Last night I had the pleasure of delivering my seventh annual State of the City Address. In case you are interested, the full text of my remarks follows.
Update: Video of the State of the City Address is also now availble.
Remarks of Mayor Noam Bramson
State of the City — 2012
March 1, 2012
Hope and Challenge
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
We meet a time of both new hope and continuing challenge for cities all across America.
The national economy is gaining momentum, consumer confidence is returning, the stock market is approaching new highs. At long last, it appears the worst of the recession is behind us, finally giving way to a season of fresh promise.
But for municipalities, the spring still looks a little more distant. Years of economic stagnation cannot be erased by a few positive employment reports. Not when reserves are gone, service levels are squeezed, and deferred obligations are coming due.
Lots of families and taxpayers would say the same — despite renewed optimism, many are still struggling, still working to gain a foothold or make up lost ground. Still pressed to the limit.
So how should a city like New Rochelle confront such a moment.
Some might counsel us to focus on the here and now, to face our problems with self-sufficiency and clear-eyed realism. You can’t get to tomorrow, they would say, without first making it through today.
Others might advise us to set our eyes forward, and seize the opportunities that are uniquely and fleetingly present at the turn of an economic cycle to lay a stronger local foundation for prosperity. A short-term solution, they would say, is really no solution at all.
My friends, colleagues and neighbors: in truth, both of these views are correct, and woe to us if we accept any false choice between them. Our actions must encompass the present and the future. Practical need and creative vision. Acknowledgement of our local responsibilities and understanding of our link to the larger world.
It may be a hard thing to blend these divergent impulses into a single coherent strategy, but I believe with all my heart that here, in New Rochelle, we have resources ready for and equal to the test.
The resource of experience that teaches us what does and does not work. The resource of a new Council unbound by tradition and open to fresh ideas. The resource of an administration that believes deeply in its mission.
And one other resource that today joins the others as never before — the resource of our residents, whose talent and wisdom are being enlisted on issue after issue in the vital work that will decide New Rochelle’s fate. These citizens and volunteers know that the state of our city is not defined by forces beyond our control — it rises and falls on the choices we ourselves make.
It will be my duty tonight to describe these choices in candid terms, without concealing the hard fact of obstacles and disagreements when they exist. But when I think of the dedicated partners enlisted in our common cause, I can only begin with a statement of unreserved confidence: the state of our city is strong, because the people of our city make it so.
Our first set of choices concerns the City budget.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking this is an accounting exercise. It is much more, because each number in a budget says something fundamental about our values.
Are benefits and burdens distributed fairly and equitably? What is expendable and what is essential? In an era of limits, how can government respect taxpayers while still upholding the common good?
Every single line item is an implicit answer to these questions. And taken as a whole, they define a compact that links our lives together.
So when budgets are strained or unsustainable, there is a lot on the line.
Now I happen to believe that New Rochelle has managed this recession’s impacts as well as or better than any comparable community, and I am proud of all that our public workforce, from our managers to our employees in the field, has done to squeeze savings out of every department and accomplish more with less.
But despite all our belt-tightening, heading into 2012, the Council still had to close a $7 million budget shortfall.
You might ask: with all the austerity measures already adopted, why was there still a gap?
Well, three factors can tell the whole tale. First, mandated pension contributions to the New York State Retirement System, up about $5 million;
Second, health insurance payments, also mandated by the State, up about $3 million;
Third, mortgage tax revenue, tied to the housing market, down about $3 million.
Add ‘em up, and that’s a negative variance of 11 million dollars. Or put another way, if each factor were simply reset to pre-recession levels, then the $7 million shortfall I mentioned a moment ago would instead have been a $4 million surplus.
Given that math, it would be easy just to throw up our hands and complain — legitimately — about the unfairness of it all.
But venting frustrations won’t make them disappear. The fact is: even if cities like New Rochelle aren’t responsible for creating our fiscal problems, we must be responsible for facing them.
And face them, we did. Using a combination of additional workforce reductions and — let’s be honest — a highly unpopular fee, we managed to close the gap. As a result, the ship of the City’s finances is still afloat.
That means Police officers are still bringing bad guys to justice, keeping our crime rate historically low. That means firefighters are still demonstrating heroism in the face of personal danger. It means that every day, in the most bitter cold or most searing heat, DPW personnel are still out collecting our trash and repairing our roads. And it means that our tiny handful of parks workers are still making sure that acres of fields are open for play.
That is the City. Those are the people and the services that you pay for, with the portion of your tax bill — 1/6 of the total — that you send to the City government.
And if our hard decisions have produced the smallest municipal workforce in many generations with lots of sacrifice all around, they have also kept the City’s core operations up and running. For now.
Unfortunately, “for now” is not enough.
With the housing market still flat, with labor costs still rising, and with Albany failing to offer any realistic strategy for short-term mandate relief, there is every prospect of further multi-million dollar shortfalls going forward.
Even with a national recovery gathering steam, it is clear now to all that something close to a permanent shift has occurred in the very structure of municipal finances.
In this most recent budget cycle, the fourth in a row to feature painful measures, the Council came very close to approving cuts that would have sliced into the heart of our services, without a full understanding of the implications. Unless we want to face the same unpleasant and divisive choices year after year after year, we need a new approach for the new normal.
For this purpose, the Council chose unanimously to bring together a panel of citizens, whose experience spans the public and private sectors, whose perspectives are drawn from every quarter of New Rochelle, and who have made an unprecedented volunteer commitment of time and energy.
Their mission: pursue innovation whenever that’s possible, and recommend clearer priorities, whenever it’s not. Examine local government top to bottom, with everything on the table, and nothing off-limits. Help us create a guidepost for action here and a model for communities everywhere.
The Panel is only just getting to work. Still ahead: six months of intensive effort, followed by a robust public debate. So although it is far too soon to talk about specifics, I can say with certainty that this will be an exercise aimed at results. With the Panel’s help, we are determined to shape a government that is ready for the 21st century and that honors the values of the people of New Rochelle
Sustainable Planning & Development
The same citizen participation that is helping to guide sustainable fiscal choices is also helping us make sustainable choices about development. And just as budgets define our civic priorities, the built environment often defines our civic character.
Next year, New Rochelle will celebrate its 325th birthday. (If you ask me, she doesn’t look a day over 300.) Since 1688, when a small band of French Huguenots landed upon the Sound shore, physical development has been an evolving expression of who we are and who we want to be.
Farmland, homesteads, shops, the arrival of the train and the highway, the planned neighborhoods with their gracious curves and man-made lakes, the immigrant settlements with their restless, striving energy, the post-war suburbia made famous by Dick Van Dyke, and most recently the rising towers of a resurgent downtown.
In every era, New Rochelle has been the kind of community that reflects the conditions and the aspirations of America itself.
So we are again today. Maybe even more so today.
Because after sixty years of this country placing its bets on wholly new housing developments far from commerce and culture, where everything needs to be built from scratch and where life is ruled by the gas pump and the toll booth, more Americans now understand that a wise growth strategy invests in places that already exist, where people already live and work.
Places where we have more choice in how to put a roof over our head, or how to commute to a job, or how to spend our valuable time.
There is a bureaucratic-sounding and often misunderstood term for all of this — that term is transit-oriented development. But whether you call it TOD or smart growth or the new urbanism or just building near the train station … it all comes down to common sense.
New Rochelle has been pursuing this course now for twenty years. We’ve had significant success, with new development generating millions in annual revenue for the City and School District.
And, perhaps more importantly, changing the life of our community for the better.
Anyone who has enjoyed a jazz concert on Library Green, or eaten dinner at a top-notch hometown restaurant, or taken the trolley for Arts Fest can attest to the positive changes.
So can any parent, who’s taken their kids out to bowl for an afternoon, or to see the latest 3-D movie, or to paint store windows on Halloween — all right in our downtown.
And so can those empty-nesters, like my own mother, who, after selling her house of thirty-nine years, was able to stay in the city she adores, near the friends and family she loves, because there was a choice to rent a downtown apartment that fit her needs.
We’ve come a long way. But our job is far from finished. Because if some portions of our urban center are thriving, others are still depressed. And I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with the status quo. Not when there is so much more we can do.
Consider the big picture. We are minutes from Grand Central. Minutes from LaGuardia. Minutes from Stamford and Westchester Airport and the shore. We offer nearly unlimited choice in housing style and workplace location, plus lower commuting costs that can help compensate for the regional high cost of living.
These are our assets. They are enormous. But let’s understand that the positive potential of these assets won’t be realized through wishes and dreams. Just as our community will not leave the future of its finances to chance, so too we must not leave the future of economic development and planning to chance.
And now is the time to act. Now when the economy is finally turning up. Now when the awakened interest in first suburbs gives us a competitive advantage that can and should be pressed to its full effect.
Fortunately, we’ve already gotten started. Even through the worst of the recession, New Rochelle was preparing for the next wave of investment, by carefully evaluating sites and cultivating partnerships.
Today, as a result, we are poised, if we choose, to move forward on every front.
Along Garden Street, we have forged an unprecedented agreement among more than a dozen property owners to jointly market public and private land for new commercial development. A request for proposals could be issued as soon as next month, testing the possibilities for a site with unparalleled promise.
At the Church-Division and Prospect lots, a stone’s throw from Main Street, we have before us a Memorandum of Understanding with one of the nation’s most admired builders to deliver new housing, retail and the urgently-needed replacement of public parking.
And to ensure that New Rochelle takes full advantage of our Transit Center’s location and multi-modal capacity, we are launching an in-depth study of all the sites that surround the train station, including lower North Avenue, Burling Lane, and the edge of the West End — our part of a regional planning consortium launched last year.
We are working with Sound Shore Medical Center on major streetscape improvements that will enhance appearance, efficiency and safety — and embed one of New Rochelle’s anchor institutions and largest employers more fully into the fabric of the surrounding city.
And we are collaborating with another anchor institution, Iona College, to think together about ways to address the college’s housing needs in concert with neighborhood goals. Never before have community and college representatives worked side by side for such a purpose. They have already reached initial conclusions that demonstrate common interest, and we all hope that their efforts with continue to bear fruit.
Our goals and choices don’t end downtown or on North Avenue. They extend also to the waterfront. And on this priority, too, we’ve made real progress in the past year — through hard work obtaining a far better understanding of the possibilities and the constraints that surround our shoreline.
At Echo Bay, we asked Forest City to update their plans to reflect changed economic conditions and our greater experience with the site, even as we conducted our own independent analysis of public costs and benefits. As a result, we can say now with confidence that there is a viable deal to be struck that benefits taxpayers, creates public access to the shore, directs millions in private investment to environmental restoration, and creates a sizable 11-acre core around which an even broader transformation of the shoreline could take shape.
To those concerned that this re-imagined project is smaller than the version announced a few years ago, allow me to offer some context for reminder. If accomplished, this would be New Rochelle’s largest public-private development in nearly 20 years, the biggest new park in almost 40 years years, and the first expansion of public access to the our shore since Jimmy Carter sat in the White House. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a big deal.
And moving forward on this first phase would enhance our capacity to do even more on Echo Bay in the days to come.
Later this month, the Council will decide how best to act on this new information and advance the generational goal, of a waterfront that is green, vibrant and open to one and all.
And for that other tantalizing waterfront property, Davids Island, we received in the past year a great gift from a volunteer Task Force — the best, most thoughtful, and most practical study of re-use options that has ever existed. It cuts through decades of stalemated and fruitless argument to make clear what can and can’t work. It encompasses and unites environmental, economic and social objectives. And it enables New Rochelle to now pursue a homegrown vision with regional support.
The study gave its highest marks to a world-class research and conference center, served by water-borne transportation, shaped by sustainable design principles, generating its own energy, nestled within parkland and open space, and contributing to the image and vitality of the city of which it is a part.
This spring, I will ask the Council to take up the conclusions of the Davids Island Task Force, and set a course that — step by step, phase by phase — can make our vision real. For more than half a century, New Rochelleans have dreamed of, fought over, and ultimately faltered in service of this goal. Let our generation be the one that finally achieves it.
Even when it comes to government itself and to the basic nuts and bolts of our public sector and public facilities, we are making strides.
Last year in this address, I talked about the sorry state of our capital investments and infrastructure. This year, the Council is moving beyond talk and taking action by authorizing and funding the design of a new Public Works Yard on Beechwood Avenue. It’s the right thing to do on every level. Right because it will cost millions less than modernizing the Yard we have today. Right because it’ll make DPW more efficient and effective. And right because it will free up the waterfront for better uses that benefit every person in New Rochelle.
Cheaper, better, smarter. This debate has jammed us up for more than a decade, and I am grateful to the Council for its bipartisan determination to move forward.
Last year I talked about improving our internal capacity to plan and design, so that we can compete more successfully for grants, and put New Rochelle’s needs front and center when it comes to setting regional and state priorities. This year, thanks to the Council’s action, our staff is armed with better information and GIS systems, the tools to make the strongest possible case, tell the best story, and submit the most competitive applications for New Rochelle. We deserve no less.
Last year, I talked about the value of recreation and play to countless families whose lives are enriched by the joy of sport or the quiet contemplation of nature. This year, we’ll finish building the new fields at City Park — New Rochelle’s most significant recreational upgrade in more than a generation, and a place that will be enjoyed by thousands of men, women and especially children.
Last year, New Rochelle approved its first ever — and now award-winning — Sustainability Plan, GreeNR — a 20-year roadmap for conserving natural resources, improving our quality of life and saving money. This year, we’re putting principle into motion by implementing GreeNR’s short-term recommendations, including the biggest public sector energy efficiency improvements since Albert Leonard High School was converted into New Rochelle City Hall back in 1962.
Finally, please don’t think for a moment that our goal is simply to erase the old and build the new — it’s also about holding on to the positive qualities we already possess. And making sure that the residents and business-owners here today benefit fully from change. Every individual initiative should fit into a larger vision for what our community is and can be.
In this spirit, just a few weeks ago, we launched an effort to write a new Comprehensive Plan. During the next 18 months, the Comp Plan Committee will consider what in New Rochelle should be preserved, what should be enhanced, and what should be set in a new direction. Their labors will produce a sound foundation for many years of public and private investment, and for a city that is even more healthy and vibrant. And on this critical priority, like so many others, we are turning to citizen volunteers to lead the way, finding among them contributors of remarkable skill and ability.
Each achievement strengthens our hand. Every time we forge a successful partnership, or bring in a new entrepreneur, or demonstrate the viability of our market, or make a strategic investment in our quality life, we build capacity for the next opportunity, and the next after that, and the next after that. Momentum begets momentum. And so even if you disagree with one or another of the objectives I have listed, please see that together they establish a virtuous cycle that unlocks new possibilities. We are saying to the world, in a clear, confident voice, New Rochelle is ready to compete for the future, and New Rochelle is determined to win.
Our Window Of Opportunity
You can probably tell that I am hopeful and excited about our city’s prospects, most of which have brightened considerably since we met one year ago. The pitfalls are still real, many outcomes are still uncertain, but more than at any time since Lehman Brothers collapsed and the housing market went south, we are now the masters of our own fate.
I offer just one caution.
The history of New Rochelle tells us how quickly windows of opportunity can close. And how difficult it is to recapture that moment when a choice came … and went.
All of us would like to believe that by waiting just a little bit longer or trying just a little bit harder, we can have everything desired without giving anything in return. And, yes, we should have high standards — to hell with anyone who would sell our city short.
But I have yet to witness a deal that checks off every box, or that attains some idealized vision in a single giant leap. I have yet to encounter the project that gives us tax revenue and job creation and cultural energy, without traffic congestion or parking demands, financial incentives and design imperfections, or the innumerable trade-offs that define business and development in the real world.
Far more often, the road to success is paved with small and uneven stones, each with sacrifices, each requiring dogged persistence and a tolerance for controversy. Each requiring the acceptance of some things we don’t like in order to get more of the things we do.
Realism is what separates good decision-making from wishful thinking. Compromise is the currency of achievement. And, to mix metaphors, the team that connects on a string of singles and doubles is far more likely to score than the team that swings for the fences on every pitch.
Our window of opportunity is here, now. So let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let us not chase illusions that only lead back to the status quo. Let us resolve never to recall this moment with regret at the choices not made. Let us seize the chance before us with all the urgency and courage that the people of New Rochelle expect and deserve.
The People of New Rochelle
These can be hard tasks, but thankfully, they are more than worth the effort.
Think about the stakes. Think about what our city is and what it represents.
At a time when so many bemoan the division of our nation by income or race or religious belief, here is a community where people of every circumstance and heritage are neighbors and friends.
At a time when the creative impulse is finally recognized as an essential part of a full and complete life, here is a culture that celebrates artistic expression and is not afraid to shake up tradition.
At a time when many wonder how the next generation of Americans will compete in the global marketplace, here is a school system that offers educational opportunities dazzling in their range and scope.
And at a time when the answers to tough questions can seem elusive, here are citizens ready and able to roll up their sleeves and answer the call. Saying in generous spirit: the common good is our responsibility. And we will not rest while there is work still to be done.
Throughout the evening, I have made reference to those citizens, to the volunteer panels and committees that have come together to serve us all. Many of those volunteers are here tonight.
So I’d like to ask the members of the Davids Island Task Force, the Iona College Planning Committee, the Citizens Panel on Sustainable Budgets, and the Comprehensive Plan Committee to please stand. And let’s together recognize their efforts. Thank you.
We could offer the same accolades to the men and women who devote their energies to the BID, or the Library Foundation, or the Boys and Girls Club, or the Ward Acres Community Garden, or HOPE Community Services, to the Council on the Arts or the Adult Learning Center, to the Castle Gallery at CNR or the Museum of Arts & Culture at the High School, to Youth Baseball and Little League and a dozen others that teach our kids sportsmanship, to the Chamber of Commerce that brought us together tonight, and to the municipal commissions that work without compensation almost every night. To everyone and anyone who stands up to make a difference, earning no reward beyond the satisfaction of a job well-done and a civic duty upheld.
My confidence comes from each of you and from thousands of others who share the same hope and determination. It comes from knowing that there are no challenges as large as the talents with which we can face them.
Ladies and gentlemen, I close as I began. The state of our city is strong, because the people of our city make it so.
May we all, in deed and intent, do right by New Rochelle and prove worthy of God’s blessing. Thank you, and have a good night.