Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner have both appeared on the Campbell Conversation program before. This is the second of three parts in which they participate together.
Grant Reeher (GR): The New York Times has recently reported on the extent to which Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office involved itself in, even apparently obstructed, the work of the Moreland Commission, which was intended to investigate corruption in Albany. County Executive Mahoney, you were a member of that commission. Do either of you think that there has been significant reform of the political system in Albany over the past three years. If so, what is it?
Stephanie Miner (SM): I guess that is kind of like asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?” As long as we see politicians who are dragged out in handcuffs from their offices in Albany, the answer is no, there hasn’t been. What is troubling for me is that this makes it hard for all of us, elected officials, to do our jobs. Part of being an elected official is telling people things that they don’t want to hear, and when they have it in their mindset that there are other politicians who are lying or not being honest or are under the veil of corruption, it makes it much more difficult for all of us to do our jobs in a time when it is very difficult to be an elected official.
Joanie Mahoney (JM): I would agree with the mayor that it makes it very difficult for us to work in this world, because there is an incredible amount of cynicism surrounding politics. But I think that has gone on for a long time. When I was asked to participate in this Moreland Commission, one of the first things that I said as a commission member inside our meetings was, we need to change the policies. You can spend the next year looking at individual donors or individual elected officials that have gotten in trouble, and maybe even have wild success and get rid of all the trouble-makers, but that vacuum is very quickly going to be filled with more trouble-makers if you don’t change the policies. I think we spent a lot more time talking about individual investigations and not about changing the big policies. There was some progress that was made — there’s certainly more that can be made — but I think that anybody who rolls up their sleeves and tries to take this on should be focusing not on the individuals but on the policies that make the fraud possible.
GR: The last and possibly the final installment in the effort to bring back the Hotel Syracuse downtown is getting under way. Ed Riley has purchased it, and it’s the beginning of another long, complicated process that if it works, will have to involve the ongoing financial support of city and county government. How important is having a hotel like the Hotel Syracuse downtown?
SM: The Hotel Syracuse is an architectural landmark, it anchors the southern end of our downtown and it needs to be renovated and viable for us to have a fully functional downtown, which then leads to a fully functional city and community. It’s an integral piece to our overall community and economic development.
GR: Are the two of you inclined to support Riley on loans or tax credits? If so, are there any particular instruments that are best?
JM: I think people might be surprised to learn how much Stephanie and I have worked together on this. This has been a joint effort between the city of Syracuse and the county to the point where every Monday morning, Stephanie’s economic development director meets with the deputy county executive and Ed Riley. They have shepherded this through, and we have made commitments to the project. The county has redirected the state funding that we received for our convention center hotel, and the city agreed to take it by eminent domain. This has been a real hand-in-glove (process); we know what he is going to need, and we are committed to his success.
SM: Absolutely, and to join this point, I think Ed would be the first to say that he wouldn’t be in this position had it not been for the city and county working closely to support him and help him move this project along.
GR: It doesn’t sound that one would anticipate any big conflicts in terms of support and the financing.
SM: I think the only conflict you would see is if something was wildly underestimated and more commitment in it needs to be made, but right now there’s a big commitment from the community that Ed says is enough to get it across the finish line.
GR: There was a recent report that in 2013, Madison, Onondaga and Oswego counties lost 2,200 jobs while the state as a whole gained jobs. Aside from giving tax breaks or loans, what are the most important things that local governments can do to help businesses develop and create jobs?
SM: Well, it is education, and it is making sure that you have an educated workforce. We have a hard-working workforce that has a tremendous work ethic. What we are doing at the city level with the city school district is partnering with our light manufacturers and our other business entities who are constantly saying to us, “We have openings for people, for jobs but we can’t get the right kind of skills or people with these skills.” So we are looking to line up our curriculum to make sure that we are giving young people and others the kind of skills and workforce development necessary that the marketplace demands.
JM: The criticism is that we pick winners and losers, and to some extent, we do. I don’t want that to be the case, but the world exists as it exists. I can’t — just because I am personally opposed to these — I can’t say on behalf of Onondaga County we are not going to do that, we are going to step back and let the free market play, when Connecticut and Pennsylvania and the states around us, New Jersey, are all giving away all these incentives.
GR: It does seem to me that at some broader level a lot of this is a zero-sum game.
JM: I think the solution has to come at the federal level. I think if we were to make decisions at a federal level that would make America more competitive, it would be better than pitting communities against each other on a local level or even the state level. But I am playing the hand I’ve been dealt, and I am going to compete for jobs for Onondaga County as long as I am county executive. We are going to make the decisions based on a return on our investment, and that’s the calculation. We focus our decision through the prism of what is best for the next generation. We have to have jobs if these people are going to call Central New York home. We have made it way more complicated than we need to, but it is not something that Stephanie can get on her horse and say, “I’m opposed to all of these, count Syracuse out.” I am not going to say that on behalf of the county, so we continue to take the criticism that we take to make the best decisions we can.
SM: I think what you have seen us do in the city and also in the county is look at our strengths and align our incentives to our strengths. We are not out chasing smoke stacks. We are saying, “Here are our areas of real economic viability. They are in technology, they are in higher education, they are in health care.” And so we are incenting development as a great return on investment on those things. We are not out chasing and saying we are going to compete with Pennsylvania for some retail jobs, or the next Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club. It really is about having a rational basis, and saying for every public dollar of investment in that project, we need to have at least $2 back in terms of return.
GR: The idea of undocumented alien children who are stopped at the border being brought to Syracuse temporarily: Mayor, was this your idea originally to bring them here, or did someone come to you with this?
SM: The federal (Department of) Health and Human Services alerted me that they were in the process of reviewing what I call the convent school as a potential to house unaccompanied minors who are coming across the border. When that happened, I called them and talked to them about the process and participated in a conference call with a number of other people across New York state, and it was very clear to me in my conversations, and of course reading the newspaper and watching what was going on, that not many people were welcoming these children. When I said to HSS we would welcome them here and do what we can to facilitate this, they were thoughtful and gracious about it. I decided to write a letter to the president to expedite the process, so it wasn’t happening behind closed doors. This is something we in Syracuse have a proud tradition of doing, and we are happy to do that. We can expedite this process to give these children a place of safety and compassion.
JM: I know there has been some concern on the part of the county legislature whether this would be some strain on the county budget. The mayor’s understanding thus far is that communities will be self-contained and that everything that the children need would be available on site and paid for by the federal government. The key word for me in your question is children; the fact that we are dealing with children changes everything for me. We have to make sure the kids are taken care of. And if there is a role for any of us to help take care of the kids until a much bigger, more complicated problem gets solved — I mean, you can point fingers all day toward the federal government for the lack of an immigration policy that has worked, but right now there are children that are away from their families that need to be taken care of.
GR: There is a concern that somehow at the end of the day it is going to cost the city money. The federal government won’t pay for everything.
SM: I am confident in both the conversations that I had early on and in written conversations that the federal government picks up the costs associated with this facility. Now, are they going to use our water? Of course. If a child breaks his arm in the facility, are they going to go to our hospital? Of course. But you know, our proudest tradition as Americans is when we welcome people, particularly refugees. The people of this city — whether it is migrant grandparents who came here from Ireland or whether it is the people we have today coming from Bhutan and Iraq and South Sudan — we have welcomed them and said, “Your experience is our experience.” We are a better community when we welcome everyone.
JM: And you know, you are going to hear from people in response to what you just said, is that these folks aren’t in the same political category.
GR: They’re not here legally, for one thing.
JM: Right, and my response to that is, “OK, somebody has failed. Along the way there has been failure, but you have children that are away from their families that need to be taken care of.” If there is something I can do to help personally, I’m going to do it.