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Ben Walsh on the Campbell Conversations

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On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Ben Walsh, Mayor of the City of Syracuse. Walsh's recent budget was approved by the city council.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is city of Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. The Independent is about midway through his second term as mayor and recently presented his annual budget to the city council, which the council approved. Mayor Walsh, welcome back to the program.

Ben Walsh: Great to be with you again, Grant. Thanks for having me.

GR: It's good to have you and congratulations on your budget approval. Let me start with a question on that. So the budget, $310 million, it included some small property tax increases and an increase in the water fee. But what do you think are the most important new aspects of this year's budget that you would want our listeners to know about?

BW: Well, there were two objectives, two primary objectives for the budget. One was to continue down our path towards fiscal sustainability. We've been operating with a structural deficit throughout this administration and going back at least one, probably two administrations. So we wanted to make sure that we are working towards a balanced budget long term. That's why the property tax rate increase was important. But at the same time, the second objective was to accommodate and account for the growth that we are seeing and that we will be seeing. And in order to do that, we need to make sure that we're delivering the current services that we deliver today as effectively and efficiently as possible, but also wherever possible, be increasing that level of those services and again, accommodating that growth. So I believe that we were able to accomplish both of those objectives, but it was a challenge. Thankfully, we worked closely with the council and we were able to do it.

GR: So would you say anticipating growth? You know, the thing that pops into my mind when you say that obviously is Micron. Is that what you have in mind primarily, or are there other things too, that you're seeing?

BW: Well, Micron is certainly foremost on our mind. But even before Micron, the 2020 census showed that we grew as a city in population for the first time in seven years. So we expect that to continue, there are a number of positive trend lines. But yeah, Micron changes the game. I think that we were already on an upward trajectory, but it's going to accelerate that trajectory. And of course it's going to have an impact well beyond city limits. But we do anticipate that it's going to have a significant impact on the city, specifically on housing and development. And we want to make sure that we are preparing the services that can accommodate that development.

GR: And on the issue of sustainability that you mentioned right at the beginning, I was going to ask this question later, but I'll ask it now. On the question of thinking about the relationship between the city budget and the state budget and state spending and the money from the federal government that came from COVID, I think it was a little while ago that I saw this, and I think it was state Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli who wrote this piece in the Post-Standard where he made the argument basically that the healthier budget situation in the city was the product of federal relief money being directed through the state. And so, it sounds like to me, part of what you tried to build into the budget was a plan for returning to, for lack of a better word, I would say returning to normal and not assuming that those monies are always going to be there. Is that right?

BW: Right. So I've had this conversation with Assemblyman Magnarelli, I think he got it partly right. Certainly that the federal relief, the ARPA funding was a lifesaver, it was a godsend. But largely because it stopped us in our tracks and began to push us backwards in our path towards fiscal sustainability that we were already well on our way to. We were reducing our reliance on the fund balance, we were getting to a point where we saw light at the end of the tunnel. Our mid-year budget report, before the pandemic hit, so, early 2020 showed that we were going to run a surplus, a significant one for the first time in a long time. So that federal relief did exactly what it was supposed to do. It helped us, it helped accelerate the recovery from the pandemic. And to your point about the one-time nature of it, we were very intentional in how we developed our spending plan in a way that made investments that would allow for future revenue growth and not investments that created new operational expenses that we were going to have to maintain after that one-time shot was gone.

GR: Yeah, I want to come back to another question about that, but I think I want to wait for that. But I want to move to the state budget now because that's something that that just passed as well. Is there anything in the state budget that you think is of particular importance to Syracuse or the Syracuse region?

BW: Well, there's a lot of things in the state budget that are going to benefit the city of Syracuse. Governor Hochul and the legislature have been very good in recent years about increasing funding for infrastructure, specifically roads, through CHIPS funding, through the touring routes funding. And we've been able to use that to significantly increase the number of roads that we're paving. The number of dig-once infrastructure projects that we're doing. There are investments in housing, even though the governor didn't, wasn't able to get her housing compact done, there are still significant investments of housing. So there's a lot of really good stuff in there for us. Unfortunately, getting back to the city's budget, the one thing that wasn't in there and hasn't been in there for 15 years was an increase in state aid, for, state municipal aid, we call it AIM. That has been stagnant. We receive about $72 million in state funding and that has been the number for the past 15 years. And when you look at how the state budget has grown exponentially since then and the city budget has grown more modestly, but still grown. When you consider that that is our third largest source of revenue, number one is sales tax, very little control over it. Number two is property tax, some control over it and we exerted that control this budget season. The third is state aid and again, we have no control over that, but the state does. And I think if they were able to provide some modest increases along the way, we wouldn't have that structural deficit. But they haven't, we do, and we're managing through it.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Syracuse City Mayor Ben Walsh. So specifically on some of the things that you have been proposing in recent months. One of them that I want to ask you about was this specific pilot program for a larger program to reduce gun violence in the city. And the city has seen an increase in homicides and assaults and in recent years, as have most cities around the country. So could you just briefly tell us about that pilot program?

BW: Sure. So back in 2022, in my State of the City, I announced the creation of a mayor's office to reduce gun violence. It's a model that we were replicating from New York City and other communities. A community based organization, the National Action Network had been advocating for it. And so we created that program, we hired a director, his name is Lateef Johnson-Kinsey and he's been hard at work over the past year. We also have a fellow from Harvard Kennedy School, who I remind falls behind the Maxwell School in terms of public administration rankings.

GR: (laughter)

BW: But they have worked hard over the past year to develop a plan which we call our Safer Streets Plan and it's based on best practices. It's looking at what programs have worked in other communities and really tries to get at the root causes of the issues that we're dealing with. I mean, we've done so much to address gun violence, but ultimately what we haven't done effectively is engage the most high risk individuals. Those people that are out there now that are carrying guns around might be using those guns, but have yet to be arrested. I want to be crystal clear because I think this got lost in the communication. If you are committing crimes if you are participating in gun violence in the city of Syracuse, we are going to arrest you and we are going to hold you accountable. But if you are at high risk for those activities and again, may have been part of them, we want to engage these individuals before they pick up that gun again or take a shot and address the root causes that have led them to where they are today. Things like concentrated poverty and generational poverty. So connecting them with educational programs and workforce development programs. Providing them with skills in support that they arguably have, likely have never received in their household or anywhere else. Cognitive behavioral therapy, many of these individuals are surrounded by trauma and that has a significant impact on their mental health and they need therapy. They need health care, mental health care and we're offering that. Conflict resolution, again, many of these young people have never learned how to process their emotions, their anger, and they are surrounded by violence and they perpetuate that violence. These are things that the types of supports that, again, we really haven't done for those most high risk individuals. And it's those high risk individuals that wreak havoc for our at-risk individuals and everybody else in the community. So while, you know, people have chosen to focus on specifically one aspect of it where there's a stipend involved in participating in the program, a financial stipend, I think they lose sight of the fact that these are people that have not received these types of supports and that unless they do, we're going to continue to see this the same cycle play out.

GR: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the stipend. And it has, you're right, it has, I think, garnered just an awful lot of attention. And my understanding is the plan is to pay these high risk individuals about $400 a month if they're if they're going to participate in the program. And as you said, you know, they have to not engage in criminal activity to be eligible. I should note that Rochester, my understanding is Rochester has a similar program…

BW: That's right.

GR: …that pays more than double that amount. But could you just say a little bit more about why that is important? Why the city needs to do that?

BW: Sure. Yeah, again, we didn't make this up. We didn't invent this. We went out and we found best practices. And the data shows that when there is a financial incentive component to these programs, they work better. And that's because, for a few reasons. Number one, while these people may be involved in high risk activities, everyone's time has value. And the way in which they're spending their time right now, they are compensated for in different ways, whether it's through drug dealing or status or whatever, but there's value there. So we have to replace that value and reflect that value as we engage them. We also have to provide positive reinforcement. You know, again, there's a lot of reasons why these people aren't on the right track. But if they are on the right track, that positive reinforcement, that money isn't going to fundamentally change their economic condition. But it will again, it supports good behavior. For those that ask about supporting people that aren't involved in this activity, we have a lot of programs for that and ones that pay. And we provide a financial stipend for our Pathways to Apprenticeship construction training program. Stipends are a proven method for many different types of programs, including this type dealing with high risk individuals. So again, we're doing it because it works.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Ben Walsh, an independent who's serving in his second term as mayor of the city of Syracuse. Well, we talked about COVID relief money a little bit earlier in the program. I want to come back to that and link it to this pilot program that you had been discussing before the break. And again, my understanding is the money for that program, about $1,000,000 would come from this chunk of money that the city received, ultimately from the federal government through COVID relief. And if that's wrong, correct me. But my question coming out of this is how do those spending decisions get made? Is there any difference between that pot of money and the other spending that the city does? You mentioned earlier that you wanted to be very intentional about spending that money and not create, sort of, legacy commitments down the road, but to use it to build things that would create return. But is this something where the mayor can have more control than normally the mayor would be able to regarding the relationship with the city council? Or is it all just exactly the same?

BW: Yeah, in terms of the process for spending the money, it's the same. We still need to get common council authorization for the spending. We do have certain parameters and constraints from the federal government in terms of how we can spend that money. But we developed the plan with a good sense of what those regulations were going to look like. But again, I think that in terms of where we focused the spending, certainly areas where we, investing in housing as an example, where, by building new houses you're developing, you're generating property value, property tax, those opportunities provide a return on investment. The other area that we looked at was kind of proof of concept. Areas where we could be innovative and nimble and try different things. And if they work, then make the case, whether it's to city taxpayers and the common council that we should be spending city funds on it in the future, or going out and securing additional funds. Those were two of the main criteria that we considered when deciding whether or not to allocate funds to a particular project or purpose.

GR: And remind me on the pilot program that we were discussing. Has the council approved that or is that still being negotiated?

BW: It is still being worked on. So, the council really took issue with two aspects of it. One was the stipend, and I don't want to speak for the entire council, there were some councilors that were more vocal on it than others. The other aspect was the procurement of the services. So, the individuals that we're working with, it is a highly specialized skill set that not many individuals or organizations have in this community. So, we felt based on our relationships and based on other programs that we had a good handle on the universe of service providers that we could work with. And so we've been engaging with those service providers throughout this past year. Just first and foremost to make sure that they're coordinating their work, which was something that wasn't being done sufficiently before this office was created. But then additionally to identify where their strengths are, where we could put them into the program. So we had essentially already identified the service providers we wanted to work with and the general dollar amounts that we wanted to allocate to them. The council, for understandable reasons, said, you know what, we're not convinced that this that these organizations represent the universe. And so we would like you to put out an RFP, which is something that, you know, other than lost time we certainly didn't take any issue with. So the RFP process is about to come to a close. We'll review that then we'll go back to the Council with proposed allocations based on the RFP process and revisit the stipend component as well.

GR: I understand. And as far as this chunk of money that came out of the COVID relief, I think it's about $123 million total. How much of that has been spent then? How much is left?

BW: Yeah, so we've spent about half of it. We have essentially earmarked all of it and the council has authorized the spending of all of it. There's an interim step between spending and authorization, essentially obligating and contracting and the other half is within that part of the process. Unfortunately, we are focusing, we do have to look even harder at where we are, even though we think we believe we're well ahead of many of our peer communities. There are discussions in Washington about clawing back those funds which is frustrating and disappointing. But we want to make sure that none of those funds are at risk, which means moving the process along as quickly as possible. But it isn't all accounted for.

GR: And I want to come back to Micron, which we talked about in the first half of the program, and link that to not only your anticipation of additional growth for the city population-wise, but also another topic that you and I have discussed several times in the past, which, prior to Micron was going to be the biggest economic development engine, and that was the redevelopment of the area surrounding I-81, the East Adams Street neighborhood. And so I wanted to check in with you about that, particularly in light of the Micron Development, because I imagine that's going to change the effects of that project significantly. So how is all that coming together, in your view, the thinking about the redevelopment of the East Adams Street area, then linking that to Micron and then thinking about the growth of the city and managing that because there's a lot of moving parts there.

BW: There are. Certainly Micron is going to fundamentally change the community in many different ways. That being said, Micron would not have made the commitment that they made if they felt like the interstate I-81 project and specifically the community grid alternative, the preferred alternative was a threat to their success. They understood the project, we discussed it, and they made that decision anyway. So, while certainly it's going to have an impact on our transportation patterns throughout the region, this suggestion that somehow we would come to a different conclusion with Micron, with the introduction of Micron, you know, based on that premise, any new project or new initiative, granted, few, if any, are as significant as Micron, but any introduction of a change into the environment would prompt a revisiting of the entire process. So, we feel confident that the community grid alternative works with the growth of Micron and that project is moving forward. While there is litigation that still remains, both the state, the city is a party to that case as well as the petitioners, the Renew 81 or whatever their name is. They are, we’re all appealing the Supreme Court's decision. But really that decision is just limited to impacting the elevated viaduct. The rest of the project is allowed to move forward and is moving forward. And actually if you drive up to the northern suburbs around the 481 interchange you will see work being done, trees being cleared, fences being removed. So, the first three or four contracts associated with the project are moving forward full steam ahead. The other ones will wait until the court process has exhausted itself. But it is not holding up the project at this point and I'm grateful for that because to your point, it's a significant investment and it's going to provide a significant benefit to this community.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Syracuse City Mayor Ben Walsh. So, one last question about Micron that popped into my head. I'm thinking of something that I read the county executive Ryan McMahon say recently regarding accommodating the additional population through high density housing areas. And he listed a few of the towns around Clay and Cicero, including I think those two, as being areas where this would be primarily happening. And I'm just wondering, is it going to be the case that the city and the county kind of compete in a way maybe a friendly competition for some of the settlement of the folks that are coming to work for Micron? Because obviously that would do amazing things for the tax base of the city if you could get them, you know, inside the city there.

BW: Sure. I mean, as mayor, I'm certainly focused on maximizing the benefit to the city. I don't think that that has to be done at the expense of other municipalities. The county executive and I talk about this very issue all of the time. And to his credit, you know, the work that he's doing through Plan Onondaga, which is the county's comprehensive plan, really supports what we believe is the right way to grow, which is from the inside out, from existing town and village and urban centers and out from there. So, utilizing existing infrastructure. When you look at the counties’ estimates for the growth and the new housing, this city is going to be the largest beneficiary of it, but it's not going to be the only one. My goal is, again, maximize the benefit for the city and learn from the mistakes of the past decades where we've sprawled without growth. We have infrastructure just in the city alone that can accommodate a population of around over 220,000. And we're at just under 150 right now. So let's, let's build out the existing infrastructure, repair the existing infrastructure that we have, again, not just in our city but in our village in town centers. And then if we max out, then we can have a different discussion. But we've got a long way to go there. And I think if done properly, and I think the county and the city are on the same page, it can really help revitalize a number of those centers that have lacked much investment in recent years.

GR: We've got about 4 minutes left. I want to squeeze a couple of questions in about things at the federal level, if I could. So we'll switch gears a bit. But, as an independent mayor, I'm very, very curious to hear your thoughts about this presidential unity ticket possibility that's being put forward by the group No Labels. And a few weeks ago on this program, I had Ryan Clancy from that organization on to explain and argue for it. You know, basically the gist is it's an effort to get on the ballot, first of all, in the presidential election cycle in a number of different states, more than half of them. And the idea is to field, if they believe it is necessary, a third party bid for the presidency should the nominations go to individuals that the nation as a whole has pretty clearly indicated it doesn't want to see run or be elected or reelected. And so Joe Biden is in that category right now, as is former President Donald Trump. Do you have thoughts on this unity ticket possibility? I mean, it sounds a little bit like, you know, the Ben Walsh plan, I guess to some degree.

BW: So I'm generally aware of it. I've heard a little bit about it. Not intimately familiar but ultimately, I think it's a good thing. I said it back when I ran in 2017, more options is better. And so I understand the concern about, you know, taking votes away from certain candidates. But you know what? I don't think that gives the people enough credit. And I think that if they can put forth a credible candidate that gives a viable alternative, that's good for democracy. You know, the two major parties have gone out of their way to maintain their duopoly and to push out any other competing party. When I first ran there were eight parties on the ballot. Today there are four. That's not by accident. That's because New York state government went out of their way to make it harder to achieve ballot access. So, we need to hold both of those parties accountable. We need to give the people choices. And if this process leads to that, then I'm supportive of it.

GR: And finally, I wanted to ask you about our relatively new member of Congress for the Syracuse area, Brandon Williams. He's off to, I think, a curious start in that he joined the Problem Solvers Caucus, which was a little odd, I think, at first because he criticized John Katko, the previous incumbent, but Katko was one of the few Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, so he's joined the same caucus. His voting record so far has been pretty loyal to Republican leadership. So he hasn't broken so far from that as often as Katko would have. So I guess two questions here, if you can in a minute or so. Early impressions of him and what's been your working relationship so far?

BW: Looking forward to getting to know him better, we had lunch shortly after he was elected. We are trying to get on schedule with a standing meeting with some regular cadence. He's still feeling his way through his new schedule, so that hasn't happened yet. But I think joining the Problem Solvers Caucus was a welcome sign from my perspective. You know, you look at the issues that are that are facing our country right now, opioid addiction, the proliferation of illegal guns, issues around the border. These are not, they have become partisan issues, but they're inherently they're not and I think if the right people come together they can be solved. And so I'm hopeful there. But again, we really haven't had a chance to sit down and really dig in. But I'm looking forward to doing that with him.

GR: Great, we'll have to leave it there. That was city of Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. Mayor Walsh, as always, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

BW: Thank you, Grant. Happy to be here, take care.

GR: Thank you. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO, Public Media Conversations in the Public Interest.

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.