Update: Video of Noam’s speech is now available. The following prepared remarks were given on February 28, 2013 by Mayor Noam Bramson:
To colleagues in government, neighbors, and fellow citizens, good evening.
As we meet tonight, New Rochelle’s financial reserves are more than double what they were one year ago, and our city tax rate remains among the lowest in the region. In the past year, 95% of our public school graduates went on to post-secondary education, and our schools sent more grads to the Ivy League than any district in Westchester. Our public library circulated nearly half a million titles, including more than 200,000 to children. Seven new restaurants are opening downtown in the span of just a few months, and a hometown diner is coming back to Weyman and Main. Snow removal after the last storm was the best in anyone’s memory, New Rochelle’s record of public safety remains historically strong, our waterfront is poised for renewal after decades of patient labor, and a range of festivities will celebrate our 325th year. The New Rochelle High School football team won the State championship, our cheerleading squads won the national championship, and Ray Rice won the Super Bowl.
Ladies and Gentlemen: thank you, and good night.
Alas, it’s not quite that easy. Like cities and families all across America, New Rochelle has faced tough times in recent years, and many big challenges still remain.
But tonight I can indeed report that a new season of possibility and promise is upon us. Because of the collaboration and the independence of the City Council, because of the dedication of our staff, and, most importantly, because of the dynamism and civic spirit of the people of New Rochelle, the state of our city is once again strong. If we employ wisdom, foresight and determination to shape our own future, then the state of our city can and will be even stronger.
So let us look together at the lessons we have learned and then chart a course forward that will give every one of us a chance to succeed.
Partnering for Fiscal Responsibility
The first order of business was and is putting our financial house in order.
With the Great Recession squeezing revenues and with State-mandated costs on the rise, the City Administration and Council made a determined, multi-year commitment to cutting expenditures and improving efficiency.
New Rochelle’s workforce is now the leanest in our modern history. We’ve saved millions by reducing energy use, refinancing debt, and deferring non-essential programs. We’re making government smarter, with web-based access to property records, council meetings, and public information of every kind. And, yes, we have preserved the lowest municipal tax rate among all the urban centers of Westchester.
In short, no city delivers better value on the dollar than New Rochelle.
But there’s more to do. We must build on our positive fiscal record by strengthening several key partnerships.
First, a partnership with our region.
Here is Westchester, there are dozens of municipalities and an even larger number of School Districts doing things separately that we could do together.
Regional collaboration delivers economies of scale and uses shared bargaining power to reduce per unit costs. In other words, better service for less money.
New Rochelle has been a leader in promoting collaborative efforts, from merging our resurfacing contract with Pelham Manor, to promoting regional storm water management along the Sound shore, to helping advance the concept of a regional fire district.
And we have been leaders, too, when it comes to regional land use and planning, working with the Mayors’ Redevelopment Roundtable and with the Sustainable Communities Initiative to embrace a metropolitan and Hudson Valley growth strategy.
But that’s only a fraction of what can be done. Let’s take the next steps. Tonight, I am asking our staff to undertake a comprehensive review of private contracted services, public works facilities, and administrative functions to determine which could be shared with other municipalities. From road resurfacing, to yard waste transfer, to ambulance service — from payroll processing, to information systems, to fleet maintenance, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. And there’s no excuse for leaving any of it on the tree, especially at a time when every dollars matters.
Second, a partnership with labor. Now, I am proud of our municipal workers. Too often we hear public employment denigrated, when, in fact, it deserves our praise.
Don’t tell me that a Fire Fighter who races into a burning building, or a Police officer who confronts a domestic abuser, or a sanitation worker who collects tons of debris in the sweltering heat of the summer isn’t performing a vital function.
After Hurricane Sandy, and during other emergencies, I saw firsthand the dedication of New Rochelle’s workforce — fielding hundreds of calls, laboring in the field to clear roads and restore safety, the hours and hours spent in the emergency operations center, fueled with little more than coffee and adrenaline.
So the men and women who do the people’s business should be honored for their work and compensated fairly.
But let’s also accept a simple, mathematical truth: historic patterns of wage and benefit growth cannot be sustained, not without dismantling government services and leaving the public sector a shell of its former self. If we want a high quality of life to also be an affordable quality of life, then all of us need to adjust our expectations in order to serve the greater good.
Many of our employees have already agreed to new contracts that are fair, that preserve jobs, and that provide for responsible, measured compensation growth consistent with the challenges of our time.
I am confident that the City Council would look favorably upon agreements with every one of our unions that honor the same spirit of shared purpose.
By asking not “what’s in it for me,” but rather “what’s in it for all of us,” we can have a healthier city, in which labor, management, and the people we serve together all move forward and all benefit.
Third, a partnership with the State. For many years, commentators called Albany ungovernable. No one says that anymore. Governor Cuomo, backed by New Rochelle’s effective Senate and Assembly delegation, has transformed our State capital into an engine of innovation and action.
I applaud the Governor’s leadership on economic development, including two significant grants for local projects in New Rochelle.
I applaud the Governor’s leadership on education, marriage equality, gun safety, and equal opportunity for women — initiatives that make New York once again the progressive capital of the nation.
And I applaud the Governor’s leadership on controlling costs, including the first serious proposal to stabilize municipal pension contributions through short-term relief and long-term predictability.
But the State could do even more in the fight against property taxes. Give us a broader menu of revenue choices, so that we can distribute the cost of public services more fairly, instead of putting everything on the backs of property tax payers.
And treat New Rochelle and others served by private water companies the same as cities, towns and villages all across New York by relieving us of the onerous responsibility to pay for fire hydrant maintenance and use — a burden that costs property taxpayers nearly a million and a half dollars every single year, and rising.
Under Governor Cuomo, Albany is finally getting its act together. So let’s harness the new direction of State leadership to meet our needs here in New Rochelle.
An Economic Strategy for the Future
Through these partnerships and through our ongoing commitment to efficiency, our city can and will demonstrate fiscal responsibility and uphold the interests of taxpayers.
But tax relief by itself is not an economic strategy. Unless we want to face the same painful choices year after year, while our quality of life gradually slips away, we must also take action now to grow our economy, create jobs, and enhance our tax base.
Number one: let’s improve the City’s capacity to attract investment. Last year, the Council appointed a Citizens’ Panel on Sustainable Budgets — an all volunteer, non-partisan group, with a broad range of pubic and private sector experience, drawn from every district in New Rochelle and representing every political view.
The Panel recognized that a policy of austerity alone is doomed to failure.
So even while recommending specific steps to close a projected budget gap, the Panel also urged new investments in infrastructure, marketing, and creative talent, while challenging us to shift our capital priorities from the replacement of depreciated assets to strategic investments in the future.
The budget adopted by the Council for 2013 reflects this balanced and forward-looking philosophy, and will beef up our ability to seize economic opportunities.
Number two: unlock the potential of our waterfront.
The Echo Bay project will deliver to the people of New Rochelle the biggest expansion of access to the waterfront and the largest new park in more than a generation. It will provide housing and shops that are consistent in character and scale with their surroundings. It will open sight lines to the shore from US-1 and the East End. It will create new jobs in both service and construction.
And it’s a net winner for taxpayers that funds the clean-up of contaminated land, helps buy down the cost of modernizing our public works facilities, and builds a public asset worth millions for every one of us to enjoy.
The concept for Echo Bay wasn’t imposed on us by developers. It came from our own people, expressed over a course of years by hundreds of participants in an inclusive planning process. And it’s been endorsed now beyond our borders, winning $1.5 million in competitive State funding in recognition of its regional significance.
The economic downturn may have delayed our ambitions for Echo Bay, but because we refused to give up and held fast to a vision of positive change, the restoration of our shoreline is now finally within reach. The City Council has authorized financing for the new DPW Yard. Forest City has submitted a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. And we’re on track to give final approval by the end of this year.
My family has lived in New Rochelle since 1969. Other families have lived here much longer. But no one – no one – alive today has had the opportunity to take a simple stroll from East Main Street to Long Island Sound and look upon an unspoiled shore, and I cannot wait for the day, now nearly upon us, when we can join hands on a great lawn that stretches to the water’s edge, and reaffirm New Rochelle’s status as the Queen City of the Sound.
Number three: team with businesses. Whether it’s beloved local institutions like Modern Pizza opening in new, larger spaces downtown, or the property owners who work with the BID to renovate historic facades, or the efforts of the Chamber to build business networks and sponsor events . . . commercial vitality is less about the actions of the government, and much more about the vision, innovation, and just plain sweat on the brow of entrepreneurs and investors, who believe in our city and are ready to take risks.
So let’s use every tool at our disposal to make New Rochelle more business-friendly, from grants that pay for new signage, to targeted incentives to spur development, to an enhanced Farmers and Crafts Market that serves as a magnet for shoppers.
And let’s also build a stronger foundation for a vital, competitive economy across our region. That means working alongside institutions of higher learning, including New Rochelle’s three colleges, to prepare students for the opportunities of tomorrow. It means making sure the talented employees every company seeks can find quality, affordable housing without commuting two hours a day. And it means investing in transportation options that link workers to jobs, customers to goods, people to people.
It’s our responsibility to help risks pay off, so that an investor tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now will know that New Rochelle is open for business.
And number four: plan for the future.
The present always has strong advocates. When today’s interests are threatened, folks will speak out at public hearings, write letters to the editor, send emails to elected officials. Trust me, I know.
No one arrives in a time machine to lobby for tomorrow.
So it can be hard to focus on the future. It requires will and leadership. But when I look at my two boys — when any of us think about our children or grandchildren — we know that there is no greater test of our character. And looking ahead has never been more vital than it is right now, because big changes are coming.
For a century, the American Sun Belt been the population engine of our country. But it can’t last. The aquifers are drying up, the salinity in the rivers won’t support agriculture, snow packs are being sapped by drought and climate change. Water supplies are running out, and population levels aren’t sustainable.
The northeast, by contrast, is built for growth. We have abundant water. We have great mass transit. We have human diversity and cultural energy.
For our region, and especially for cities like New Rochelle, this can be a terrible problem that chokes our roads, gobbles up open space, and overburdens our services. Or it can be an exciting opportunity to encourage positive residential and commercial development, reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions, and revitalize transit-oriented downtowns.
The choice of one road or the other comes down to the quality of our planning.
And on the critical priorities of land use, development, preservation and climate adaptation, New Rochelle is taking the lead.
We are updating our Comprehensive Plan by tapping the perspectives and talents of dozens of citizen volunteers, to envision and promote a prosperous, healthy New Rochelle for years to come. I am grateful for the hard work of all who have already contributed to this vital process. And I am delighted to announce tonight that the same team that crafted our outstanding report on Davids Island, will once again donate their services to ensure that our new Comp Plan exemplifies the highest level of professionalism and imagination.
We are implementing our award-winning Sustainability Plan by taking steps to cut energy use, promote green building standards, and help all of our residents reduce waste and save money. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and with evidence of climate change mounting by the day, we can no longer afford to put our heads in the sand when it comes to scientific fact. Climate change is real, it is here, and it demands a new spirit of commitment from everyone who cares about our future.
And we are accelerating efforts to encourage growth in our transit district. Yes — through specific project sites that hold promise, and which could serve as anchors for economic activity and new job opportunities. But also through a broader and more intense examination of land use and zoning options that can make the most of our unparalleled location, just thirty minutes from Manhattan.
The residents and entrepreneurs of tomorrow will want a diversity of housing options, cultural vitality, good schools, fine dining, a skilled labor pool, a commitment to green practices, and convenient access to the wider world. New Rochelle lays claim to every one of these virtues, and by making the most of our assets, we will also lay claim to our own bright future.
A Community In Which All Can Succeed
In the meantime, we can look forward to something a little more immediate. In just two days, we’ll gather in front of City Hall to celebrate the achievements of a local boy made good. A local boy who hasn’t forgotten where he came from, and still devotes himself in so many ways to the people of New Rochelle. Every one of you is invited to join us this Saturday morning, when we take pleasure and pride in the amazing accomplishments and stellar character of Ray Rice.
But, in truth, the success of a single individual, blessed with nearly superhuman talent, is not the real test. The test is whether each of us, whatever our talents, is empowered to be our very best.
It’s about a young person achieving her potential, and a senior who can age in place. It’s about an entrepreneur taking a chance that pays off, and a first-time homeowner setting down roots that endure. It’s about the pride all of us feel in a place we choose to call home.
So, yes, I’m inspired by Ray.
But I’m also inspired by Toryn Landrine, 22 years old, who grew up in Bracey Houses. Toryn just finished a training program sponsored by our municipal housing authority that gives him the skills and the tools to earn a good living, some day support a family, and look ahead to a bright future. And he’s already putting those skills to use with a job, building the new Heritage Homes.
I’m inspired by Gisele Guerrero, who came to this country as an immigrant, founded her own successful salon, that caters to the most privileged, and now gives back to the most needy by providing free haircuts at HOPE Community Services.
I am inspired by David Brot and Steve Stein who founded New Ro Runners. Their membership, out running our streets every weekend, rain or shine, snow or sun, includes people of every athletic ability, race, heritage and background, but they share at least three traits in common — they all love this community, they all support each other, and they all have a lot more energy than me.
I’m inspired by Alvin & Gwen Clayton who, along with many admirers, established Alvin & Friends, and who are now demonstrating their confidence in downtown New Rochelle by more than doubling the size of their acclaimed restaurant.
And I am inspired by families like Al Tarantino’s, or Doc Kiernan’s, or Joe Fosina’s — families that devote themselves to this community across the span of generations. With children and grandchildren who could choose to live anywhere, and who choose to be here.
It is within our power, through the choices we make together, to build a New Rochelle that is fiscally sound, economically strong, and culturally vibrant — a New Rochelle in which everyone is respected, everyone is welcomed, and everyone has a chance to thrive.
A season of challenge is ending. A season of opportunity is beginning. May we each, in our goals and our deeds, rise to this occasion and prove worthy of this moment.