October 18, 2011

At Mayoral Debate, Candidates Split on 2012 City Budget

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At an Ithaca mayoral debate on Tuesday, two of the five candidates — Christopher Kusznir (I) and Janis Kelly ’71 (R) — emerged as fierce critics of Mayor Carolyn Peterson’s budget, arguing that high taxes and a ballooning deficit were stifling economic growth.

They differed from Alderperson Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward), the Democratic nominee for mayor, and Alderperson J.R. Clairborne (D-2nd Ward), the Independence party candidate for mayor, who have embraced Peterson’s 2012 budget. Wade Wykstra (I), a commissioner on the Board of Public Works, offered no definitive stance on Peterson’s budget proposal at the debate, but he put forward several suggestions for stimulating growth in the city.

In her proposal on Oct. 6, Peterson called for a four percent tax levy, an increase Myrick said was “appropriate at this time.”

Kusznir and Kelly, however, drew sharp distinctions between their proposed solutions to the city’s budget and the management strategies currently employed by the city.

“Our budget is unworkable; it’s a catastrophe,” Kusznir, who owns several local businesses, said at the debate. “The current route is to continue to increase taxes — I believe that this needs to stop right now, [because] most people aren’t going to be able to survive this challenge.”

Similarly, Kelly expressed opposition toward what she identified as the city’s unwillingness to confront its budget crisis. Kelly and Kusznir are the only two candidates who do not currently hold positions in the city government.

“I go to Common Council meetings and see endless political theater while the city drifts closer and closer to bankruptcy,” said Kelly, chair of the city’s Republican committee. “[The city is] 3.5 million in the red. We have to close that gap, and it’s going to be painful.”

Although they did not specifically speak about the 2012 budget at the debate, the other three candidates voiced a variety of suggestions for stimulating economic development.

For instance, Wykstra called on the city to create manufacturing jobs and return to a source of growth unassociated with the University.

He also lamented the movement of young Ithacans from the city to find jobs elsewhere.

“A lot of kids are getting out of high school here, and what they don’t have is what I had: The feeling that you grew up in your hometown and that you could always come back to find a job,” Wykstra said.

Reflecting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council meetings, Clairborne said the city should focus on “green capabilities and sustainable practices.”

“When we talked about a downtown revitalization, everyone talked about having sustainability factor, and really being able to grab hold of this opportunity,” Clairborne said.

Like Myrick, Clairborne praised Mayor Peterson for crafting a budget below the City of Ithaca tax cap.

“I think the fact that the Mayor was able to bring in a budget that is currently under the tax cap that doesn’t include actual layoffs … is something that is a hard job that she was able to produce well for us,” Clairborne said in an interview after the debate.

Kelly was less forgiving of the city’s budget decisions and said that costs of excessive city personnel to be eroding economic growth.

“The city has been living on extra sales tax revenues for years and has now pooped off a lot of them by not keeping control of personnel costs in the city,” she said.

Yet, after the forum, Myrick said that the city was locked into several contracts signed with unions that could not be renegotiated.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get property taxes under control, but we still have to maintain our services,” Myrick said. “I don’t want to promise anything I can’t deliver.”

But the inability of city officials to prevent tax increases may provide an opening for some candidates, such as Kusznir, who said local businesses were fed up.

“What brought me into [the race] was my feeling of discontention — I was not satisfied. When I look at the system and the job that’s been done, I’m sorry, I do not think it has been good enough,” Kusznir said in his concluding remarks. “I am not content with my property taxes.”

The forum — co-sponsored by The Sun and the Collegetown Neighborhood Council and moderated by Sun Managing Editor Michael Linhorst ’12 — also touched on a variety of town-gown issues, including the Collegetown Plan, the University’s Memorandum of Understanding with the city and the role of students in city politics.

The general election will be held on Nov. 8.

Original Author: Liz Camuti