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For the next mayor: big, tough problems

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"Immense and perhaps intractable": That's how, in his recent State of the City address, Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson described his successor's challenges. He could have as easily used the words "overwhelming and perhaps impossible."

            Johnson is an optimist, though; and perhaps he wanted to provide a bit of hope for the candidates in this year's campaign for mayor.

            Rochester, like many other cities, is in an extremely serious position: Residents' needs and government expenses are rising, and the city's tax base has been declining. In part, that decline is due to corporate cutbacks and consolidations. Kodak, for instance, is downsizing not only its work force but also the number of buildings it operates in Rochester.

            Twenty years ago, said Johnson, "at least 33 major financial institutions were located around the Four Corners intersection of downtown." Today "only a handful are left," he said. "Lincoln First, Bankers Trust, Central Trust, Chemical Bank, First Federal, Manufacturers Hanover, Monroe Savings, Columbia Savings, Goldome --- these and many more are now gone. As the banking industry consolidated nationwide, operations were moved out of Rochester, leaving many vacant downtown offices and buildings."

            "A big challenge, then," said Johnson, "is the city's shrinking revenues from commercial properties. As businesses pay a smaller share of taxes, an inordinate amount of pressure is placed on city homeowners."

            And many of those property owners --- homeowners as well as landlords who rent to low-income residents --- can not afford higher taxes. "An estimated 62 percent of city residents earn at or below the minimum amount necessary to support a working family," Johnson said. "These are people who truly can't afford to pay more taxes for basic public services." Nor, he said, can they go without those services.

            "I'm not talking about people who are trying to bilk the system," said Johnson. "I'm talking about the working poor and poor children."

Another factor in the city's crisis is suburban sprawl. Thousands of homeowners have left the city, sometimes for other regions of the country, sometimes simply for Rochester's suburbs. Left behind: thousands of poor people who, because of the lack of affordable housing and transportation in the suburbs, are literally confined to the city. As a result, Rochester has become, as Johnson put it, the "warehouse" for the entire region's poor.

            "Not even Martin Luther King," said Johnson, "foresaw the extreme racial and economic segregation of metro areas like Rochester 40 years after the Civil Rights laws went into effect --- prosperous, mostly Caucasian suburbs surrounding a poor, mostly minority city."

            Rochester's tax base has begun to grow, said Johnson, "but not nearly enough to offset the nearly $900 million loss of the previous 10 years."

Compounding the city's problems is the huge amount of tax-exempt property in the city: 30 percent, far more than any of the city's suburbs. The University of Rochester, county and federal offices, hospitals, museums, entertainment venues like the Eastman Theatre and the Blue Cross Arena: All serve residents throughout the Greater Rochester area. But city taxpayers provide the police and fire protection for those facilities. City taxpayers maintain many of the roads that non-city residents use to get to those facilities. And city taxpayers pay higher property taxes to make up for the taxes those facilities don't pay.

            The city has made progress strengthening neighborhoods and attracting new businesses and residents downtown, but state and federal budget cuts are working against those efforts.

            • Every day brings new reports of Bush administration attacks on programs that help the poor and their communities. Johnson noted that the administration wants to cut funding for housing vouchers --- crucial assistance that helps poor families live in decent housing. The administration wants to cut funding for home heating assistance, police, and brownfield clean-up. It wants to reduce funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, which Rochester has used successfully to redevelop downtown, improve neighborhoods, and help low-income homeowners repair their homes. Some Senate Republicans are recommending cutting food-stamp funds.

            • For 20 years, New York State has refused to abide by a state law that spells out how much aid cities are to receive. If the state had done what the law requires, said Johnson, Rochester would have gotten $140 million more in state aid this fiscal year alone. Meanwhile, Johnson noted, the state has cut taxes by $67.3 billion in the past seven years.

            • The state aid that Rochester has received has been less, per capita, than the aid for Buffalo and Syracuse.

            • Monroe County, which until recently had been cutting its tax rate as county property values rose, has its own budget problems, and it has been cutting the amount of aid it gives the city.

Rochester has had difficult times lately. And in all likelihood, its most trying periods are still ahead. In his State of the City address, Johnson warned against easy promises. "Grandiose promises are the essence of political campaigns," he said, "offering what is neither prudent nor affordable."

            Johnson's State of the City was a sobering address. At last week's candidate forum, several of the men who want to succeed Johnson spoke optimistically about Rochester's ability to achieve greatness. But optimism isn't enough. Nor is simplistic criticism.

            As this campaign begins, voters should be on guard, watching out, as Johnson said, for "promises that cannot be redeemed."

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