To make sense of Irondequoit's politics, it helps to think of the town as Monroe County's swing state.
Party affiliation doesn't seem to mean much to Irondequoit voters. And they aren't reluctant to bounce sitting officials out of office. As a result, town elections are often tough, hard-fought contests, and the 2013 races are no exception.
On the Republican side, Supervisor Mary Joyce D'Aurizio and Town Board member Paul Marasco, both incumbents, are seeking re-election. They're joined on the ticket by attorney Bill Brongo, who's seeking the other open Town Board seat.
Their Democratic challengers are supervisor candidate Adam Bello and Town Board candidates Dave Seeley and Lorie Barnum. Bello is the chief administrator of the county District Attorney's Office, Barnum is director of development for the YWCA, and Seeley is an advisor to State Assembly member Joe Morelle.
D'Aurizio and Marasco stress their roles in rebuilding the town's finances. They both started their terms the same year that a state Comptroller's Office issued an audit criticizing the previous administration's budgeting. Between the end of 2006 and the end of 2009, the town's reserves had dropped from $1.5 million to $297,000.
By the end of 2009, then-supervisor Mary Ellen Heyman and the Town Board had adopted new fiscal policies and practices. And D'Aurizio says that the next few budgets, which were prepared under her administration, brought the town's reserves up to $3.8 million, while keeping the tax rate flat. The rate stays flat in the proposed 2014 budget, she says.
"That's what prompted me to run in the first place in 2009 because I knew I could really straighten out the finances, really come up with balanced budgets," D'Aurizio says.
The Democratic slate has its own budget ideas. The candidates say that they want to implement participatory budgeting, where certain amounts of money are set aside and devoted to different projects in different neighborhoods. The idea makes sense, Bello says, because one neighborhood might need sidewalks repaired, for example, while another might need tougher code enforcement.
Irondequoit has several high-profile, evolving issues. Town voters approved a long-sought library consolidation plan this year, though opponents are passing petitions to try to force another vote. And one night last month, fights broke out among a large group of young people at Regal Culver Ridge movie theater. Bello panned D'Aurizio for waiting several days to address the incident. In the end, security was added to the theater and the town has police patrolling the parking lot.
But the biggest issue in Irondequoit is Medley Centre. Candidates on both sides say that there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the lack of progress at Medley, and with developer Scott Congel. The residents see a project that's getting significant tax breaks but showing few tangible signs of advancement.
And recent circumstances haven't helped. While Congel has made required payments to the town, county, and East Irondequoit School District under a 2009 tax agreement, he has failed to meet a $165 million investment benchmark. He faces a large penalty payment in January.
The Democratic slate has used the dead mall to make its argument for leadership change in town government. Bello has led that charge, criticizing D'Aurizio for not being more forceful, he says, in holding Congel to his commitments.
"There's been little to no investment on the property, and the town has been virtually silent on this issue for three-and-a-half years," Bello says. "That void of leadership has really allowed the developer to miss his milestones without repercussions."
Bello and fellow Democrats Seeley and Barnum also say that the town should be more aggressive in holding Congel to town code requirements. Congel should keep Medley Centre's grass mowed, they say, and he should clean up the graffiti on his properties. Any other town property owner would be required to do the maintenance or face penalties, they say.
Democrats say that it's time for the town to advocate for an end to the Medley Centre tax agreement. (The decision is ultimately up to the Monroe County Industrial Development Agency, which has been reluctant to talk about terminating the agreement.)
The Democratic slate contrasts the way that the town has handled Congel and Medley Centre with officials' handling of the multi-use I-Square project. Seeley says that the town seems to be giving Congel a pass, but that officials stood in the way of I-Square. The process was adversarial, they say, and fraught with miscommunication.
The Democrats say that the town should have worked with I-Square developers Mike and Wendy Nolan to make sure that the project progressed. But when pressed, Democrats didn't offer details on what town officials could have done differently. The Nolans and the town did eventually reach an agreement, and the project is under construction near the Titus Avenue-Cooper Road intersection.
Marasco, a Republican Town Board member who is seeking re-election, says that he supports terminating Congel's tax agreement if Congel misses the January payment. But he cautions that Congel would probably sue.
D'Aurizio says that the town's hands have been tied on Medley Centre, largely because of the way that the project's tax agreement is written. The agreement, which was drafted during the previous administration, doesn't give the town the same authority to assess penalty payments as the school district and COMIDA have, she says.
Recently, however, D'Aurizio got Congel to demolish two buildings on the Medley property, though the buildings were supposed to have come down a few years ago. D'Aurizio says that the demolition represents progress. Congel has asked for changes to the tax agreement, but D'Aurizio said that she wouldn't negotiate until the buildings were down.
"Right now, I think I'm holding the aces," D'Aurizio says. "I really feel we're going to be able to push him."
Brongo, a Republican Town Board candidate, backs D'Aurizio's approach. Negotiations will yield better results, he says, than trying to cancel the tax agreement. The latter could result in lengthy, expensive litigation, he says, and the focus should be on encouraging Congel to move ahead with a clear vision.
As for I-Square, D'Aurizio and Marasco say that they and the other Town Board members were being cautious. The Nolans wanted a tax agreement that differed from the standard agreement that the town offers new or growing business, D'Aurizio says.
Since the community felt burned by Medley, she says, officials wanted to make sure that I-Square had detailed benchmarks, that the developers had a well thought-out business plan, and that they had the resources to live up to their promises.
"We had to really balance it, and unfortunately it played out in the media that there was a dispute," Marasco says. "At the end of the day, I think both sides were satisfied and, to the developer's credit, he's up and running."