City Council's Sad Vote on the Education Referendum

At this point in my activist life, I shouldn't be surprised by tonight's sad vote at City Council, but once again, Lucy pulled the football out. 

Ten days ago, Mayor Warren put forth legislation for City Council to vote on that would put a referendum for voters on the November 5th ballot.  If voters approve it, then City Council will ask the New York State legislature to consider state legislation allowing the State Department of Education to take over the City School District.  Councilmember Malik Evans, didn't seem to think that people in the audience understood this.  We did, but more on that later. 

There wasn't a lot of notice about this bill.  It wasn't able to be discussed much - I am assuming that this was on purpose.  It was put up for a vote tonight.  Even with such short notice, there were a number of people and organizations that showed up to speak against this.  Here is what I had to say:

It was a long night.  City Council had to vote on the budget tonight - part by part.  The vote on creating the referendum was the very last thing.

Before it was voted on the Mayor spoke.  It was nonsense.  She, then later followed by Councilmember Evans, tried to float this ridiculous idea that this referendum was actually democracy in action.  Evans, after insulting us by "explaining" the bill to us, kept calling the referendum a "poll".  So before I get to the actual vote, let me address this ridiculousness.

No one thinks the Rochester City School District is where it needs to be.  But dissolving the elected City School Board is taking away people's right to vote.  It's voter suppression.  So while Evans kept insisting that this "poll" was to see if people wanted to change the way the school district is governed, I see this as a referendum on do we want to voluntarily have our right to vote taken away.  And I have a problem with any elected official who needs a "poll" to know if the people want less of a vote.

So, after the Mayor, Councilmember Ortiz spoke against the bill, followed by Councilmember Clifford.  Then Evans' sad remarks.  Councilmember Patterson then had a less coherent version of Evans' words.  Then Councilmember Spaull spoke against the bill.  All 3 members of City Council who spoke against the bill only talked about how this all came about too quickly, nothing about the merit of the bill itself. 

So then they voted:  Evans, Gruber, Scott, Lightfoot, & Patterson for; Clifford, Ortiz, & Spaull against, & Harris abstained. 

We will be voting on this foolishness this November.  So like the Police Accountability Board referendum, I will be commenting on this throughout my run for City Council.  But to sum up quickly: PAB yea, State takeover of schools nea. 


Land Use & Development

I am a current member of Our Land Roc, a coalition of community groups and local residents who seek “to cultivate a more equitable, sustainable, and collaborative approach to development in the City of Rochester.”  I have helped develop Our Land Roc’s proposals and as a member of City Council write and/or vote for the following legislation:

*Before a project is approved there must be a timely and comprehensive notice to affected neighborhoods.  Currently, the process is piecemeal and many are left out of the loop.  People whose lives are affected by development should have the ability to participate in the decision-making process.

* The people living in an area to be affected by development should have a say in if/how that development takes place.  Therefore we should mandate that all development projects include a Community Benefit Agreement.  This is a contract between a developer, city officials, and impacted citizens to address common interests and concerns.  I would argue that a CBA should be done for any project that makes someone money.

*Our Land Roc calls for Inclusionary Zoning.  I will be specific.  Projects usually include some type of affordablA picture of a list of City of Rochester foreclosures published in City Newspapere housing.  The problem with this is what is considered to be affordable.  Currently, we use “area median income,” (AMI) but we use the County’s AMI which is $68k.  Therefore, “affordable” for many projects is in reality not, as the City’s AMI is only around $31k.  Therefore we have to use the City’s AMI when putting provisions in projects.

*Also, changes need to be made to the City Charter that would change zoning in two ways.  First, new development must have at predetermined number affordable units for the lowest income level families.  It is the goal of Our Land Roc that every neighborhood be comprised of 50% affordable units – be it either apartments or owner-occupied houses.  Second, all development (housing or otherwise) must meet a strict environmental standard.  This includes energy efficiency, pollution, and energy production (via solar, wind, etc.).   With the alarming news that keeps coming out about climate change, I am not opposed to regulations that make all new projects, no matter how big or small, carbon neutral

*We must end tax breaks for development.  While we have ways in which we will save money in our budget, the results of decades of giving away hundreds of millions of dollars of our tax dollars have shown little overall results other than this money leaving our community.  If a project needs tax breaks to be financially viable, then it is not a project that should take place as it is not sustainable.  Instead, we will use the tax money that comes in to provide infrastructure that businesses need such as improved roads, better schools, cheaper and renewable energy, and more. 

*Our Land Roc is a huge supporter of Community Land Trusts.  Not many know this, but we actually have a CLT in Rochester!  The City of Rochester should do more to support City Root CLT’s mission.  One way is to literally give away as many of the abandoned houses that curse our city as City Root can handle.  Then use City resources to help City Root fix them so that families can occupy them once again.

 *Our Land Roc also calls for Participatory Budgeting.  I’ve already posted a platform plank on this, which you can see here.

* * *

Much of Our Land Roc's mission and this platform plank deals with housing.  You can see my platform plank on housing here.


Real Economic Development

Our city government both ignores and attacks citizens who do not have.  As long as we live in a capitalistic society, government should be used to offset the inequality that capitalism creates.  Instead of giving tax breaks, grants, $1 properties, and loans that never get paid back to rich out-of-town developers, we should be using our money to create real opportunity for our citizenDave at a table in the libary reading Local Senses. 

We must shift more of our public economic development resources to the creation of worker-owned businesses, the kind that are run democratically by the workers.

In 2013, a number of Greens ran for local office.  Our biggest issue was the transformation to a more democratic local economy.  While none of the Green candidates won that year, our focus on co-operative economics spurred the creation of the Market Driven Community Cooperatives Initiative, which led to Own Rochester, a local non-profit whose mission is to foster the growth of worker-owned businesses.  Both the MDCC & Own Rochester are too small. 

More resources to help train more groups of people to start businesses and convert already established companies into democratically-run ones are desperately needed. And the money we usually give to large, out-of-town developers should go to help start hundreds of coops in the City of Rochester. 

Such businesses that should be encouraged would be ones that focus on the daily needs of our community:  food, clothing, shelter, health care, day care, etc.

I will propose and support legislation as well as advocate for city budgets that provide funding and other resources to start locally-owned, cooperatively run businesses in geographical areas where people need the basic necessities.  I would like to see the governmental infrastructure we already have be repurposed to help create specific kinds of businesses, such as:

Food

Urban Farms that would be surrounded by symbiotic businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, and food production that would buy directly from the farms themselves.  Also connected to this could be my idea for municipal composting.

Clothing

New and/or used clothing stores would be vital to poorer neighborhoods, particularly with the closing of the Volunteers of America stores.

A cooperatively-owned department store downtown.

Shelter

Repair shops that specialize in the fixing of appliances, both large and small, to prevent such items ending up in landfills and reducing household costs for families.

Manufacturing businesses that create goods and materials made from recycled materials that can be bought from our own municipal recycling plant.

Health Care

Currently we have a cooperatively owned acupuncture clinic in Rochester.  We need the same for other types of health care that address physical and mental needs. 

We need gyms and yoga studios that are not just on Park and University Avenues that are affordable for everyone.

Day Care

Lack of day care is one of the leading causes of poverty in Rochester.  We need more day care centers in the city that are affordable and cooperatively-owned.

These businesses are not to attract suburban patrons to the city.  These businesses are to help Rochestarians take care of themselves.  Adopting this economic philosophy will reduce crime, solidify neighborhoods, improve our schools, and more.


How would we do all of this?  It's not that difficult.  Like we do with other parts of our budget, the City would put out something similar to Requests For Proposals (RFP) or a list of the kinds of cooperatives we want to establish.  Groups of people can express interest in a specific co-op or individuals who want to participate can be teamed with other like-minded individuals.  Resources that already exist can be used to create business plans. The money we have been giving to rich, out-of-town developers can instead be given to these people to create much-needed, viable cooperative businesses in the areas that need them the most. We already have the governmental infrastructure to do these things, we just need the political will to make it happen.

This is just a brief description of how this could work.  The specifics would have to be worked out in a transparent, collaborative fashion.  The benefits to adjusting our economic development philosophy to focus on locally-owned cooperatives is clear.  We will be better off investing in dozens of new businesses in a year than a handful of big-ticket projects in which all the development money (and future profits) leave town.


The Environment

There really is no more pressing matter than climate change.   It has already started affecting every Rochestarian whether they realize it or not.  The City does have a Climate Action Plan, but it’s not enough.  I’m not going to spend time picking the plan apart, instead I am making specific recommendations of what we should be doing and speed is important.  We cannot wait for “market forces” to save our planet as the market is interested in one thing only: profit.

At the State level, there are competing ideas to reduce climate change.  The one that is the most promising is the call to be Dave with a pitchfork turning soilcompletely renewable by 2030.  Whether this is the plan that gets put into action or not, there will be funding to make changes at the local level.  Therefore we should leverage this funding to make systemic changes in how we do things in Rochester.

Probably the number one thing in Rochester that is negatively affecting climate change is the way we move from one place to another.   We have to change the way we get around.  That means we have to greatly reduce the number of cars on the road.  Understand, this means that we have to change our lifestyle.  The problem is our infrastructure is designed to make that difficult, therefore we have to focus on changing our roads and public transportation system.

In an informal poll on the campaign Facebook page, people cited convenience as the number one reason they don’t take the bus in Rochester.  They just don’t come often enough and do not conveniently go to the places people need to go.  Another stumbling block is that while most of the riders of RTS are from the City of Rochester, the bus company is not specifically controlled by a City entity.  This is actually a huge problem. 

Building energy use has a major effect on climate change.  Both large buildings and individual houses use non-renewable energy and emit climate-changing pollution.  But changing both of these factors is not a burden, but an economic opportunity that has not been taken advantage of yet. 

Many have called the empty lots in our city and eye sore.  I look at them as more opportunities that we’re not taking advantage of.  We could be using these spaces in ways that reduces climate change and enhances neighborhoods at the same time in ways that are not obvious.

Keeping in mind the thoughts above, I propose the following that I will sponsor legislation and/or vote for: 

*A radical rewriting of our zoning codes that insists that all new development be as close to 100% renewable as possible.  Developers should have to jump through as many hoops as possible to be allowed to continue to build projects that rely on fossil fuels.  These changes in the zoning codes should also include the allowance of wind turbines in the city limits – both smaller, household sized as well as larger commercial ones. There should also be provisions in the codes for an increase in cooperatively-owned, commercial urban agriculture.  (A platform plank on urban agriculture is coming.)

*We have barely begun to use open city spaces for solar farms.  We must invest in more of these, to be tied into an eventual public utility that I propose in another section of my platform.  Wind turbines should be put into city-controlled areas of Durand Eastman Park as well as Lake Ontario.  We must start investing in geothermal energy as well. 

*Not only should we focus on the environmental effect of new projects, but we must work to retrofit our existing buildings.  Funding should be made available for rooftop gardens, more trees, and to paint roofs white

*We should start planting zone-appropriate fruit and nut trees on public land in the City.  I would even be so bold as to suggest Parcel 5 as a place for some of these trees.  Neighborhood groups, schools, and even certain businesses can be incentivized to be the stewards of trees planted in their areas. 

*We must thoughtfully begin the use of mycoremediation for soil remediation, particularly in the poorer parts of town where people live on or near former industrial sites. 

*We must begin the process of creating a municipal composting system in Rochester.

*We should ban the sale of anything with single-use plastics in Rochester.  It can be incremental, but it must start now and the pace must be relatively swift.  (More on this coming soon)

*I’ve saved the most difficult for last.  We must collectively take action – citizens and councilmembers to get more control of RGRTA.  As they continue to contract their service, eliminating more and more suburban routes, their service is more city-concentrated than ever.  But we do not have control over how the entity operates or makes decisions.  This would entail changes in state law.  It will be a difficult process, but one that must be taken if we want public transportation to truly have a positive effect on Rochester’s environment.

Every single idea I have expressed above is not only an environmental-saving opportunity, but a chance to reduce poverty and improve our overall fiscal health.

Expanding public support of cooperative businesses could foster all of the initiatives I’ve described here.  The investment of public money in these efforts would produce countless green jobs that we need in our struggling city. 

 


How Can We Pay For Everything?

The City of Rochester’s annual budget is approximately $540 million a year.  It’s a lot of money, but we use some of it on important, life saving things such as infrastructure, garbage collection, the fire department and more.  But we also waste a lot of money that could be used to keep libraries open more, reduce crime in humanistic ways, make sure people have appropriate places to live, fight climate change, and all of the other things I would like to work on when elected to City Council.  Below are just some of the changes I would advocate for that would save money.  Many of them are based on the research of Alex White.

City Employees

Over the last 10 years, the City of Rochester has increased the amount of paid employees by over 200 people.  And this is with an actual decrease in employees in our libraries, recreation centers and Fire Department.  Most of this overall increase has been at the managerial level.  This does not cost us in just salaries, but benefits as well.  In the Communications Department alone, more than 1 in 3 people are in management.  This is a huge waste of money and management levels should be recalculated in every department and appropriate reductions should be made.

Rochester Police Department

Rochester has one of the largest percentages of sworn police officers in comparison to population in the state.  There are a number of tasks that used to be done by civilians that are now done by higher-paid officers.  We should go back to the use of civilians in such roles (e.g. monitoring blue light cameras, Citizen Engagement, etc.).  The officers currently doing such tasks should be back on the street as we eliminate some officer positions via attrition to get the number back to a more appropriate level.  This would save us approximately $4 million.

[What about public safety?  As you can see by my platform planks on police accountability, restorative justice, worker-owned businesses, and more, dealing with many of our society’s issues with law enforcement is inappropriate, ineffective, and inefficient.  The money we save here would be spent on better ways of dealing with our City’s problems.]

City Business

As I have said in a different part of my platform, we must stop using corporate welfare as an economic development policy.  InDave Sutliff-Atias reading \ 2017 & 2018 we spent $41 million in cash giveaways to developers who do not actually live in the City of Rochester.  On some of the projects, these developers have said that their projects would get done even without the City’s handout.  We put tax dollars straight into their pockets (and out of the City of Rochester).  This must stop.  Money given to developers could instead be used to support dozens of smaller, worker-owned businesses in the most depressed areas of Rochester.  Trickle-UP economics.

We should eliminate the Municipal Violations Bureau and allow these issues to be handled by the state-funded Rochester City Court.  This would save $1 million.

We must tighten rules that force the City to bid out contracts for services that we pay for (e.g. parking garages run by private companies, etc.).  City Hall is very lax with the procedure for contracts.

We should reduce the size of the City’s fleet of vehicles.  The large number of vehicles that the City operates includes cars for the Human Resources, Emergency Communications, Finance, and Communications departments.  The costs of purchasing and maintaining these vehicles are expenses that we do not need.  This money should be used for more important issues than department heads and managers having a “company car”, particularly as we’re the company.

Purchasing

This is so big that it gets its own section.  The City of Rochester spends $80 million a year buying stuff it needs to function.  Sure, we are talking about office supplies and the like, but also grass seed, replacement light bulbs, lubricants, and so forth.  The problem is with the procedure in which we do this buying.  Currently, the City uses a State list to tell us what we should spend on items.  What we should be doing instead is using a concept called Strategic Sourcing, which is a detailed procedure that would save us almost $10 million a year.

Consolidation

We need to start combining functions that the City, County, and City School District all do in order to save money.  For example, aspects of Information Technology (IT) and Human Resources could be consolidated to save millions.  There may be some contraction of employee positions, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be so.  The big money will be in the purchasing power of equipment and software licensing.  Maintenance of various infrastructures could be done within different jurisdictions, saving money.  We could even include surrounding towns that want to get in on this action.

This is a complicated concept, but only because we have created such a labyrinth of government that sharing resources is difficult. These turf boundaries have been created over the years by government and can certainly be undone by government.  We will probably have to start small and work our way to bigger things, but this can be done with elected officials who have the political will to make it happen.

I do not have a specific amount of dollars we would save by doing everything I have spelled out here.  The total amount would vary from year to year based on a number of unforeseeable circumstances.  But it is obvious that we can do better with our money; how we collect it, how we spend it, and how we don’t spend it. 


SUNY Chancellor Makes Money Off Of Puerto Rico

As a Green and alumnus of the State University of New York at Brockport, I am deeply disappointed to discover that SUNY Kristina JohnsonChancellor, Kristina M. Johnson is connected to Applied Energy Systems (AES), a corporation that specializes in nonrenewable energy and is currently devastating Puerto Rico with its coal powered energy plants.  It has been reported that AES has been dumping toxic coal ash on the southern part of Puerto Rico, creating an environmental disaster. 

Recently, Chancellor Johnson resigned from AES under pressure from Puerto Rican activists on the island as well as in Rochester – particularly the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP).  Unfortunately she still owns over 150 thousand shares of stock in AES, worth over $2.5 million.

Between Brockport, Monroe Community College, and Empire State University, the SUNY system has been the educational home to thousands of Puerto Rican Rochestarians and for the head of SUNY to be involved in the systematic polluting of their homeland is unacceptable. 

When elected to City Council in November, I will ask my fellow City Council members to cosign a letter calling for Chancellor Johnson to not only divest her stock from AES, but to use her standing with AES to call for the closing of their coal energy plants and pay reparations to Puerto Rico in order to ameliorate the damage they have done. 

I stand in solidarity with Rochester PIP in calling for the immediate and equitable decolonialization of Puerto Rico.

 


Public Energy Company

Rochester Gas and Electric has got to go.  It’s really that simple.  When it was a local company, it served the community relatively well, but now that it is owned by a Spanish conglomerate, it no longer serves our needs as it should.Campaign logo with Dave Sutliff-Atias for City Council on it

We need to set up a publicly-owned energy company in the City of Rochester.  There are over 2000 municipalities that have already done this and we should join that list.  This is not going to happen overnight.  It is going to take a lot of organizing and advocating to get this done, but if done right it will be a win-win-win situation.

Win #1: Our bills will be lower. Municipal energy companies do not have making the most profit as their primary focus.  Fairport Electric has rates much lower than RG&E’s.  This will also help businesses in the City as well.  This would be a boon to businesses already in Rochester as well as those to start here in the future.  It would also be an incentive for businesses to move here, replacing economy-stifling tax breaks.  (See how our local economy is helped by stopping corporate welfare here.)

Win #2: It will help the City’s fiscal health.  The money that people pay for their electric bills will go to the City of Rochester, not to a corporation in Spain.  Money will stay in the local economy and help eliminate City budget gaps – within reason. 

Win #3: A public energy company will give us more power in the fight against climate change and overall environmental safety.  Natural gas is not clean, particularly in how it is extracted.  Nuclear power is not safe, neither during the creation of electricity, nor in the storing of its waste.  We need to focus more on solar, wind, and thermal energy.  A public energy company can invest in City-owned renewable energy resources (see the upcoming environmental platform plank once posted).  Yes, initially, the public utility will have to buy power from Ginna and the State Hydro-electro plant.  But we can transition to renewables as we add to our portfolio of solar farms, wind turbines, and more.

We can even set up this municipal corporation to be run as a cooperative, like those in the Mondragon Cooperatives and from the beginning make sure there is a level of democracy and transparency as to how it conducts its business. 

I will help lead the charge toward the people owning our means of energy production.


We Should Be Supporting Cooperatives

Around 2015, the City of Rochester awarded a grant to Hart’s Grocery for $75,000.  That is a lot of money and it could have helped multiple other local businesses.  Fast forward to March 2019.  Hart’s Grocery announces that it is closing.  This announcement is posted by dozens on social media.  Many people comment that it is a shame, but there are also comments about how the business was run (poorly), how expensive things were in the store (very), and how poorly workers there were treated (very poorly). 

Just out of curiosity, I took a quick look to see if the main driver behind Hart’s Grocery, Glenn Kellogg, had made any political contributions over the last few years.  He had, but it was a relatively nominal amount to three candidates, one of them was on City Council in 2013, but the other two were candidates who ended up losing their elections.  But if you look down just a few lines on the picture below, his wife, Jennifer, made a $1000 contribution to Mayor Warren in 2014.  Hello!

A list of political contributions taken from the NYS BOE's website

Rochester is not unique in the way it encourages economic development.  We, like other municipalities, continue to focus on big businesses to “save” us – an economic concept that has not worked in decades.  Even when the business is locally-owned, we throw huge amounts of cash at a few endeavors and then when they fail, and Hart’s Grocery was doomed to fail, we lose our tax dollars as well as services we need.  And all of this for political contributions.

Along with my call to ban political contributors from doing business with the City, we must shift more of our public economic development resources to the creation of worker-owned businesses, the kind that are run democratically by the workers. 

In 2013, I was among a number of Greens who ran for local office.  Our biggest issue was the transformation to a more democratic, local economy.  While none of the Green candidates won that year, our focus on co-operative economics spurred the City’s creation of Own Rochester, a local non-profit whose mission is to foster the growth of worker-owned businesses.  Own Rochester is too small.  It needs more resources to help train more groups of people to start businesses and convert already established companies into democratically-run ones. 

Co-ops are more successful.  They weather bad economic times better.  Worker-owners are happier than in traditional jobs. 

I will advocate for more money in the City’s budget to spur the development of dozens co-operative businesses – particularly in the most desperate parts of the city.

Such businesses that should be encouraged would be ones that focus on the daily needs of our community:  food, clothing, shelter, health care, day care, etc.


Reduce Gun Violence

I was asked a great question on a social media post on the campaign Facebook page.  Why can anyone get a gun in poor neighborhoods, but it’s more difficult in white suburban neighborhoods?   Guns are obviously not being manufactured in our poor neighborhoods so they’re being brought in illegally.  How can we stop this? 

We need a two pronged attack that goes after supply and demand.  There are limited things we can do to reduce the supply. There will need to be State and Federal laws that focus on the manufacturing and selling of guns and ammunition.  But there are some things City Council can do legislatively to help.

  • Pass a law that mandates guns have locks and they be secured.  The town of Brighton just did this.
  • Require that owners tell police when guns are lost or stolen.  If we give immunity to those who report illegal guns, it would help.  (There may be Federal implications in this.  We’ll have to check.)
  • If they aren’t already, we should ban assault weapons in the city limits.  But to be honest, most shootings in the City are with handguns.
  • Pass a law that requires anyone who has a domestic violence charge or order of protection must immediately surrender their guns and ammo until both are resolved.
  • Most importantly, we need to set up a permanent gun buy-back program.Campaign Logo

 

As I’ve said before, more police will not stop gun violence (or crime in general).  It’ll will at best postpone violence or just move it to another neighborhood.  What we must do is focus on resolving the economic inequity that has existed in Rochester since we’ve been a city. 

It’s difficult for people to value human life if they have no hope; if they see no future for themselves.  Slogans and one-time events will not have an effect.  What will have an effect is:

  • The creation of hundreds of local, worker-owned businesses in residential neighborhoods with an emphasis on urban agriculture and grocery stores.  (platform plank coming)
  • A more systemic inclusion of Restorative Justice in law enforcement and in our schools.
  • City Council using their influence to have single payer health care passed in New York.
  • Making sure everyone has access to safe, affordable housing.

 

I will support and propose legislation to implement all of these ideas. 


Increase Rec Center Hours

I will advocate for a budget that increases hours our recreation centers are open.

This is not a frivolous idea.  Increased recreation for our children is an investment that helps keep our kids out of trouble.  A team picture of a high school football team with red uniformsIncreasing the allotted amount for recreation in the City will reduce crime more than increasing our police budget.

See Recreational Activities in Crime Prevention and Reduction

The Influence of Sport and Recreation upon Crime Reduction: A Literature Review  (pdf)

Effects of After-School Programs with At-Risk Youth on Attendance and Externalizing Behaviors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis