1. Auburn residents have expressed concern with the public parking situation downtown. What should the city do to improve access to safe, convenient public parking?
Camardo: All parking decisions made within the city need to be subject to public review and safety must always be the highest priority. The most recent and publicized example is the council's decision to build the new welcome center in the city lot, formerly utilized by YMCA patrons. The city should have consulted public opinion as to the location of the building. The question is not about the construction of the new welcome center, but the planned location is nothing but a major inconvenience and deterrent to the patronage of the YMCA and the design does not aesthetically fit in with our beautiful and historic South Street — precisely why council should have insisted that the proposed design was completed by one of Auburn's own architecture firms, not outsourced.
Cuddy: The public parking situation is an important issue to our downtown and due to the growth and progress we have seen in our downtown, this can be seen as a positive problem to have. This means that our downtown is becoming more and more of a destination. As such the city is working diligently to improve public parking downtown with the following initiatives: the city now provides free two-hour parking in the downtown parking garage, the city improved the lighting in the downtown parking garage this year and thanks to technology upgrades to the newly renovated Auburn Police Department command center, we now have there is 24-hour video security surveillance in the downtown parking garage. We are also working on better promotion of downtown parking options and we are looking to existing sites to expand public parking. This includes 14 new spaces off William Street behind the garage, expansion of the Court Street lot and additional on-street parking spots planned for Lincoln Street.
McCormick: Concerns and complaints about downtown parking are to be expected with growth. It’s a great problem to have. We certainly don’t want the alternative – lots of available parking spots and a downtown with empty buildings and no activity. Our parking garage is conveniently located, but is not used to capacity. Residents told us they didn’t feel safe using the parking garage. We listened and have installed more lighting and security cameras that are on 24/7 live feed to the Auburn Police Department. We budgeted to change a part-time parking attendant to full time so that someone is always available and on site, that person started (at the beginning of October). We are also offering free two-hour parking in the garage to encourage people to get comfortable using the garage.
Miller: The easiest solution is move the building, move the location (of the Cultural Heritage Center). There's plenty of other locations downtown, empty buildings downtown that we could be utilizing. We don't need to build another building. We could take the $10 million from the state and invest it into some of those other buildings, and that would solve both problems of having a visitors center and the parking.
2. What should the city council be doing to address environmental threats to Owasco Lake, Auburn's public drinking water source?
Camardo: First of all, there are too many committees, all with the best intentions, within the water district right now. The simple fact of the matter is that with all of these committees, our elected officials are failing their responsibility to oversee these communities and put conversation into action. We should be acting as one unit, unified, and we should be employing all resources to reach a sustainable solution not just for Auburn's drinking water, but for the entire Owasco Lake watershed. There are a lot of great ideas in the community, but it takes a unified effort to make any of these ideas a reality. It takes more than an effort within the city to clean up the algae issues in Owasco Lake. It takes cooperation from the county and state-level government as well. We need to not only address how we, as the city of Auburn, are affecting the lake, but also how our regional agriculture might be threatening the watershed. When we talk about resolving the algae issues, we need to be involving everyone in these conversations — from those involved in agriculture to these in manufacturing, and everyone in between. Unified, regenerative, sustainable farming techniques can be implemented, but we should be acting as one to put these techniques into use. This should have been accomplished before the algae blooms affected the entire watershed, as a preventative measure, but moving forward we need to resolve the solution in a sustainable manner.
Cuddy: Our City Council is totally engaged with the environmental threats to Owasco Lake and the drinking water it provides. Following last year’s algal bloom outbreak on Owasco Lake, we immediately petitioned Governor Cuomo for two items: an immediate fix which resulted in the recent upgrades to our city's water filtration plant and a long-term comprehensive plan such as a pollution budget analysis (Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL) that will properly identify and address the pollutants that are continuing to impair our lake. We have been working constantly with city, county, state and federal officials and representatives to work on both the short-term fixes and the long-term solutions.
McCormick: Everything possible should be done to protect the lake. The city, along with the town of Owasco and Cayuga County, worked together as the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Committee. We collaborate with the Cayuga County Health Department, county planning department, Cayuga County Soil and Water, the DEC and others to manage the work done daily, such as water quality monitoring, invasive species control, review and update of watershed rules and regulations, septic system management, stream bank stabilization and education. Owasco Lake is everyone’s responsibility, but Auburn and Owasco, as the source of drinking water for over 45,000 people, have a duty to be sure it is clean and safe. When I ran for council four years ago, city council did not have an active presence on this committee. One reason I ran the first time was to make sure that the city was actively engaged with the watershed committee’s efforts in protecting the lake. I asked to be appointed as the city representative on the committee, have served for four years and hope to continue for four more years.
Miller: We have way too many people involved with tackling the lake and there's a lot of 'We should do, we should do, we should do' but then nothing ever gets done. We should have one organization, one body of people to look at and solve all these problems. This is an issue that I know we've talked to the EPA about and this is an issue we desperately need the EPA to help us with because it doesn't just affect Auburn. We have a lot of surrounding communities that rely on us as well.
3. Evaluate the state of the city's finances, and what changes, if any, may be needed with respect to budgetary and other fiscal issues.
Camardo: I am proposing a complete review of city finances so that the tax burden is no longer shifted to the residents of Auburn through extraneous fees and careless tax increases. We need to build the city budget from the ground up, using zero-base budgeting. We also must request a complete audit from the New York State Comptroller's Office of all city finances. In my previous term on city council, through my own review of the city budget, I discovered that over a million dollars was in the General Fund, but belonged in the Water Fund. These mistakes are crippling our city's government and we cannot afford another day of such careless mismanagement of money.
Cuddy: Compared to when I first took office, we are in much improved financial shape. Four years ago, the previous council was using financial policy that was broke, the city was hemorrhaging $1 million a year from the failed co-gen energy project, the council at the time had no financial plan and they went nearly two years leaving the position of City Comptroller vacant. Their broken policy was detrimental and in January 2014, Mayor Quill, Councilor Debby McCormick and myself immediately went to work to fix our city’s finances. That year we hired our City Comptroller and implemented long-term financial planning for the city budget. We worked with our federal officials to secure the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s SAFER grant which allowed us to rehire the firefighters the previous council had cut. Upon a complete analysis we made the necessary decision to close the failed co-gen energy project so that the local taxpayers no longer had to subsidize this failed project. We’ve made the city budget process open and transparent too; we now take from January through June of each year to have city staff and city council review and prepare the budget and we make all budget information available to the public via our city’s website. Four years later our budget is much improved and more sustainable. Four years ago the city council majority’s policy was broke, we fixed it.
McCormick: City finance is in better condition today than four years ago. Four years ago, city finance was not managed by a professional. We had chaos in the finance area. Forecasting revenue, predicting expenses, managing debt, investing, analyzing and overall management of the city’s finances and budget require expertise — a comptroller is not optional. It would be like a hospital offering open heart surgery, but deciding not to fill the heart surgeon’s position. Yes, there are changes to be made, and many that have been. Looking for new sources of revenue and ways to save on expenses is something we must do. Our comptroller has been diligent in doing this for example:
• We switched to the health insurance consortium which realized no increase in health insurance last fiscal year to this fiscal year when the medical trend is 5 to 7 percent. Our rate increase next year is only 2.5 percent.
• The comptroller, working with the city manager and city corporation counsel, negotiated public safety contracts saving time and expense on outside council and consulting.
• These contracts include putting all new public safety hires PPO health plans and all new retirees ages 65 and up into a Medicare supplement plan which has significant savings to the city and to the employee.
There are many examples of these changes and initiatives like this that are having a positive impact on the city’s financial future.
Miller: We need to go through (the budget) with a fine-toothed comb. We need to look at all spending, where is it going, cut spending to unnecessary projects, prioritize projects.
4. Abandoned and deteriorated buildings continue to be a concern in many city neighborhoods. What more can city council do to combat these “zombie” properties?
Camardo: As an owner of seven residential and commercial properties within the City of Auburn, I can personally attest that the only sustainable and organic way to attract new development in neighborhoods is to lower the cost of living in Auburn and raise the value of life in Auburn. The first way to do this is to give taxpayers a voice within government and stop shifting the burden onto the tax base. Elected officials must spend tax dollars as they would their own money — that means fiscal responsibility and future-conscious spending. As an example, the city recently reallocated $800,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding. This decision was made because funding had never been spent down by the city and a warning issued by the federal government about the usage of these stockpiled funds prompted immediate action. Instead, this money could have been steadily invested in neighborhoods to better our community and promote natural growth. The city needs to acquire titles for these "zombie" properties and place them in the hands of capable and committed investors who can properly restore them and market them to individuals who can help enhance the quality of life in our neighborhoods — just look to the South Wedge in Rochester, which has been transformed from a dilapidated and crime-ridden neighborhood to a close-knit community with rising property values and a small, but booming, business district.
Cuddy: This is another area that the previous council of four years ago was implementing broken policy. When I first started, our codes department was only opened part-time. The council had made staff cuts to the codes department and they were no longer able to keep up with the demands of this vacant housing dilemma we were facing. Absentee landlords would not show up for court dates and properties would continue to deteriorate. The first year I was on council we put staff and resources back into the city budget to get a full-time codes office operational again. Working with our state representatives, we are also making full use of the newly passed Zombie and Vacant Housing state legislation. We obtained a Zombie and Vacant Housing State grant and this has enabled us to hire another codes enforcement officer and to hire a full-time assistant corporation counsel that can be focused on housing court matters. We are now positioned to tackle the zombie property issue that plagues our neighborhoods. To get the absentee landlords to take us seriously, this current council also enacted a $100 court fee for any landlord that doesn’t show up to housing court on the assigned court date.
McCormick: These abandoned vacant properties destabilize neighborhoods, stifle revitalization efforts, and neighborhood pride is discouraged. They are plaguing the city. To combat this, we need a strong code enforcement office and legal support to make property owners accountable. Four years ago, my predecessors cut a code enforcement officer and closed the codes office to 20 hours a week. That didn’t help the problem at all. As soon as we could, we re-opened the office to full time business hours and filled the code position. To help prevent foreclosure — and assist people in trouble with mortgage — the city planning department introduced the Brighter Side program designed to help property owners before they get to far into a situation where foreclosure is the only option. The city will work with banks, realtors and property owners. The city is also taking advantage of the attorney general’s Zombie Property law. This year we hired our new assistant corporation counsel to specifically work on zombie property owners.
Miller: I have a couple of ideas on that. I've heard of other small cities and town like ours that they take the zombie properties and they bring in local contractors — that brings jobs — they make the buildings structurally sound, they fix the foundation, whatever needs to be done, they clean the outside, make it look nice and they gut the inside and then they sell the property that way and whoever buys it has a clean slate and doesn't necessarily need to put a lot of money into it because we've done the majority of the work. That's one option. The other option that John (Camardo) and I have been discussing is bringing in local contractors again and just completely flip the house, on a budget, do the work that needs to be done and then have that contractor or realtor sell the house and use a portion of that sale as a commission for the contractor. I know the city gets money for these properties as well and I'd like to know where that money is going and if that money could be used for this specific purpose.
5. The city council last year named former fire chief and longtime city employee Jeff Dygert city manager after deciding against having a community search committee interview any outside candidates. What is your opinion of the job he has done so far in this new roll?
Camardo: This is yet another example of city officials making decisions behind closed doors and failing to uphold their commitment to transparency and fair representation. The city advertised the position for city manager as requiring a master's degree in public administration with experience in personnel, finance and engineering; hired internally and without public input. I worked with Mr. Dygert when he served as fire chief, and he was highly qualified and competent in that capacity. However, it would be unfair for me to judge him in his capacity as city manager, as I have yet to work with him.
Cuddy: I had no idea how effective he would be as a city manager, until we got to see him in his role as interim city manager. We actually did at first interview five other applicants. While we were going through the interview process with applicants, Interim Manager Dygert was quietly handling many challenges that were occurring such as the retirement of the director of municipal utilities, the hiring of a new police chief, the closure of the co-gen project, the Owasco Lake water issue, among other issues. Mr. Dygert was able to navigate and negotiate each of these with outcomes that benefited not only the city but all parties involved. We then realized we had a great candidate internally within the organization. He continues to deliver positive outcomes for the city, especially when it comes to union contracts and other negotiations with contractors. So far City Manager Jeff Dygert has done a very good job. I think he will improve during his tenure as he continues to get used to his roles and responsibilities.
McCormick: We did interview five finalists in person. Jeff Dygert was serving as interim city manager at that time. I think Jeff is doing an outstanding job, he hit the ground running as interim manager, easily dealing with day to day issues. He’s great at communicating with all levels and stakeholders. He does not waste time getting something done, and he’s a problem solver. He’s knowledgeable and experienced in a variety of areas needed to manage the city, such as unions, labor contracts, negotiations, public safety, purchasing, budgeting and managing people. He is a leader that looks for long term solutions and always what’s best for the city.
Miller: I think Dygert is doing a good job in his new position as city manager. I've had some issues myself that he has helped me deal with. I know he's still learning on the job, I can kind of empathize with that. He has the experience of dealing with the city council in his role as fire chief, he wasn't new to it in that aspect but in his new role we've seen him grow in that role and learn as he goes — new systems, new programs, bringing in new ideas as far as the software and things that are going on down at city hall, so I think he's doing a good job.