Tom Richards, who leaves office this week, has been a clear-eyed, pragmatic mayor. He understands finances, understands development, understands business, understands government. And he operates from the basis of what he thinks will work and what is possible.
In many respects, he's been a steady-as-you-go kind of mayor, continuing the solid fiscal management of the three previous mayors. He hasn't proposed grand projects. And he put his foot down on a couple of big ones created or supported by predecessors: the ferry and a performing arts center.
That kind of administration isn't glitzy, and some of his critics think he hasn't had much vision. But Richards leaves office with a long list of accomplishments, both as mayor and as a key official in the Duffy administration.
Some of them are indeed big attention-grabbers, like getting the Midtown Plaza site cleared and development underway. Some got less public notice: developing a partnership with public-employee unions that resulted in a self-insured health-care plan, for instance, and getting police and firefighter unions to accept small salary increases and benefits changes.
Some of Richards' accomplishments are more subtle. He ended the City Hall practice of lobbing verbal attacks at the school district. He has recognized the importance of things like neighborhood libraries and recreation centers, quality-of-life services that have been sacrificed in some cash-strapped cities.
And he has been an outspoken advocate for finding a better way to fund cities, disagreeing when Governor Andrew Cuomo insisted last spring that Upstate cities have been "papering over" their problems and that money isn't the solution to their fiscal problems.
Richards spoke sympathetically of union members and their benefits. "These people don't have high salaries," he told me during an interview after the governor's attack on cities. "Fundamentally, providing benefits is a good thing." The problem, he said, isn't that public employees don't deserve their pay and benefits; the problem is that cities can't afford them because of our outmoded way of financing cities.
We can't continue to force cities to rely on the property tax, Richards said. Rochester has cut expenses, cut staff. It can't cut its way to financial stability, he said, and new economic development won't produce a tax base big enough to provide the services that its residents need.
Certainly one of his biggest accomplishments is helping build faith in the city – particularly in downtown Rochester – among developers and business owners. As Richards leaves office, the interest and the progress in downtown Rochester is obvious. New businesses continue to open. New housing developments were completed in 2013, and 14 more are either solid plans or already under way. And some of them are big: the 182-unit Tower at Midtown and the 250-unit Alexander Park.
In addition to the efforts downtown, Richards' administration has focused strong attention on city neighborhoods – resulting in public and private investments, his aides say, of two dollars there for every dollar invested downtown, in new housing, lead abatement, business assistance, and infrastructure. Property values have increased in several neighborhoods, and the city's tax base is growing after years of decline.
This isn't something Richards did by himself. Neighborhood groups, city staff, political leaders, and business leaders share the credit. Nor did the downtown turn-around begin with Richards. Rochester has been exceptionally fortunate to have had a series of mayors who – despite suburban sprawl, manufacturing decline, and financial stress – have kept the city financially sound, and helped residents and business owners preserve and improve many of city neighborhoods.
Downtown development tended to get the most public notice during the Richards years, and incoming mayor Lovely Warren says she will focus on the city's neediest residents and their neighborhoods. That is critically important, and Warren will likely have the strong support of city residents as she tackles some of the toughest challenges any mayor can face. She will also have the solid base and stability that Richards has provided. And for that, Rochester owes a big debt to a dedicated, honorable public servant and his talented staff.