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Our stressed city

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It's not a coincidence that the City of Rochester has the state's highest poverty rate, a high murder rate, and schools with tragically low graduation rates. Nor is it a coincidence that Rochester has a serious financial problem.

And last month, Mayor Tom Richards made the obligatory annual trip to Albany to ask for money.

The governor's answer: Sorry. Live within your means.

Rochester and other Upstate cities need to restructure, Cuomo told the Albany Times-Union after Richard's Albany visit. "The answer is not an additional, ongoing subsidy on a fundamental economic model that doesn't work," Cuomo said. "The Rochester problem, or an Upstate cities problem – if it was a corporation in a private-sector setting, you would be talking about restructuring."

Restructuring? Like what? Dismantling the police department? Eliminating the recreation centers? Not plowing the streets?

There's been talk of financial control boards for Rochester and other Upstate cities (Buffalo is already operating under one). A control board could do some things city officials can't do, legally: freeze salaries and renegotiate pensions, for instance. That would cut some costs. But Richards doesn't want a control board. It wouldn't fix what's broken.

In a discussion with me last week, Richards noted New York City's experience under a control board in the late 1970's. New York had been mismanaged, Richards said, and there was a recession. "But that's not our problem," Richards said. Rochester's problem is structural: "an 18th-century revenue system" funding our 21st-century needs.

In the early 1900's, we had a strong industrial base, and property taxes provided enough money to pay for the services residents and businesses needed. That's not at all the case now. To note one big example: 10 years ago, Kodak paid more than $13 million a year in property taxes. That's now down to less than $3 million.

As middle-income residents have moved out of the city, as property has been abandoned, as property values have dropped, the city's property-tax revenue has dropped. The need for services, though, has not.

That's not going to change substantially.

At a January 28 hearing in Albany, Richards complimented Cuomo for providing some help, like pension tier changes and economic development aid. And in his discussion with me, he didn't criticize the governor. "He's got his own problems," Richards said.

Well, yes. But Cuomo's attitude is disturbing. Ultimately, he told the Times-Union, Upstate mayors will shape up:

"Right now, it's easy to say, 'I need money: State, give me a check, please.' That's the easy solution." And, he said, when the state doesn't do that, "I think they'll do what they have to do to balance the books."

Doesn't seem much different than Gerald Ford's "drop dead" attitude toward New York City.

Cuomo's right, of course: if we don't get help, Upstate mayors will do what they have to do – even if that wipes out desperately needed services. Even if it drives more people and more businesses out of the city. The mayors will have no other choice.

Most of the region's poor people live in the City of Rochester. Most of its poorest children go to school in Rochester. A lot of the region's tax-exempt property is in the city, and city taxpayers fund the police and fire services that protect those properties.

"If urban areas are going to bear a disproportionate burden for society," Richards said, "then society has to help pay for it."

And, he added: "The economic development for Upstate will ultimately fail if the urban areas fail. You can run, but you can't hide. We are still the center of this area, and there's no way that Upstate will be successful if all the urban areas are in crisis."

"Whether we want to deal with it," Richards said, "we've got to deal with it."

What's the solution? "I don't see any other way than that the state makes a more substantial contribution to urban areas," Richards said.

Yep. And it would help if the governor led on this issue.

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