he basically said “The way you develop now is smart government working with lots of small investors.” Now, where I would differ from what I’ve heard, is that rather than trying to give incentives to establish businesses or to attract businesses – the old trickle down idea that you help them and they’ll create jobs for the working class – we should emphasize those incentives for employee owned businesses. You can do that with generations of owners that are ready to move out, cash in – sell it to their workers. The advantage to that program is that the worker-owners become – they build assets as well as get a job. And I think that’s not just providing a job so a low-income person at least got an income, you’re helping them build wealth. And then as far as the issue of the City being difficult to work with, I mean – one thing I know is the predevelopment meeting where they get all the departments that got to deal with permitting, and then they go away. And then you get bottlenecks and wondering other departments. I think those departments need to meet regularly and just go through a checklist and make sure nothing’s being held up.
Reeher: In case you’ve just joined us – you’re listening to a special edition of the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media – a debate among the four candidates for Syracuse Mayor. Laura Lavine, you brought up previously the schools and talked a bit about how you would want to assume control as mayor of the school system, and why you felt that was important--
Lavine: --while letting the superintendent do the job of running the school district.
Reeher: Okay, thank you. I want to stick with that general topic of the schools. And first of all though – for our listeners – although your positions on this have been registered elsewhere, I just think it would help to go down. Juanita Perez Williams, I’ve already said that I understand you are not for mayoral control, correct?
Perez Williams: Correct.
Reeher: Ben Walsh, is that also your position?
Reeher: Okay, and Howie Hawkins – is that your position, too?
Hawkins: Yes, it is.
Reeher: Okay, so we got that part straight. Laura Lavine, let me come back to you. There’s another facet of this that’s gotten a lot discussion in the last several years, and probably prior to that too. It’s really the elephant in the room. When the quality of the school system comes up for the City, which is this question of a possible county-wide school district or expanding the school district in some important way. It obviously had an enormous impact on the discussion that the community had about consolidating governments and the Consensus report. How realistic do you think it is to even be thinking about some kind of single school district as a goal down the road – as a place where we are working toward in order to really address this problem? And should the next mayor be thinking about that – be trying to lay the foundation for a more serious discussion about that?
Lavine: It’s completely unrealistic, which is why the Consensus report completely ignored the Syracuse City School District – admittedly because it was too difficult a topic. When asked, why did you not address the school district, the answer was because it was too difficult. Mayoral responsibility is not connected to political ideology or someone’s former profession. It started in Boston. Mayor Bloomberg, who was a Republican, had mayoral control for years – and now Mayor DiBlasio is a Democrat, equally eager to retain mayoral control. Former Mayor Tom Young, seven years ago, was quoted as saying “It’s time for mayoral control of the schools”, and Mayor Miner did not pursue it. This is not about political party platforms. If we had an 85 percent graduation rate and we were inching up toward 90 percent, if we didn’t have the worst SAT scores among 50 upstate school districts, if we didn’t have a Syracuse Teachers Union survey – the results of which revealed that 300 teachers reported being assaulted on the job and more than half feel threatened on the job, and 21 percent of their new teachers teaching from zero to five years leave in addition to more seasoned veteran teachers – we wouldn’t need such bold decisive action, but we’re not in that category.
Reeher: Well, I’m going to interject t because I want to do – I do want to come back to this question of a county-wide district. Ben Walsh, how do you see this? Is this something that the next mayor ought to be thinking about laying the foundations for? Laura Lavine obviously thinks the answer to that is “no”, but how do you see this--
Lavine: --I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen. It’s not going to happen – it’s unrealistic--
Reeher: --going to happen?
Lavine: It’s unrealistic. You asked the– your question was this realistic? My answer’s that it’s not realistic until we turn it around.
Reeher: Okay, thank you. Ben Walsh?
Walsh: I think before we even get to that question and make the mistake that I think has been made with the Consensus issue going right to consolidated city-county, government – we have to look first at where are there’re opportunities to collaborate and to work together. And as mayor, my first step would be to begin engaging in conversations. First and foremost, with the City School District Superintendent and secondarily, with other superintendents in other parts of the county. There are certain partnerships in place that are between school districts and we need to explore where there may be more opportunities. You know, this issue of poverty and segregation is largely due to exclusionary zoning in communities in Onondaga, outside of the city of Syracuse – so I think we need to start breaking down some of those barriers, establishing relationships, and through those we might get to a point where we can think about our school districts separately. But right now, we’re not even at the table and going back to my earlier point, the first step is to bring people to the table. And that’s what I do better than anyone up here.
Reeher: Howie Hawkins, how do you see this question of a single school district for the county?
Hawkins: I think it’s got to be on the agenda. If you want to improve the schools, I mean, this is something we know since Brown v. Board of Education – where you have desegregation by race and class. The lower-class kids do better on standardized tests and come up close to the middle-class kids, and all the kids do better on things like intellectual self-confidence, creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, tolerance, empathy. So the argument – should be taken from the city to the suburbs - is that desegregation and consolidation would be better for your kids, as well our kids. And we had Gerald Grant just pass – he had a book comparing Syracuse and Raleigh, NC – where they have Wade County. They integrate by class – socioeconomic background – and the subtitle of his book is “Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh”. The rest of the subtitle could’ve been “Why the Syracuse Schools Are Bad”. And so I think if we don’t address that issue, all the other things – mayoral control, I mean, Philly, Chicago, New York. New York has got the most segregated schools in the country – they’ve had mayoral control for a long time. That is not the answer. We’ve got to really get to the issue that Martin Luther King said right here at this university in 1965, “If cities like Syracuse up North don’t deal with segregation – de facto segregation he called it cause they’re getting rid of Jim Crow segregation in the South – you’re going to lose generations of kids, and that’s what we have. It’s time to face that issue and I think the argument is strong. And you just – we maybe don’t consolidate the whole county, but adjacent school districts. We can start having exchange programs, get – you know – confidence that it’s working, and build out from there. But I think it’s an issue that’s got to be addressed and we can’t dilly around for another 50 years, or we’re going to lose generations more kids.
Reeher: Juanita Perez Williams, is what Howie Hawkins talking about, a bridge too far for the next mayor?
Perez Williams: Well, you know, I think we have to consider what he’s saying. I mean, listen – I did not support merging city and county government. And for the same reason, I would not support merging of our schools with the city and the county. These entities have different issues. 70 percent of the kids that go to our schools in the city are living in poverty. You don’t have that same element in our – our county areas. We have different issues that we need to strive to overcome. I, very much, appreciate the idea that the county is talking about sharing services within our schools. I, certainly, think we should be looking at that – the ways that we can combine our purchasing or any type of vendor consolidation, I think, is something we need to look at. If that saves revenue and if that supports our city schools more, I’m all for it. But at the end of the day I want to focus on our city schools with the very issues that they have. I have a daughter who’s an eighth-grade teacher in our city schools. And she tells me every day that the programs, the initiatives, the teachers, the policies – they’re all great efforts. But you’re dealing with, you know, challenges and struggles of the young people in our schools systems that need more support. If we were to combine our efforts with the county, would that support be diluted? I think so. And so I want to make sure as a mayor, I’m capturing the very concerns of our families and our children in our city schools and focus on helping them – so our teacher can teach, and our administrators can do their jobs, and our families can function
Reeher: Laura Lavine, I want to give you a chance and come back in and rebut some of the things because you’ve put forward something quite specific about mayoral control. And also said, quite flatly, that the idea of a greater consolidation’s unrealistic for the school system. So, do you have a response to what you’ve heard here that you want to put forward?
Lavine: Families of financial means who are interested in making educational choices for their children, often in the city of Syracuse, choose to send their children to non-public schools or they leave the city altogether. I have neighbors who are leaving – they’re moving a third of a mile away into neighboring school districts where people are paying upwards of ten thousand dollars over the asking pricing of houses – and houses are being snapped up in a matter of hours. When people are moving to Central New York they don’t say to the realtor, “Who has the best hotels downtown?” They don’t say, ”Who has the best roads?” They say “Who has the best schools and the safest neighborhoods?” The answer right now is not Syracuse. It can be, and it should be, and we can do that. But we need somebody who will stand up and say to the entire city of Syracuse, “I will be accountable for what goes on here. I’m going to be responsible. I’m going to bring together community leaders, other elected officials of local State and Federal level, have access to other financial and human resources to give the school board and the superintendent what’s needed to turn the city around, which is to turn the school district around.
Perez Williams: --But you don’t need mayoral control to do that, Laura. You can do that as a mayor that supporting your superintendent, your teachers, your families. You can do all that you’re saying but you don’t have to be a dictator, if you will, running our city schools. Because that’s what it would appear, and it would appear political. So I agree with you. We do need to do all that but I would, certainly, do it in a democratic way where we’re bringing all these people together and making decisions together as opposed to one person doing that.
Lavine: I’m sure every mayor would say that he or she has supported the city school districts. I personally do not know what support, partnered with, or work with sounds like, means, or looks like. We’re in dire straits. As I said before, we’re not at 85 percent graduation rate inching up to 90. We’ve just moved up to 60 percent. We’re in dire straits. We need bold, decisive action. This is not about being a dictator, this is not about running the schools. We have a superintendent – that’s his job. This is about a mayor who’s going to say to the entire iity, “I’m telling you that the school district is of paramount importance. I accept it, I acknowledge it, and I’m going to be responsible for it.”
Reeher: Ben Walsh, you wanted to jump in.
Walsh: I don’t want to belabor the point but I have to say, I’m the only person up here that has a personal interest – in my children – my oldest is in the city school district. I set foot in the city school every day of the week when I take my girls to school. And I will tell you that I see, firsthand, the progress that’s being made – of our teachers, of our administrators. I see firsthand in my regular dealings with our superintendent Jaime Alicea, who will by the way is relatively new to the position and has undertaken a pretty amazing healing process within a district that was very divided under the previous administration. Graduation rates are going up. The racial achievement gap has been closed. This is progress. It’s not the time to hit the reset button – it’s time to double-down on what’s working. That’s what I’m going to do as both mayor and a parent with a child in the district.
Reeher: Alright, let me go to a different topic now – and we really just have a few minutes left. But, I wanted to ask a question about the structure of the political system in this city to the four of you. Citizen frustrations with the political systems that we live under at every level have been rife in recent years and they only seem to be getting deeper and sharper. So, beyond having good working relationships with other public officials – and I guess – Ben Walsh, I’ll come back to you with this because you’ve emphasized this a lot here this evening. Beyond having - beyond having those good working relationship, do you have any specific changes or reforms in the structure of the city’s governing institutions that you would be advocating for and trying to lead for as mayor?
Walsh: My campaign theme is Rise Above – and it’s not just a slogan. It’s really a call to action. It’s about rising above the partisan politics that divides us as a community, and that’s reflected in the existing governing structure. I think by electing an Independent mayor, who is not beholden to either of the major parties, it puts us in a unique position to bring people together within government and outside of government - where party politics and the influences of party bosses is not – is not a consideration. The only consideration is what’s in the best interest of the people. I have a proven track record of doing that--
Reeher: --Well, let me jump back in. So that’s –that’s not a structural change, but are there other specific changes that you’d want to make to the way the city political system works?
Walsh: I would simply say that whether or not you want to consider it structural, I think that we need to drastically change the way in which we engage citizens in the governance process. From public participatory budgeting processes to getting citizens involved in actual creation of legislation. So my plan is, through civic engagement, to get the people more directly involved in government.
Reeher: Howie Hawkins, do you have structural changes that you’d be pushing for as mayor?
Hawkins: Oh, yes. I’ve been calling for these for years. I mean, first thing is instant runoff voting. The next mayor among the four of us--
Reeher: --and try to be brief here because I want to leave time for the other two candidates. Go ahead [laugh].
Hawkins: Alright—may be elected with most people voting for somebody else. So instant runoff voting – proportional representation on council. Right now, we have a two-party system with a winner-take-all election system which incentivizes negative campaign and basically legislation being rammed through by the majority over the minority. Instituting runoff voting, proportional representation, will create a multi-party system that tends to do around the world – and then, you have shifting coalitions depending on the issue. You’ve got to negotiate and compromise and it doesn’t pay to negatively campaign because you look a jerk as well as the jerk you’re trying to knock down. So, and the ones that are positive, rise up. We need to strengthen TNT , break them down into smaller units – neighborhood assemblies for neighborhood planning and participatory budgeting. Public campaign finance. I mean, my idea of independence is independence from the old-money structure. And I would say I’m an ndependent as well, not being on one of the two major parties. And then community broadband. Most cities like ours have their broadband utility providing – you can see the government meetings – the hearings, the school board, the city council – we don’t have that. We’ve been misused and abused by these big telecoms that have not provided us well. We need community broadband and to provide that as well as good service – affordable service – and so forth.
Reeher: Alright. There’s a lot there to chew on. We’ve only got a couple of minutes left. Juanita Perez Williams, do you have any structural change you’d be pushing?
Perez Williams: Absolutely. And I’ve been talking about this – this in-house type of political process that we have that doesn’t provide people a real opportunity to know exactly what we’re doing in this city. What plans we have, how we move forward. And so I’m talking about a structure where we’re moving from every part of the city – when we talk about what’s happening in the city – when we talk about what resolutions are on the table. People can’t show up at noon, at one o’clock in the afternoon, to make their point or talk about the issue on the very streets – and they don’t want to wait for a particular party to tell them at election time what they need to know. So, we need to take City Hall and we need to move it around this city. And we need to make sure that it’s available and accessible for the many people who have a voice, who don’t get an opportunity to be in part – to be a part – of the process and make sure that they have that. I’m also – you know – going to support the fact that we’re trying to get this state to move forward on early voting. We can no longer have a system where we depend on everybody who has working challenges get their kids to school –just having access to voting one day for – for a primary or a general election-we need to move with early voting.
Reeher: --and give Laura Lavine the last word – we’ve got about a minute left . What are your thoughts on--
Lavine: Two structural changes right off the bat. It would be combining the industrial development agencies – the City and the County into one. I would also – I’ve already called for -- seek legislation in an act banning Pay-to Play. Not only would I not be beholden to party leaders, I also would not be beholden wealthy developers donating thousands of dollars in cash to my campaign.
Reeher: One second to respond to that – I’m guessing that’s directed to you, Ben Walsh. Go ahead.
Walsh: I believe it is. I have more individual donors than any other candidate. Approximately, 10 percent of my donors come from “developers”. I’m proud that I’m receiving my input– my support from local people.
Reeher: We’ll have to leave it there. You’ve been listening to a debate among the four candidates for Mayor for the City of Syracuse – the election is November 7th. If you’ve missed any part of this debate or would like to re-listen to it, you can find it online at wrvo.org
I want to thank the candidate for participating: Laura Lavine, Howie Hawkins, Juanita Perez Williams, and Ben Walsh – thanks to all of you.
All candidates: Thank you, thank you
Reeher: And thanks again for tuning into WRVO, Public Media.