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Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh on the Campbell Conversations

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Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh

A little over a year ago, Ben Walsh rewrote Syracuse history, assembling a diverse bipartisan coalition, and winning the 2017 race for mayor as an independent for the first time in over a century. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Walsh about his first year in office, and what's to come in the next three, including his notion of a coming 'Syracuse Surge.'

Interview transcript

Reeher: So, let’s just start with the basic question. Looking back over the year, what would you regard as the most significant accomplishments for your administration and for the city more generally?

Walsh: Well, it’s been an amazing year. I knew going into the job that I was going to love it, but I love it even more than I thought I could. [That] doesn’t mean it’s easy. I have had some really difficult days and some significant challenges, but as I look back, a number of things stand out. I said when I went into office my top priority was to surround myself with great people, with a great team, and I really feel like I’ve been able to do that. And many of them came on early. We’ve had some recent additions, including Chief Buckner, but overall, I think we set the right tone early on in the administration, developing a real solid relationship with the Common Council, which helped us to get a number of things done early on, probably starting with our budget, which was an important first step. So, there’s lots more I could talk about, but overall, I think it was a good year. I learned a lot, but I think we made some good progress.

Reeher: And you had extensive experience working at city hall before becoming mayor and also just a general familiarity in working in different capacities with the city and city government, so I am curious to know, as mayor now, what surprised you the most about this job that you didn’t see coming?

Walsh: There really weren’t a lot of surprises, I felt. After spending six years at City Hall, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. I think the challenge is, I don’t know if it was a surprise as much as something that required adjustment, you don’t get any easy questions in this job. There are no easy decisions. If they’re easy, then they’re made somewhere else in the government structure so that the tough ones end up on my desk, and again, not something that surprised me but something that took some getting used to. But again, that’s what I signed up for, and I embrace that challenge.

Reeher: One of the things I was curious about in that regard – and I’m thinking here about, well, one instance would be governors who become president, and George W. Bush would be a classic example of this, the thing he said as a presidential candidate about telling the states what to do or telling other countries what to do, and then the way the world looked different to him from the oval office – you before were in a position where you would be advocating to the mayor, “We need to do this. We need to do that.” Now, you’re the mayor and weighing five or 10 or 15 different similar asks to you. So, how has that been to sort of be the “no” guy as well as being the “please say yes” guy?

Walsh: I think it has helped me to relate to and work with my department heads having been in that position. There are certain things that, when I was the head of economic development, they were the most significant, important things that I thought were facing in City Hall. And from the perspective of the mayor, it’s one of a number of significant issues. And so, it has helped me. While it may not be the most important thing in my world that day, it very well may be the biggest challenge my department head is facing. And so, again, having that perspective and being able to relate to them, I think, has been helped. I also think interacting with the Common Council, it was in a different capacity, but in order to get anything done in my previous job, I still had to have solid relationships with the council, and a number of those councilors are still on the council. And they look back at my time as a department head and said, “You’re one of the department heads who we knew would come to us and make sure we were briefed and informed before important votes were made.” And they should expect that kind of courtesy. They don’t always get it, but I’ve tried in both positions to make sure that we don’t catch them by surprise and they’re in a position to make informed decisions. So, all that is helped.

Reeher: And so, how’s that relationship been? Because there’s been some history in the past of some conflict with previous administrations, so how’s that been this year?

Walsh: It’s been solid. I can pick up the phone and call any one of the common councilors and have a respectful conversation with them. We don’t always agree on things. They haven’t always supported what we put forth, but I think there’s a mutual level of respect there. And so, yeah, as long as we’re focused on the issues, I think we’ll be successful. And one of the things that has not really factored in and I’m hoping won’t is politics. I only just finished my first year, so I’m hopeful, as I get closer to re-election time, that won’t become a distraction because, oftentimes, that can be in government. But, up to this point, it hasn’t been, and I’ll tell you, it sure makes getting things done a lot easier.

Reeher: This is a detail, but it popped into my head as you were talking about that relationship. I seem to remember there’s an aspect of the open government meetings law – I don’t have the language of that, you would know that – but where you can only talk to so many councilors at once. And then, you’re not allowed to do that without making it a formal thing. Explain that to me. And has that been an issue? Because I would think, if you’re trying to have good relationships, you want to be able, like you said, to pick up the phone and call. But maybe you’re not allowed to talk to more than two of them, I don’t know.

Walsh: The magic number is four, so you can’t have more than four in the room. So, we have leadership meetings on council weeks right before their study sessions, so we have the Common Council president, Helen Hudson, the majority leader, Steve Thompson, the pro-tem, Khalid Bey, and the minority leader, Joe Carni. So, we look to them to oftentimes convey information from our office to the rest of their colleagues. So, between that, and then also, as we’re preparing legislation, we try to rely on the committee chairs, so if it’s a public works issue, we’ll go to Councilor Greene and etc. So, there’s different ways to make sure that the information is getting to everyone. But yeah, you can’t just pull everybody in the room whenever you want and get everybody on the same page. But the rules are in place for a reason, and we want to make sure we’re being open and transparent in the way in which we govern.

Reeher: So, one of the new features in city hall that you touted in your recent state of the city address was the Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation. And this was created, in my understanding, through support from the Bloomberg Philanthropies. Tell me a bit about that office. How many staffers are attached to it? And going back to thinking about accomplishments from the first year, can you give me an example of something that office has done to improve the way that city administers its services?

Walsh: The API is a critical part of our team. It did start with what was previously known as the Innovation Team, which was a Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded initiative that started under Mayor Miner. I was excited to continue that innovation work, but I wanted to broaden it in a way that made it sustainable and a permanent part of city government. And so, that’s what led to the Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation. So, we still have the innovation function, and currently, we’re still following the Bloomberg model of focusing on a particular issue for a year or so. And right now, that issue is housing stability. But we expanded it, in large part, because coming in – and I credit my time here at Maxwell, earning my MPA degree, as influencing the way in which I went about this – but one of my priorities was creating a performance management system. And so, the API oversees that program. We have an online dashboard that measures a series of objectives and key results, and it’s information that’s accessible to us internally but also accessible to the public. And again, it’s all about, in addition to being innovative, we want to use that innovation to drive performance but also to ensure we’re holding ourselves accountable and we’re giving our constituents an opportunity to hold us accountable as well.

Reeher: You said something in your state of the city address about housing stability that absolutely stunned me. I want to come back to it later, but I just note the connection there when this is the thing that your team is going to be looking at this year. We’ll get to that in a minute, but let me ask a different question first. And it really gets at going back to your state of the city address, the big idea that you put forward there, which was this notion of a Syracuse surge. And I wanted to ask you a couple questions about that. You talked about the Syracuse surge and then a coming fourth industrial revolution, which will follow the third revolution, the one I think we’re still going through involving computing and the internet skills associated with those. And I’m paraphrasing a bit, but you noted in the past, in your speech, that Syracuse as a city, and the residents within the city, were able to profitably catch the waves of the first two industrial revolutions, but we missed out, largely, on the third wave, and that contributed to us landing in some of the challenges of poverty and inequality that the city’s currently facing. So, tell our listeners, if you could, what’s the fourth industrial revolution? And how do you see Syracuse residents being helped to catch this new wave that’s coming?

Walsh: So, the fourth industrial revolution, which, arguably, is already underway, is all based on connectivity. So, you think about all the smart devices – whether it’s our phones, our computers, our vehicles, everything – it’s based on the premise that everything is connected. Another reference that you may be familiar with is the internet of things. And so, as we look at the fourth industrial revolution and the opportunities that we have to compete and to thrive in it, it really does give our city and our region an opportunity to hit the reset button, understanding that we didn’t thrive and compete in the third industrial revolution, which is why, when you look at our poverty statistics and our other barriers to opportunity, there’s a direct correlation there. So, the idea of Syracuse surge really came together around the opportunity that exists with the fourth industrial revolution and the investments that are being made right now, starting with our own investment of up to $38 million of city funds into a smart city network, which is associated with the acquisition of our streetlight infrastructure. So, again, we’re at this point where all these things are converging, and we think we have a real opportunity to move our community ahead and we’re surges the way in which we’ll do that.

Reeher: So, in describing that surge, also in your speech, you highlighted the Blueprint 15 initiative. And this was an initiative in the early stages for the poor neighborhood that is under and around I-81, and last week, two of the leaders from that initiative were guests on the Campbell Conversations. Our listeners can find that conversation at wrvo.org. Part of that neighborhood revitalization, as you described it, was a new regional school emphasizing science, technology, engineering, arts and math, otherwise known as STEAM. So, tell us a bit about that. What will that school cost? How will it be funded? What’s the certainty of the funding at this point? Where are we on that one?

Walsh: When I talk with businesses around the region, when I ask them what their biggest challenge is, some people might assume they’re going to say, “taxes” or they’re going to say, “finding the right site.” But increasingly – and this isn’t unique to just our region – the answer is “workforce.” Businesses are having a very difficult time finding a workforce that meets their needs. And so, the idea of creating a regional STEAM school to prepare our young people for the jobs of the new economy of the fourth industrial revolution is a truly exciting one. And the way in which we’re doing it, I think, makes it transformational. We’re doing it in a historic building on the southern end of downtown, really at the gateway to the south side, around the old 15th Ward, which we know has historically been marginalized and under-resourced. So, we have the ability to a state-of-the-art school in this strategically located part of the community but also, not just to make it available to the city of Syracuse students, but also available to students from throughout the county and, in doing so, start to break down some more of those barriers between the city and the suburbs. And it really builds off of a model that has taken hold in the school district around the career and technical education programs that are thriving and have become the envy of school districts around the region and around the state. So, again, it’s another example of where we have a number of opportunities converging. And again, when we look at how we can be the most competitive in the new economy, in addition to making these strategic investments, the significant thing we can do is make sure we have a workforce that’s ready for these jobs. And the STEAM school’s going to be a big part of that.

Reeher: Before the break, we were talking about the new STEAM school. Tell me a bit more about the funding stream for that because it’s a pretty ambitious dollar figure that I saw. So, where’s that coming from? How’s that going to be put together?

Walsh: So, we’re still putting the budget together, but the project is likely to come in somewhere around the $90 million range. So, it’s a significant undertaking. We are currently working with the state education department to ensure that we’re all on the same page with the funding model. We do think that there will be an opportunity to fund it much in the way other schools are funded, which is that the state will reimburse a significant portion of the eligible cost. So, that’s what we’re really doing right now. The state has a formula that they use based on maximum cost allowance. We’re waiting to get a number back from them as to how much of the costs they’ll be able to reimburse. The county, who’s been a ready and willing partner under County Executive Ryan McMahon, is considering actually doing the bonding for that project. But once we figure out what the state funding is, the will likely be a gap, and then, we’ll go about trying to fill that gap. We’re looking at the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, the URI funds that have already been set aside by the state as hopefully helping to fill that gap. I made a presentation to the Regional Economic Development Council this week on that. So, numbers are still coming together, but again, we’re talking, probably, close to $90 million if not more, and it will be a combination of state and local resources that’ll make it happen.

Reeher: And you also gave, in your speech, names to two city areas at the southern end of downtown – Center City Innovation Hub and the south-side campus on the south side. Tell me a bit more about what these areas will be, how they’re going to develop and then how they relate to this big vision you’re putting forward about taking advantage of the fourth industrial revolution.

Walsh: I started with the investment that the city’s making and our own technology infrastructure and our streetlight infrastructure and the smart city initiative that we’re undertaking. That is a significant part of positioning ourselves to thrive in this new industrial revolution. But we can’t do it alone, so when we looked at where in the private sector the most investment and innovation was happening, we centered around what we’re now calling the Center City Innovation Hub, which is really anchored by the Tech Garden. After a number of years getting its feet under it, the Tech Garden is now full. It’s regularly producing, growing tech-oriented firms that are choosing to stay within that immediate vicinity. We really have an innovation district or corridor developing around Warren Street coming out of the Tech Garden. So, you look at success stories like TCGPlayer, like SpinCar, like Efficise, the Digital Hyve, Sidearm Sports, all of those are along that Warren Street corridor. So, when we’re developing our strategy, we have to base it in reality and that the most organic growth is happening right in that area. So, we really wanted to double down on that. We wanted to brand that in a way that attracts more investment. That’s why we’re proposing to expand the Tech Garden. That’s another one of our priority projects. So, that’s where the Center City Innovation Hub came from. And looking south from there, when we started to look at the assets that we wanted to invest in – from the STEAM school to the SUNY Educational Opportunity Center, EOC, which is, again, a critical partner in developing a workforce – when you look at the existing ITC high school where a lot of career and technical education programs are thriving – really what we have is a campus of sorts. And so, we wanted to, again, really brand that in a way that draws additional investment and attention. And that’s a big part of the surge strategy. It’s acknowledging that, while we have some really exciting new projects, there’s a lot already happening right now, and we need to make sure that we’re telling that story as we’re looking for what’s next.

Reeher: I know from a conversation that we had just prior to coming on the air here that you’re in the very preliminary stages of working up the budget, so I won’t ask you detailed questions about that. I’ll ask you something about last year’s budget and look forward to this year. You budgeted last year and got approved a new class of police and a new class of firefighters, both. That’s something, I think as I recall, previous administration made a decision the city couldn’t afford. And there were conflicts, I think, with the city council over that. That was one of the sources of conflict. So, question on that is how can the city afford them now? And do you have plans already in place for what the next year will bring in that regard?

Walsh: [I give] credit to the common council. The budget that I inherited when I took over in 2018 did budget for a new police class. So, the previous administration had chosen not to use those funds, and for understandable reasons, you have to weigh the cost of bringing on new officers versus the cost of overtime associated with filling the gap of not having a fully staffed department. So, we decided to take advantage of the funding that the council put in place. We brought a new class on. They are now out on the streets. We had sufficient funding through our budget that we passed to bring another class on. And again, you have to balance the cost of bringing on new officers versus the cost of overtime, but you also have to balance that with public safety needs and how many officers do we need to ensure that we are providing our constituents with a sufficient level of public safety. And so, again, it was really through the support and partnership of the council that we’ve been in a position to fund those, and it also has to do with priorities. Not to suggest anything about the previous administration, but oftentimes, we get caught in using our fiscal challenges as a crutch. But the reality is, every year, we spend $240 million of city funds. That’s real money. And so, it really comes down to how do we prioritize the funding and again, public safety. And for me, having listened along the campaign trial, [that] was one area where we really had to prioritize. 

Reeher: And it looks like the mayor’s office is starting to reorganize administratively, changing some positions, adding some new positions, and again, in your recent address, you touted the increased centralization of the city’s financial operations as one of the changes that is for the better. So, do you have another major reorganization for the mayor’s office in the works? Are there any enhanced partnerships or maybe even mergers with the county that are being explored in thinking about that? Where’s that going?

Walsh: So, we started with, as you pointed out, with our financial operations and started to centralize those. Really, we’ve only started to scratch the surface in that area. We created what we’re calling our tiger team, which pulled a few financial staffers out of individual departments, brought them together to identify efficiencies. We plan to do that on a much larger scale, and this year, we’re expanding on our tiger team. We’re bringing in some of the larger departments, like the Department of Public Works. But there are other areas where we’ve identified that centralization is important. Namely, the one that we’re going to focus on this year is human resources. We have an office of personnel in labor relations, but we do not provide a robust human resources service to all of our departments. We have a number of HR-type functions in each of the departments, and what that results in is there’s a lot of hiring and firing that’s going on that is not coordinated with our financial operations, with our budget, let alone with the mayor’s office. So, that’s an area that we’re looking at heading into this year, and we’ll look for other opportunities as well.

Reeher: So, I want to come back to this statistic that I alluded to earlier regarding housing. And again, your team’s looking at housing this year. When you were talking about the poverty challenges that the city faces in your state of the city address, you cited a particular statistic that the innovation team uncovered, and I really have to say, it just floored me. And that’s that a quarter of the city’s population moves one or more times per year. It’s astonishing.

Walsh: [It] floored me, too.

Reeher: And it’s really, I think, a telling statistic of the size of the challenges that some residents in the city face. It’s a significant challenge in and of itself, too, but I think it’s indicative of that. So, we’ve got about three minutes left to tackle this huge problem, but what can be done about that? Because, as you pointed out in your speech, that involves so much disruption and starting over.

Walsh: I think what makes it so compelling is we can all relate to it. Most of us have moved at one point, probably more times than that, in our lives. And it’s always disruptive, no matter where you are on the economic spectrum. But when you think about from a perspective of living in poverty, it becomes that much more daunting, and it has an impact on young people who may have to switch schools, adults that have to get to their job – it may impact the way in which they can do that if they have to change bus routes. So, really, like any other issue, now, we’re digging down into it, uncovering what is contributing to that. One example is evictions, which is why we had a city-wide book club this past summer reading the book “Evicted” because eviction policies have a significant influence, both formal evictions and informal evictions. Looking at other barriers, we have a rental registry. How are we using that? How are we partnering with the county, who’s providing rental subsidies to landlords? How are we bringing all those resources and processes together in a way to address that issue? So, that’s what we’re spending time doing now and again, the idea being if we can keep people more stable in their houses, it gives them an opportunity to catch up, whether it’s in school, in their jobs or other places in life.

Reeher: I wonder – and we’ve only got about a minute left, but on that point – whether it would be possible to identify the residents that might qualify for something like an emergency assistance fund where you can say, “All right, you’re on the verge of having to move. We can see in the future how you might be able to stay. We’ll give you this,” or loan you this, however you want to set it up, “so that you create more stability that way.”

Walsh: That is one of the options that we’re looking at. We’re going to be announcing probably in March a number of recommendations to improve housing stability and having some sort of fund, whether it’s for foreclosure prevention or for down payments that we can use. So, yeah, that’s exactly what we’re focused on, and you’ll be hearing more soon.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.