2022 State of the City Address
Hon. Ben Walsh | Mayor, City of Syracuse
Thursday, January 20, 2022 | 5:30 p.m.
JMA Wireless Syracuse Manufacturing Facility
President Pro Temp Greene, Majority Whip Driscoll, At Large Councilors Caldwell, Gethers and Paniagua, and District Councilors Allen, Hogan, Majok and Schultz, in accordance with the Charter of the City of Syracuse, it is my honor to deliver to you tonight the State of the City of Syracuse as we begin 2022. I am proud to report the state of our city is…resilient and ready. Resilient due to our collective commitment during the pandemic to keep each other healthy and safe, and ready with the momentum and capacity to reach higher for greater progress and opportunity for all.
I make that statement with high expectations – and equal awareness – that we are far from where we need to be. Poverty is still far too high, impacting concentrated areas; children and people of color the most. Too many are without a real path to prosperity and economic stability. Violent crime, addiction and mental health struggles are rising. Our work is not done until the warm rays of opportunity and well-being shine equally across the City of Syracuse.
And we don’t need to look far for guidance.
“We are all one community. No one better than the other.”
Those are the words of 17-year-old Yasmine Kanaan three weeks ago at my swearing in. The Nottingham senior who won the regional oratory competition mesmerized us with her maturity and insight. This child of parents who came to Syracuse from Lebanon 20 years ago has a unique understanding of the responsibility we all share – the call to serve our community. It is a call we all must answer.
A Mandate to Reach Higher
At no time in the past half century have conditions aligned so favorably for the City of Syracuse. Population is growing. Graduation rates are rising. Private investment and job creation are again on the upswing. Our city fund balance has grown. The American Rescue Plan provides an unprecedented injection of federal aid — $123 million – to address challenges created and made worse by the pandemic. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework will pour tens of millions into the infrastructure challenges that always seemed just out of reach – roads, water, and broadband. The $2 billion Interstate 81 infrastructure project is about to begin. And maybe, most important, people are finally beginning to believe again because they are seeing the fruits of our collective progress and cooperation in our city.
Things have never lined up better. But how will we respond to this remarkable moment in Syracuse history? Councilors and community partners, we have a mandate to reach higher. To collaborate more completely in the next four years. I have no ambition greater than to work in partnership with you to speed Syracuse’s path to our best days ever.
The Syracuse Surge is Very Real
This amazing facility is an example of what we can achieve together. It is a critical component of the Syracuse Surge which the Common Council embraced with its bold support to acquire and upgrade our street light network to put Syracuse on the map among the world’s most forward looking smart cities.
The Syracuse Surge is our strategy for inclusive growth in the New Economy. It is different than most economic growth plans because the first descriptive word in our strategy is, “inclusive.” It’s about people. Everything about the Syracuse Surge is designed to create opportunity first and foremost for those who have, in the past, been left behind.
The Southside Campus for the New Economy is the heartbeat of the Syracuse Surge. It is comprised of multiple transformational tech related projects that will drive opportunity to people here on the south side and all across the city and region to prepare for and gain careers in high-tech fields.
Just a few blocks away, the State University of New York Educational Opportunity Center – SUNY EOC – is proceeding with two major projects that will change people’s lives. The EOC complex will be fully renovated and expanded to become a state of the art adult education and career center. EOC will also transform a vacant property adjacent to its campus to create a new Applied Trade and Technology Manufacturing Center – providing more people with the skills they need to get good jobs and careers in growing industry sectors and trades.
Down the block from SUNY EOC, we are moving closer to construction on the regional Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math – or STEAM School – at the former Central Tech High School. I am pleased to report that the City, County and School District have reached agreement on the lease for the building. We expect it to be brought to the School Board and Council for authorization before the end of winter. More important, planning for what will happen inside the STEAM school – the curriculum and classes are taking shape. The Syracuse City School District has multiple district-community teams developing the programs that give our kids the ability to capture the jobs growing here and around the world. Our plan is to start construction within the next year.
Right across Salina Street from this site, I am pleased to report the Salina First development has secured its financing and will be getting underway this year. It’s a $6.8 million project that will add light manufacturing, office, retail and mixed income residential to the neighborhood.
The Syracuse Community Health Center is joining in the Syracuse Surge by building a new $22.5 million facility right next door from this site. It will become a new main patient care center and the existing facility will be fully renovated as part of a major expansion to better care for more people in our community.
Surrounding the Southside Campus and at places around the City, more Syracuse Surge progress is happening. Our tech start up ecosystem is thriving. The place where much of that progress started – The Tech Garden – is expanding upward with construction of two more floors. Final design and engineering work gets started soon on this $16.5 million project, which will more than double the square footage available for the incubation and acceleration of regional startup companies. Construction bids will go out in the Fall of 2022, setting the stage for work to begin next year. Thank you, Councilors, for your support of this important project.
The Tech Garden is one piece of the Center City Innovation Hub, which sits adjacent to the Southside Campus and also includes rapid growth at Tech Garden-born companies like TCG Player, SpinCar and Density, which recently became Syracuse’s first “unicorn,” a startup that has reached a value of over $1 billion. And we now know the Hub will continue to be anchored by Equitable, who recently committed to maintaining its presence in the tower plaza that bears its name for years to come. I want to thank the company for their continued investment in Syracuse and acknowledge the support of Governor Hochul and her team at ESD in helping us keep Equitable’s strong presence in the City and atop our skyline.
In addition to these “brick and mortar” and business successes there are multiple Syracuse Surge job training programs in place supporting women, minorities and veterans. With pandemic relief and funding from the JP Morgan Chase Advancing Cities Initiative, our community partners at CenterState CEO, Hack Upstate, Le Moyne College’s ERIE 21, OCM BOCES, Onondaga Community College and SUNY EOC have completed or have training underway for more than 85 people. It covers areas like digital customer service, cybersecurity, coding and computer programming, advanced manufacturing and applied trades.
18 small business owners are getting help and grants for tech improvement plans so they can better compete in the New Economy. And we are just getting charged up: next year, our partners will dramatically expand training, reaching hundreds of people and piloting a program at the Tech Garden for entrepreneurial teams, led by People of Color.
As you can see, the Syracuse Surge is very real. Since 2019, the Surge strategy has directly generated more than $200 million in commitments for infrastructure, economic development, and workforce programs within the City of Syracuse to create opportunity for all. Thanks to the work of many partners and our Director of Strategic Initiatives Jennifer Tifft, we are beginning to harvest the yield from the unprecedented public -private partnership that is at the core of Syracuse Surge.
The Weight of the Pandemic
All of this has happened in the face of the now nearly two year battle with COVID-19. People in our community have suffered greatly under the weight of the pandemic. More than 900 Onondaga County residents have died from COVID-19. Thousands more have suffered serious illness. And even more people have lost businesses and jobs. The pain is real and we must address the widespread impact of the pandemic in our recovery.
We are now in the midst of the largest spike of COVID-19 cases yet, fueled by the Omicron variant. I want to thank our hospitals and long-term care facilities and each and every doctor, nurse, and health care worker who simply have not let up. I also extend appreciation to Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and his entire team in county government who have led our community response so effectively. We thank you and we’ve got your back.
Our best weapon against COVID-19 is vaccination and boosters. Our rates of both have grown consistently since the lifesaving shot became available. But the increases are occurring too slowly and too many at-risk individuals are without the information and assistance they need to make an informed decision. That will change early this year because of a first-time CDC grant received by the City of Syracuse in partnership with SEIU Local 1199’s Healthcare Education Project. The COVID CARES Response program will put community ambassadors into neighborhoods where vaccine acceptance is low to provide information on the proven safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and help people get access. I am confident this innovative partnership – conceived and led by SEIU — will save more lives and help us exit the pandemic sooner.
Your city government is contending with operational impacts of the Omicron variant every single day. Critical public facing departments like Police, Fire, DPW, Parks and Finance are without nearly 10% of their staff. Our city workers inspire me by constantly adapting to the challenges of the pandemic to keep services running. I am also grateful for the partnership of our employee labor unions who have helped ensure both their members and the people they serve are protected and served by the city.
COVID-19 Recovery is Already Underway
The pandemic is, clearly, far from over. Syracuse’s recovery, though, is already well under way. In 2021, the federal government committed $123 million in ARPA pandemic relief to the City of Syracuse. The Biden Administration delivered on its commitment to support cities, and our New York Senators, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, helped make this funding a reality. In close coordination with the Common Council, we have already authorized more than $45 million in ARPA funding to help people in Syracuse and fortify your city government.
We have four funding priorities: support children, families and neighborhoods; transform infrastructure and public spaces; invest in jobs and economic opportunity; and enhance government response and resilience. In order to ensure the Council and the people we serve have a full view of how and where pandemic relief dollars are going, tonight I’m pleased to unveil for the first time our new online ARPA Dashboard. Citizens can view real time information online that tracks our progress towards the spending of ARPA dollars – from how quickly we are spending the money, to which projects have been completed.
In the weeks and months ahead, we will continue to advance ARPA recovery programs to the Council and to activate the funding approved to help city residents. You will see funding proposals to stabilize and renovate housing; to ensure city residents get opportunities on the Interstate 81 project; to maintain and improve more parks facilities; to help our local arts community recover; and, to modernize our sanitation system.
American Rescue Plan relief is one of the reasons I am so confident about the future of Syracuse. The strength and vitality of our neighborhoods is another.
Neighborhood Commitments: Nuisance Properties, Housing, Choice Neighborhood Initiative
My grandfather grew up in Skunk City, and it was always a part of his identity. My mom is from Eastwood and my dad’s from Tipp Hill. Together they raised my brother, sister and me in Strathmore and Winkworth. Today, Lindsay and I are raising our girls within a stone’s throw of both of my childhood homes, in a bit of a tweener neighborhood we lovingly call Strathworth or Winkmore. Syracuse is only as strong as the places we live. So tonight, I have three major commitments for our neighborhoods.
First, we’re turning up the heat on nuisance properties that infect every part of our city: businesses and property owners that feed on illicit activity; prey on children; and trigger crime, violence and death. That’s not nuisance behavior – that’s unconscionable behavior. And, frankly, I’m done with it. Done.
So tonight, I’m announcing a crackdown on these properties. First, we will present to the Council legislation that increases fines for first offenses from $1,000 to $2,500 and raises fines by the number of units in the building. We will use data to track and maintain a target list of sites with qualifying arrests, and we will hire an additional attorney in our Law Department to focus solely on nuisance abatement cases. If you operate your building in flagrant violation of the law and do not cooperate with codes and police, we will shut you down.
Fighting nuisance properties is one of many battles we wage more effectively because of the strong leadership of Corporation Counsel Kristen Smith, who will leave city government at the end of this month. During the past four years, Kristen has improved the operations and performance of the Law Department and worked on the most pressing issues facing our community, from police reform to creating economic opportunity through the Syracuse Surge. I want to thank Kristen for her service and for creating a Law Department ready to carry on with excellence and integrity.
Second, we’re going to take the largest step forward yet on our commitment to build 200 new affordable single and two family homes all across the city. The pandemic exacerbated a severe housing crisis in our city. In the coming weeks, as outlined in our ARPA strategy, we will advance to the Council a $13 million infusion of funding to the Resurgent Neighborhoods Initiative Infill Housing Strategy. We will soon issue a Request for Qualifications to identify contractors to help us build new and rehabilitate existing housing to address this affordable housing gap. Led by Director of Housing and Neighborhood Planning, Michelle Sczpanski, 17 of the first 50 single family owner-occupied homes are completed or underway, and we will build another 75 two-family homes. These affordable houses are being built at “scattered sites” all over the city. Instead of watching vacant lots or dilapidated empty homes drag down a street we’re building new houses to lift up whole neighborhoods.
And finally, we will repay a long overdue debt to a neighborhood that has given far more than it has gotten from this community. I am talking about the 15th Ward, a place with unwavering spirit despite enduring an injustice that has lasted more than half a century. Across our nation, there is no greater example of the destructive impact of urban highways on neighborhoods than the Interstate 81 viaduct. We must and will right this wrong.
Under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Owens in partnership with the Syracuse Housing Authority, The City of Syracuse is seeking the largest federal housing grant in recent history for the East Adams corridor adjacent to Interstate 81. The area is known, with pride, as the Old 15th Ward. With close community involvement, we want to see it reborn and reconnected.
In a few weeks, the City will submit a massive proposal to HUD’s premier place-based initiative, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, for $50 million in federal money to comprehensively invest in the neighborhood. It is the next step toward realizing the resident-driven transformation of the neighborhood being planned by the Syracuse Housing Authority and Blueprint 15 in association with the nationally-proven Purpose Built Communities model. The result will be an $800 million investment that will bring all of the SHA housing in the neighborhood – more than 1,000 units – up to modern standards that their residents deserve. We are deeply grateful for the support of our federal delegation, including Congressman John Katko. His work on housing issues in this community – especially lead mitigation – will be a lasting legacy of his service. Thank you, Congressman.
The possibilities for the 15th Ward have been envisioned by residents – parks, transportation, child care, retail and mixed-income housing – and they are exciting. I want to be clear, though, about one critical point: preventing displacement of current residents is central to this transformation. I will not accept an approach that triggers gentrification or forces families to leave a neighborhood they love and call home.
Housing Safety and Quality
Around the city, we are taking other major actions to improve the safety and quality of housing.
2022 will bring full implementation of the Lead Ordinance, spearheaded by President Hudson and Councilor Driscoll. The pandemic created delays, but thanks to the leadership of Code Enforcement Director, Jake Dishaw and his team, we continued progress over the past year. Tonight, I’m pleased to report we have completed our search for the staff leadership of the lead abatement program. We have also dedicated $4.5 million in ARPA funds for lead remediation. Councilors, thank you for approving this historic ordinance and for authorizing the funding for implementation.
We will make other major upgrades to our Code Enforcement and permitting processes. In 2022, the Central Permit Office led by Director Mediha Salkic, will digitize more permits – to make it easier for people to move projects forward and use our staff time more effectively.
Our Codes team does not work alone in the fight against bad property owners. In 2021, we formalized our multi-department team approach with the creation of HOME, the High Occupancy Monitoring and Enforcement Unit that tracks and keeps pressure on the major apartment complexes in Syracuse. We will do everything in our authority to hold irresponsible property owners and managers accountable and improve housing conditions for our children, families and at-risk neighbors.
Raising the quality of life in all of our neighborhoods will happen faster with greater investment and economic growth. Neighborhood and Business Development Commissioner Michael Collins and his team are playing a pivotal role in helping local businesses survive and even prosper despite COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, the City of Syracuse has provided about $1.3 million in grant and loan finances to over 125 city businesses. Using ARPA funds, we are investing another $4 million.
Economic Investments Takeoff in 2022: High Tech Manufacturing and Housing at SDC
Get ready for what’s coming in 2022 and beyond, because some of our biggest neighborhood economic investment efforts are about to takeoff. After wallowing in emptiness and decay for two decades, the sprawling Syracuse Developmental Center property is about to come back to life. We seized the west side property for back taxes in 2019 to protect the site and bring it back to productive use. After working closely with neighborhood stakeholders, including second district common councilor Pat Hogan, we are ready to write the next chapter for this transformative site.
As part of our Syracuse Surge strategy – and demonstrating that we can bring quality jobs like those here at JMA to other parts of the city – we are working with CenterState CEO to attract a high-tech company and build an advanced manufacturing facility at the SDC site. We will demolish the abandoned and vandalized structure and replace it with a modern, job creating manufacturing, research and technology campus.
We’ve also signed a letter of intent with CenterState CEO and the Albanese Organization, a leading Northeast development firm that wants to invest in Syracuse to bring a mixed income housing development to the SDC property. So now, this 48-acre site with a spectacular view of the City will surge back with jobs and quality housing – lifting up the Near West Side and Tipp Hill neighborhoods.
Downtown Revitalization Initiative
2022 will also be the year we go to work on Syracuse’s first ever Downtown Revitalization Initiative Award. Thanks to the efforts of Deputy Commissioner of Business Development Eric Ennis and many community partners, we received a $10 million award to invest in the West Onondaga Street and South Avenue neighborhoods that serve as the southwest gateway to Downtown Syracuse. It’s a strategic area that will spur growth and opportunity in neighborhood business corridors to the south and west. Planning and action with the state and neighborhood stakeholders is already underway.
The condition of a city’s urban core is a strong indicator of the trajectory of a community and region. In the past four years, the $190 million in investment across every part of Downtown Syracuse surely indicates that Syracuse is rising. Think of all the projects completed or underway during that time: Haylor, Freyer & Coon; Salt City Market; the old Post Standard; the iconic M&T Bank building; the former Sibleys; the new seating and marquee at the Landmark Theatre; Corbett Corner next to Firefighters Park; Smith Restaurant Supply; and the City’s actions to put the historic City Hall Commons flatiron building back on the tax rolls. The unprecedented investment we’ve seen downtown will undoubtedly spur additional investment in our other neighborhood business districts.
Interstate 81 Getting Started
Our neighborhoods can reach higher because of the opportunity that will come from the Interstate 81 project. I was excited to see Governor Hochul reaffirm her commitment to begin this $2 billion investment in Syracuse in 2022. The Community Grid will vastly change how we move in and around the City of Syracuse and set the stage for further economic growth in the center city and neighboring areas. I recognize this alternative is not perfect and that improvements must be made. The New York State Department of Transportation has demonstrated a genuine willingness to listen and do everything possible to lessen potential negative impacts. We can all work together to reach the full potential of the Community Grid.
Kwiasean Peterson is living proof of the potential the Interstate 81 project. The Burnet Avenue resident is a product of the Syracuse Build Pathways to Apprenticeship program, which provides construction training to city residents whose access to such careers has been difficult in the past. Created in partnership with Council President Hudson and our sisters and brothers in organized labor, it ensures participants have the skills trade unions need and gives them a shot at an apprenticeship. I’d like to thank the Pathways to Apprenticeship team and particularly Ebony Farrow for her dedication and leadership in this important program.
Three weeks after Kwiasean graduated from Pathways, he had an apprenticeship with Carpenters Local 277. This 31-year-old father has more than doubled his income working as a millwright on the Amazon warehouse in Clay. Kwiasean is here tonight – congratulations on your accomplishments.
Imagine what Kwiasean and the 29 others who have graduated from Pathways to Apprenticeship will be able to do on 81 and the other transformative projects throughout the region. Two more classes are coming in 2022.
We started work on Syracuse Build nearly four years ago. Because of that early work, Syracuse Build now has three full time staff, led by Director Chris Montgomery, who are readying dozens of city residents for careers in HVAC, construction and building maintenance, and commercial truck driving.
We are anticipating approval early in 2022 of New York State Department of Transportation’s proposal to the federal government for aggressive local hiring requirements under the SEP-14 program. It will mean I-81 contractors on the project will get incentives to hire city residents and DOT will be required to track and publicly report the progress. It’s the result of a remarkable collaboration between the City of Syracuse, New York State DOT, the Urban Jobs Task Force and the offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand.
I’m also pleased to announce tonight that, in collaboration with members of the Council and community residents, we are near completion of an RFP process to hire an urban design master planner to work for the people of Syracuse. This experienced national firm will help us re-knit our urban fabric, maximize pedestrian and cycling improvements and review traffic plans along the full length of the Community Grid in the City.
We are making significant neighborhood progress and I want to thank my Quality of Life Commission for their support. This citywide group of volunteers always makes sure my team and I have our ear to the ground across the city.
Public Safety: More Officers, Junior Cadet Program and Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence
We must help all of our neighborhoods reach higher. And that cannot be achieved unless the people who live here feel safe. It is a fact that property crime was down last year, but violent crime went up 3%. As we have painfully experienced in the past year, the lack of opportunity, addiction, and trauma drive too many people to dangerous and violent acts.
The Syracuse Police Department, despite challenges never before seen in policing, relentlessly pushed back on these forces. Under Chief Kenton Buckner’s command, Syracuse performed better on violent crime and gun violence than many parts of New York and the nation. All categories of shooting incidents were down at least 10%. Homicides declined 6% over the prior year. SPD recovered more than 231 firearms. But that offers little comfort to families living in fear or mired in the misery of loss.
In 2022, we will bring on two new police academy classes – the next beginning in just a few weeks. They will be our fifth and sixth of this administration. With these new officers, we will reestablish the Gun Violence Suppression Detail to get more guns and violent offenders off our streets. I’m also announcing for the first time tonight that CNY Works has authorized funding for SPD to start the Junior Cadet Training Program this year. It will provide city young people with training and paid work experience to bridge between high school graduation and when they are old enough to enter the police academy.
Also ahead, the New York State Attorney General’s office has confirmed that we will conduct another gun buyback program this year.
We must do more to make our city safer, and we will. Tonight, I am announcing the creation of Syracuse’s first ever Mayor’s Office to Reduce Gun Violence to synchronize our city’s anti-gun violence efforts. This new office will work alongside residents, community stakeholders, law enforcement and violence prevention experts to identify factors perpetuating gun violence in Syracuse. It will also implement strategic solutions informed by proven best practices. I want to acknowledge the National Action Network Syracuse Chapter for their advocacy for this office. I believe the fight against gun crime is a war that can be won. We will save precious lives and Syracuse will show the nation how a city successfully turns back gun violence.
We have already shown that improving policing and public safety can be done simultaneously. In 2021, we completed the full implementation of the Right to Know Law. We made years of police discipline records more accessible and we secured a residency requirement for new officers. In 2022, we will continue to push forward on police reform working in coordination with the police department and the dedicated community police reform oversight committee we launched last year.
In the year ahead, we will also “double down” on our PAL program, the Syracuse Police Athletic and Activities League. The PAL program puts youth and families together with police officers and community volunteers to give kids positive, productive activities.
Fire Tower Construction to Start in 2022
I’ve said often that we have one of the very best fire departments in the entire nation. Now, there is more proof. The National Fallen Firefighters Association bestowed on the Syracuse Fire Department the coveted Seal of Excellence Award for firefighter safety. Only 24 fire departments in the world have ever received this award.
Under the leadership of Chief Michael Monds and in the face of increased COVID-19 responsibilities, the Department responded to over 21,000 calls for help in 2021. It maintained an average response time of three minutes and 32 seconds – the best in Onondaga County and among the best in the state. The department graduated a class of 27 recruits, the largest and most diverse class in its history.
In 2022 this department will keep getting better. It will begin hiring more firefighters.
The department will equip every company with new lifesaving thermal imaging cameras to allow our firefighters to better locate victims in smoke and low visibility. And also this year, construction will begin on a new state of the art fire training tower to replace our current 80 year old structure. A modern tower will save the lives of firefighters and the people they serve.
Meeting the Needs of People
Across city government, there has been continued progress to meet the growing needs of city residents.
We brought summer youth employment back with a roar in 2021, creating good opportunities for nearly 1,300 city kids.
We funded the Liberty Resources Mobile Crisis Program to work with Syracuse Police and other mental health and addiction programs for alternative response to emergency calls and crime scenes.
The Syracuse Financial Empowerment Center crossed the $2 million mark in savings by more than 800 Syracuse individuals and families.
We created the City’s first ever LGBTQ+ Advisory Group ensuring their voices inform the services of city government.
With Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, we started SyracuseServes, the proven national program to connect our local veterans and military families with the services they need and deserve.
The Office of Inclusion, Diversity Equity and Accessibility is underway ensuring city government is an inclusive and equitable workplace.
Our Schools Are the Becoming Modern and Well-Equipped in the Region
The burden of COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainty has and continues to be borne heavily by our children and the people of the Syracuse City School District. The return to classes this fall was hard, and all schools still struggle with COVID complications. Despite all of this, our teachers, administrators, staff, students and families have achieved excellent outcomes. Our graduation rate hit a historic high of 70.7% in 2020, and we expect it to be even higher for 2021.
City school facilities are becoming the most modern and well-equipped in our region with investment through the Joint Schools Construction Board and the hard work of our Department of Engineering lead by City Engineer Mary Robison. In 2022, the final work on the $300 million Phase II schools will be completed. Now, with Governor Hochul’s signature late last year, we begin Phase III.
More transformative projects are coming at STEM at Blodgett, Corcoran, Delaware, Henninger, Syracuse Latin, Lincoln, Nottingham, Roberts, Seymour and Webster. Our children and educators deserve only the best academic facilities. Superintendent Alicea, President Hudson, the JSCB board and I will not settle for anything less.
The people of Syracuse are served with a spectacular network of parks and a robust portfolio of recreation programs for seniors, youth and people of all ages. We’re expanding and improving winter offerings for skating, sledding, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. In just over a week, the exciting Syracuse Pond Hockey Classic is scheduled to return with more rinks and teams at Hiawatha Lake in Upper Onondaga Park. In the summer, we’ve introduced more outdoor movies, boating and kayaking options and renovated both of our amazing public golf courses.
Parks Programs for Families, Health and Wellness, and Therapeutic Recreation
In 2022, Parks will reach higher levels under the direction of Commissioner Julie LaFave. Tonight, I am announcing the creation of three new bureaus in our Parks Department that recognize the critical roles that parks play in our lives. First, we will create a Health and Wellness Bureau to coordinate and expand our programs in yoga, running, dance and other mental health and physical fitness programs. Second, we will create the Therapeutic Recreation Bureau for the many members of our community with mental, emotional and physical needs. And finally, we will create the Family Recreation Bureau to respond to the exploding demand for new family programs, like pop-up equipment rentals, community events and races in all seasons.
In 2022, we will advance plans for protection and improvement of several high profile and important parks facilities:
With a combination of a state grant and city capital funds, we will start the restoration of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Clinton Square.
We will move forward with the planning and conceptual design work necessary to create a Heritage Park at Columbus Circle celebrating our city’s diversity, including Italian Americans, the Onondagas, and many other cultures
Late last year, by an act of the state legislature, the city was given the opportunity to acquire the “terminal lands” at the Inner Harbor. This land encompasses the eastern and southern edges of the Harbor and includes the two piers. By acquiring this prime waterfront real estate, we will ensure the public always has direct access to their waterfront and in the coming year we will begin developing plans to create new and enhanced amenities for fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities.
With the able leadership of City Planner Owen Kerney, we will complete the Meacham Park waterfront pavilion on Onondaga Creek at Seneca Turnpike. I am also charging our Department of Engineering to work with the community to begin planning, designing and securing resources for Phase III of the Onondaga Creekwalk to extend the trail all the way south to the city line. From connecting the Loop the Lake Trail to the Empire State Trail, this is part of our broader effort to develop a system of urban trails and greenways that connect people throughout the city and far beyond.
Climate Change Action: Urban Forest, Comprehensive Plan 2040 and Syracuse Sustainability Plan
This year, Syracuse will continue to participate in the global mandate to address climate change. Using pandemic relief to expedite implementation of the Urban Forest Master Plan we will plant and care for thousands of trees in the city, especially in places that are barren of any substantial tree cover.
Beginning this year, the city will begin a complete update of the Syracuse Comprehensive Plan 2040 which includes the Syracuse Sustainability Plan. While the city has made remarkable progress to increase energy efficiency and reduce our carbon footprint in recent years, the consequences of climate change are no longer far off. The Comprehensive Plan will acknowledge these factors and identify actions that city government must take to increase our resilience including our land use, natural environment, transportation, and quality of life.
Syracuse is already becoming a more accessible and walkable community. Working together with the Council, we made history in 2021 implementing the new municipal sidewalk program. We started constructing miles of new sidewalks and greatly expanded municipal sidewalk snow removal. This year, we will expand again and implement a long-term program to ensure the entire city has quality sidewalks at all times of the year.
We brought back the Syracuse Sync Bikeshare system with our new partner Veo and added e-scooters. Still, our mobility and transit options aren’t strong enough to allow all our residents to reach higher. Syracuse needs a robust, reliable and more frequent Bus Rapid Transit system. We have support for BRT among our state and federal delegation. Centro is on board. In 2022, we will bring on a consultant to help us go after the necessary federal funds and work with the Council, state delegation and local stakeholders to move BRT forward.
Action on Longstanding Challenges
We’ve proven we can take action on problems that have gone unattended for far too long and we will keep doing more.
The Department of Assessment, under newly appointed Commissioner Matt Oja and 1st Deputy Commissioner Ann Gallagher, is on track increase it output of assessment changes by nearly 50% this fiscal year driven in part by a data-centric approach. In 2022, we will use automation and computer modeling to increase assessment output and refine the accuracy of assessments.
The improved City Payment Center began accepting in person credit card payments for taxes, water bills and parking tickets in 2021. This year, the CPC is reducing the cost and making it easier to apply for property tax and parking payment plans – which will help residents get out of debt faster and improve our cash flow.
Also in the year ahead, we will begin implementation of a three-year digital services plan for city government and its residents. We will go full speed head modernizing and protecting city government’s digital infrastructure.
Our Chief Operating Officer, Corey Driscoll Dunham, is making city government work better for all of us. One of those areas of major improvement is our roads. It’s well known and mostly appreciated that DPW and Engineering repaved more roads than anyone can remember last construction season. In 2022, we will finish work on State and Salina Streets, begin a massive repaving of West Genesee Street from downtown to the city line, and reconstruct the East Colvin Street hill with new streetscape and pedestrian upgrades. DPW Commissioner Jeremy Robinson plans extensive citywide road reconstruction again this year.
Under the leadership of Deputy Commissioner Ann Fordock, we will take the most significant action yet to solve the litter and trash problem in Syracuse. Based on a recently completed sanitation study and using ARPA funds, we will reform our sanitation ordinances and equip residential properties with uniform, covered trash and recycling carts. This will dramatically cut down on blowing and drifting trash and recycling. We will also take the first steps to semi-automate our sanitation equipment – protecting the safety of our valued Sani-workers and improving the appearance of our city.
With ARPA funding, Water Commissioner Joe Awald and his team will begin design on the extension of the intake pipe in Skaneateles Lake to help protect our water supply. In addition, the City continues to work with lake stakeholders to address harmful algae blooms and other evolving threats to the lake watershed.
Stronger Finances Create More Time to Fix Structural Fiscal Problems
Our goals to “reach higher” are aggressive. And they will be difficult to accomplish because Syracuse city government – like other cities in New York – still faces severe long term fiscal challenges. The gap between our annual revenue and expenses is still wide.
Surely, we have stabilized our fiscal condition and dramatically improved the quality and timeliness of our financial systems and recordkeeping. Our Department of Finance and outside auditors completed the fiscal year 21 audit before the end of last year – the earliest it’s ever been done. For the second straight year, they found no material weaknesses in our internal controls, and for the first time they found no significant deficiencies.
In the early stages of the pandemic when we compiled the FY 21 budget, we projected a significant draw on reserves to balance the budget. Tonight, I am pleased to report the audited financial statements show we actually achieved a $38 million surplus.
This is a welcome financial turn-around resulting from proactive fiscal management enacted in coordination with the Council; an unanticipated increase in sales tax revenue to the City despite the pandemic; and the State’s full reimbursement of aid it had withheld due to COVID-19. The City’s fund balance today stands at $80 million dollars, the largest it has been at any point in recent memory.
The complete turnaround of our city’s financial systems is nothing short of remarkable, and is due in large part to the leadership of Chief Administrative Officer Frank Caliva, Finance Commissioner Brad O’Connor, Budget Director Tim Rudd and their very capable teams. Yet, they’d be the first ones to tell you there is still much to do.
While we are more fiscally stable now, we still need to overcome the fundamental imbalance between annual revenue and expenses, which will require further planning, discipline and growth. And unless we demonstrate good stewardship in the near future, we will be back in a fiscal crisis before too long.
The stronger fund balance has afforded us more time to fix our structural deficit – control expenses and increase revenue – to achieve long term fiscal sustainability. I am firmly convinced we can and will, because I have already seen us accomplish feats considered by many to be unachievable.
Reaching Our Vision: A Growing City that Embraces Diversity and Creates Opportunity for All
Central to our success as a city has been our relentless pursuit of an inspiring vision and achievable strategy. Our vision is to be a growing city that embraces diversity and creates opportunity for all. Our strategy is comprised of four clear objectives: achieve fiscal sustainability; increase economic investment and neighborhood stability; improve the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of city services; and enhance constituent engagement and response.
With the broad involvement of the Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation under the leadership of Chief Data and Innovation Officer Nico Diaz, we have embraced new ideas and data-driven decision making. In 2021, What Works Cities awarded Syracuse the prestigious silver certification for excellence in data-driven practices. There is almost no corner of city government the API team hasn’t made more effective, from launching a new winter weather operations tool… to building a data warehouse from the ground up…to COVID-19 data tracking.
In just about a month, the space in which we are gathered tonight will be a fast-paced production floor for JMA Wireless. 38-year-old Lamar Neal who grew up and still lives on Beard Place about a mile away will be one of its very first employees. After losing his job due to the pandemic, Lamar landed a job with JMA last September. The Nottingham grad now works as an antennae assembler and will soon have a walkable job for one of America’s fastest growing tech manufacturing companies. Lamar says it’s exciting to work for a company that plays a key role in making mobile phone calls possible. And with the confidence of a good job just down the street, he’s purchased the house next door on Beard Place from the Land Bank and is renovating the home adjacent to Sankofa Park for his five children and him. Lamar, thank you for reaching higher for your family and for your city.
Forever is Now: It’s Time to Reach Higher
We must reach higher together because the daily difficulties and uneven obstacles facing many in Syracuse are still great.
The 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Forever is composed of nows.” At a time like this in the history of Syracuse – when so many circumstances are once again breaking in the direction of our great city – her words summon us. The decisions we make now shape the tomorrow we leave for our children and grandchildren. Forever…is now.
We cannot let this moment pass. We must stand side by side, reach higher and seize the opportunities presented to us to improve the safety and quality of life for all of our residents for now and forever.
God bless, have a good night, and please, be safe.