2011 State of the City of Binghamton, NY

The following is the full transcript of Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan delivering the 2011 State of the City Address on Wednesday Feb. 16, 2011.

Good evening and thank you for coming.

I would like to thank all the people here tonight and all those at home who are watching on TV for taking the time to listen to this State of the City Address. It is only two times a year that I have the privilege to address the City Council and our residents in this setting, and I look forward to this night each year to explain the progress the team, that is City Hall, continues to make despite the most challenging economic times since the Great Depression. Tonight I will talk about the challenges that our city government is facing and how these challenges are becoming greater and greater. I will also talk about how fostering principled, proactive, participatory government has allowed our community to make great strides towards a more livable and vibrant city, one that we can all be proud of, despite these difficult economic times.

Five years ago, my administration came to City Hall with a set of values, and they have allowed us to weather the current economic crisis better than many levels of government. In the last year, for example, the economic downturn has forced the City of Colorado Springs to cut 20% of its workforce, turn off a third of its street lights and close its parks. Camden, New Jersey has fired a third of its firefighters and nearly half its police force, and a State control board recently took over Nassau County’s finances. By contrast, our principled, carefully thought out strategy has allowed us to absorb the recession’s financial pressures while continuing to protect our citizens and take advantage of important development opportunities. That is what responsible government is all about, and it has put our community on the path to even greater success.

Our progress centers on strengthening our economy and creating jobs.

Greater Binghamton’s economy has a proud history, but many practices of the last four decades have been damaging and unwise. In the 1960s and 70s, Urban Renewal eliminated a great deal of our historic building stock, stripping our main commercial centers of their architectural character. In the 1980s, local industries followed other manufacturers south, leaving behind a rust belt of vacant, polluted lots whose clean-up costs have greatly discouraged investors. And over the course of these years, when gas was less than $2.00 a gallon and economic growth seemed limitless, homeowners sprawled to the suburbs, hollowing out our urban core, and shifting more of the tax burden onto a smaller number of people.

My administration’s economic development strategy is exactly the opposite. And as a result, we are bringing dollars, businesses, jobs and people back to our city. Longtime local firms who had departed downtown have now returned and new entrepreneurs have taken up residence, creating a business community synergy that continues to grow. We hear over and over that downtown is now a preferred business and residential address.

By reviving our local loan agency, the BLDC, we have leveraged more than $7 million in private development and helped more than 40 new businesses open across Binghamton. That includes VMR Electronics, which we helped relocate to the North Side in the once vacant Landers Building. They have nearly doubled their first anticipated workforce of 140 employees to 260. VMR continues to explore additional opportunities for expanding its manufacturing lines, and is well placed to grow as a primary employer in the city. Our new businesses also include Integrated Office Services, at 162 Court Street, whose owner Natalia Williams was the most recent winner of our $5,000 annual Business Plan Competition. We cut the ribbon on this promising new venture just yesterday, and Natalia has joined us tonight as an honored guest.

We also have secured state grants to redevelop brownfields in the First Ward and on the North Side, and we are participating with the County on a grant aimed at overhauling another set of brownfields in the Brandywine Corridor. Permits for building projects have increased 31% between 2009 and 2010, and over 60% in the last three years.

Thanks to smart strategies and a highly competent City Hall staff, we also have injected millions of dollars into our local economy by more effectively bringing our tax dollars back from Albany and Washington to reinvest in our neighborhoods, infrastructure, business community and working families. Since my last State of the City Address, we have used state and federal grants to unveil the new-and-improved MLK Promenade and Kennedy Park. We have used grants to pave several miles of streets, to complete repairs to all three of our parking ramps and to leverage $200,000 in private investment to improve the facades of seven key buildings in our main downtown corridors. With the Department of Planning, Housing and Community Development managing 27 projects worth $12 million in grants, even more of this important work is on the way, including the much-anticipated South Side Commons Project, which we will break ground for this Spring.

But most notable are the three student housing projects that are on track to open downtown this year and in 2012. These projects together represent more than $50 million in private investment and promise to bring in more than 670 new residents, who in turn will support our local shops and other businesses. What is even more encouraging, these projects fit with our commitment to green infrastructure. The student housing projects at 20 Hawley Street and the former Midtown Mall are adapting existing buildings instead of demolishing them and starting over. This kind of development saves time, materials, energy, money—and our downtown’s historic charm. It is friendlier to the bottom line, the taxpayer and our environment—and we applaud its practice. The Newman Development Group housing project is going up on Washington Street, a former NYSEG brownfield which has been totally cleaned up at no cost to the public.

We embrace the new energy and investments coming downtown, but we also know that sustaining this momentum demands greater coordination among all the stakeholders involved. That is why earlier today I authorized the formation of a Commission on Downtown Development, which I have tasked with producing a blueprint for the types of businesses, organizations and amenities that will fit well with our downtown’s changing makeup, and these upcoming student housing projects. The Commission’s work will include plans for attracting and locating new services to support our growing number of downtown residents. In order to ensure quality development, we must remain proactive in guiding it. The Commission will include representatives from my administration, the City Council, downtown business associations, developers, our educational institutions and our arts community. I have asked Economic Development Director Merry Harris and Councilman Sean Massey to serve as Co-Chairs. Both Merry and Sean have the experience, the passion and the expertise to ensure this Commission helps keep downtown headed in the right direction, and I thank them for their commitment to this effort. We laid the groundwork for the Commission’s efforts by collaborating with Binghamton Development Inc. and Binghamton University to survey residents about what draws them to downtown and what additional developments and activities would make the area more appealing. This information will help guide the Commission’s work.

The student housing initiatives are not the only economic anchor projects where our proactive approach has led to success. For another, look no farther than Water Street. After many trials and tribulations, we have a new owner for the former Regency Hotel, now the Binghamton Riverwalk Hotel & Conference Center. But more important, we have the right owner. When the original owners defaulted on a federal loan, I recognized it was critical to keep the facility viable for new investment, and City Councils, both past and present, unanimously supported these efforts. We had to repair flood damage, navigate legal battles and wait out a historically tight credit market. But we did it, finally bringing to an end, a challenge that had nagged and frustrated this and prior administrations for more than 25 years. In Alfred Weissmann’s Group—from Rye, NY—we found a widely-respected real estate developer with a special gift for rescuing distressed properties. Mr. Weissmann saw great potential in this property, just as we did, and the progress since December 16th , when he took ownership, is absolutely amazing . The ballroom has already been renovated from top to bottom. The totally refurbished restaurant now features a new five star chef and a fantastic menu. The guest gym has been transformed into a full-service state of the art work out facility that is now offering memberships to the community. And more upgrades are on the way. We always knew the hotel had good bones and could be a hub for regional tourism, commerce, and conventions. This vision is finally becoming reality. I applaud Mr. Weissmann for his commitment to Binghamton, and I thank the City Council for helping us turn this serious liability into a true asset.

Our development vision is focused on the city’s economy, but it also extends to all aspects of our region’s quality of life. We simply cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, when the concern of local officials extended only to their municipal borders, and no farther. To continue that outdated approach would be disastrous. All over the country, officials at every level of government are recognizing the value of regional planning. Governor Cuomo’s creation of Economic Regional Development Councils is just the latest move in which federal and state officials are pushing local leaders to broader partnerships. And rightfully so. When we have serious challenges to maintain our current infrastructure, it is unwise to invest in new infrastructure that will burden future generations with larger maintenance bills. Likewise, most Americans spend 50% of their household income on housing and transportation costs—and as gas prices increase, those with long commutes will be putting more of their paychecks into their gas tanks than into our local economy. As local officials and leaders, we need to do a much better job at the regional level, investing our tax dollars so that we offer more housing and transportation choices closer to our jobs, schools, shops and parks. That is why my administration signed on as a founding partner of the Livable Communities Alliance, which I am confident will play a prominent role in charting our region’s course for decades to come, especially given the impressive list of partners. My administration will continue to support the efforts of the Alliance, which ultimately will help strengthen our city’s tax base, and improve the quality of life for all residents in Binghamton and Broome County. We thank all those participants who are working so diligently on this very important initiative.

In the coming decades, the communities that lead will be the ones that encourage diverse local economies that fit within regional development strategies. Our innovative approach to support this strategy over the past five years has put Binghamton at the forefront of this movement, and we have momentum on our side.

Energizing our local economy is a top priority, but it is does not stand alone. Our community’s success also depends on the health of our neighborhoods, and there, too, we have made tremendous progress in the face of adversity.

Our neighborhood challenges are common among Upstate Rust Belt communities. Between 1980 and 2000, Binghamton’s homeownership rates declined. In that span, too many homes became blighted, posing hazards, draining public resources and lowering real estate values. In especially distressed areas, residents have moved away, and those who remain often lack the resources to lead healthy, productive lives.

Prior administrations may have seen this situation as inevitable and irreversible. But not this administration or this City Council.

Instead of ignoring our neighborhoods, we launched a comprehensive strategy to spur their revitalization. The most prominent part of this approach is our Blight Prevention & Removal Initiative, which is allowing us to redevelop more than 120 blighted properties citywide. This work includes restoring the homes that can be saved, demolishing the ones that cannot and building new homes on vacant lots. We are promoting green building practices each step of the way, and make no mistake, what’s good for the environment also benefits the taxpayer’s pocketbook. Last year, we commissioned the City’s first-ever deconstructions, an alternative to demolition that sends less waste to the landfill and therefore costs us less in tipping fees. We are requiring new homes to be energy efficient, which helps lower utility bills for residents. And we are encouraging green building practices wherever possible. We are doing it all by leveraging more than $6.5 million in state grants, and this work continues to boost local property values.

As usual we recognized the power of public and private partnerships and that is why we convened the Binghamton Healthy Neighborhoods Collaboration, which includes representatives from all areas of local development—from housing advocates to developers and realtors to labor groups. I am proud that several members of the Collaboration are here with us tonight, and I thank them for their strong support and partnership over the last few years.

Our Blight Removal & Prevention Initiative has won positive attention statewide. Many municipalities have adopted our model and the New York Conference of Mayors awarded this Initiative back-to-back first place local government achievement awards for administration and management.

Our financial challenges prevent us from incentivizing the restoration of every eyesore, but we are not resigned to letting blighted spaces go underutilized, especially vacant lots. While some have been acquired for private use, we have undertaken innovative efforts to transform other vacant lots for the benefit of our broader community. For example, in the last five years, we have turned five of these lots into community gardens by partnering with VINES and the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition. These gardens are beautifying our residential corridors, strengthening our local food systems and offering our citizens an opportunity to take responsibility for their neighborhoods. That includes the Urban Farm Project on Tudor Street—the site of two City-led demolitions, and the base of last summer’s Green Youth Job Corps, which trained 20 at-risk youth in the green jobs of tomorrow. Last summer, the Urban Farm Project produced more than 3,000 pounds of produce. This produce was sold at local farmers’ markets at affordable prices to many residents who do not normally have easy access to fresh, healthy foods. Organizers hope to add a community kitchen and more urban farm sites in the coming years, and we will help them along the way. We applaud their tireless efforts in restoring our neighborhoods and working with at risk youth to accomplish their goals.

The Design Your Own Park Competition is equally ambitious in seeking to turn neglected spaces into wonderful neighborhood places. Working with BU Professor David Sloan Wilson and the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, as well as the United Way, we asked residents to submit plans for their dream park at vacant or underutilized lots across the community. The idea is that the winners will have their designs implemented, and then be responsible for the upkeep of the park themselves. The Competition has excited the imagination of residents citywide, and several projects are already in the works, with construction scheduled for this year. It has been well received by many others, including community and international development experts. Just last week, the Design Your Own Park Competition was nominated for the prestigious Philips Livable Cities Award. Of nearly 500 entries submitted from around the globe, the judges selected our innovative parks project as one of eight finalists. Winners will be announced in Amsterdam, Holland in April, and so please join me in expressing our appreciation for Professor Wilson and others involved in the Competition.

Innovation, creativity and citizen participation are fundamental to our neighborhood revitalization strategy, but it is also vital that we develop and utilize action plans to generate the types of investments that will help our communities thrive. That is why we convened the Commission on Housing and Homeownership, and it is why we are now partnering with the West Side Neighborhood Project, a citizen group working to implement the Commission’s recommendations for new rules that promise to improve student housing options, preserve the integrity of residential zones, increase homeownership and enhance landlord accountability. As part of that initiative, we look forward to implementing an Enhanced Rental Registration Program this coming summer. Under the enhanced program, Code will inspect all rental properties at least once every three years. In this way, we will ensure that all of our rental housing is safe, healthy and attractive to all our residents.

And that is not the only housing initiative we will roll out this year. Yesterday we announced the Binghamton Homeownership Academy, a one-stop shop, that will connect prospective and existing Binghamton homeowners with local, state and federal resources that can offset acquisition and renovation costs. Rather than calling around to the six local affordable housing agencies to find out about housing grants and services, residents will be able to make one call to Metro Interfaith, the Academy Coordinator, to tap all possible resources. In the end, this initiative will help us assist the city’s existing homeowners, promote new homeownership, and bring more local, state and federal dollars into our local economy.

Our neighborhood challenges were a long time in the making, and I acknowledge that we will not overcome them overnight. But it’s also clear that we are making gains, and the First Ward is a case study. In the last five years, we have demolished five longstanding eyesores on Glenwood Avenue, restored five historic homes on Front Street and refurbished the historic Marlborough Building. We repaved all of Glenwood Avenue and all of Main Street, and we reconstructed Colfax Avenue and Holland Street. By building the Charles Street Business Park, we kept Emerson Network Power in our city and helped the company add 20 new jobs. We are working to redevelop brownfields throughout the Ward, and we are supporting the First Ward Neighborhood Assembly’s many positive efforts, from the First Ward Festival, to the Christmas Tree Lighting at St. Michael’s Church, to the transformation of Murray Street Park into Sunflower Park. It is our coordinated investments and other efforts across the board that make up the strong, healthy neighborhood that is the First Ward, and the same comprehensive approach is posting gains on the North Side, Center City and other areas of our community.

In the last five years, we have shown that city government can help move our community forward by forging community-wide partnerships. That means working with not only institutions, but also our citizens. Engaging and empowering citizens to play a direct role in decisions that impact their daily lives is one of my administration’s guiding principles, and we have stayed true to this commitment through initiatives like the Neighborhood Assemblies, the Online Interactive Budget, the Design Your Own Park Competition and now the Commission on Downtown Development.

Enlisting citizens in building our future, and being responsive and attentive to their needs is critical to restoring trust in our democratic institutions and public servants. And when law enforcement agencies can cultivate and maintain positive, cooperative relations with those whom they serve, the benefits can be tremendous and invaluable. That is why our Police Department started the Citizens’ Police Academy and has embraced the Community Policing approach, which is based on the idea that resident interaction with police can help control crime and reduce fear. It also is why the Department last year undertook it’s first-ever diversity sensitivity training, which is enabling our officers to work even more effectively with citizens of different cultural backgrounds. And it is why the Department has expanded its role to ensure the safety of our residents, from partnering with Code Enforcement to shut down problem properties to working with the City Youth Bureau and the Safe Streets Association to give our at-risk youth positive alternatives, including afterschool basketball with our officers at the Tabernacle United Methodist Church.

The Police Department’s efforts to enhance its approach have helped make Binghamton one of the safest cities in upstate NY, and the Department is looking to build on its success this year. While communication between our Police Department and the community has improved in great ways, there are still gaps to bridge, and everyone’s participation is necessary for us to succeed. On the one hand, citizens need a broader understanding of our policing strategies so they can be even better partners in helping us fight crime. On the other hand, our police need more opportunities to hear concerns directly from residents. To bring the two sides together, and given the strong working relationship of the Police Department and the Youth Bureau, this year we are launching the Police & Neighborhood Partnership for a Safer Binghamton, which will include Chief Zikuski, Youth Bureau Director Ana Shaello-Johnson and residents, making sure that representatives from an ever increasingly diverse community, have a voice and a place at the table. Out of our diverse experiences and expectations, out of our many hopes and dreams, we are one community, and sustaining our progress depends on our unity. I want to thank the Chief and his entire department for continuing to be proactive to ensure we are doing everything possible to serve and protect with the highest degree of professionalism. That is what leadership requires, and it is why no Upstate police department is better than ours.

Change is not always easy, but we embrace the opportunities that it offers. In the same way that change has been critical to our efforts to create jobs, revitalize our neighborhoods and engage our citizens, it has been essential to our work to confront the City’s financial challenges.

Many of our challenges are longstanding. For the last decade, our fixed costs have escalated, while revenues have stayed flat. Our largest annual cost increases are for pension and health insurance. Pension costs have jumped from $330,000 in 2002 to more than $5.8 million in this year’s budget, while our health insurance costs have increased 15-18% each year. In the same period, our tax base has grown only 1%.

Before I go any further, let me be perfectly clear about pension and health insurance. They are vital benefits that all workers deserve. Our workers did not cause these dramatic and continual cost hikes. Instead, the blame rests with the same forces that have caused the broader economic crisis. Because the State invests the pension fund in the stock market, Wall Street’s unregulated practices have jeopardized the financial security of hundreds of thousands of public servants, and have placed a tremendous burden on local governments. Our response should not be to strip the retirement benefits of millions of public employees who play by the rules and serve our communities. We must demand that Albany pass bold reforms that prevent abuse, and for Washington to do a far better job regulating Wall Street and all our financial institutions, in order to protect the financial security of all Americans. Likewise, local governments, businesses, families and workers continue to suffer from a broken health care system whose biggest success seems to be to ensure the huge profits of the health insurance industry rather than ensuring that all citizens have access to quality, affordable health care. The recent reforms by Washington are a small step in the right direction, but until we adopt a quality, cost-effective national health care system, all levels of American government and American families and workers will continue to pay more and more to the health care industry.

While we fight for reforms at the federal and state level, we must address these challenges the best way we know how, and that’s just what we have done. We have always been proactive in discussing our financial challenges with the community, from our annual addresses and our budget workshops, to our website and the Interactive Budget. We have sought solutions through new partnerships, including the Joint Budget Process, when we asked the City Council to help us shape the budget on the front end, and the Partnership for Change Initiative, whose four commissions produced reports that have guided cost-cutting reforms as well as new planning and development projects. We also have embraced the call for management to lead by example, holding the line on management wages, requiring all new management hires to be on a more affordable health care option and by reducing the number of positions across all of our government, including the Mayor’s Office. Together, these efforts have allowed us to reduce costs where they are greatest, in personnel. We have shrunk City workforce by 66 positions, or roughly 11%. The process has involved difficult decisions; but by planning ahead, we have made them without reducing services and with minimal layoffs.

We also have seized opportunities to use new technologies to streamline operations, improve financial oversight and save taxpayer dollars. When we came into office, we found that the City’s information systems were decades behind the times. Staffers worked hard, but a lack of new technologies prevented them from increasing efficiency. This administration has never been satisfied with the status quo, and so we immediately began bringing our systems into the 21st century.

This work required hundreds of hours of research, data entry, analysis and double duty for many. But we have made great strides, especially in our Finance Department and our Department of Public Works.

In Finance, we are implementing a powerful enterprise software called MUNIS, which stands for Municipal Uniform Information System. This system allows us to track all our finances electronically, and it is already improving productivity and accountability. This year we will use MUNIS to start posting monthly budget reports on the City website, with our first report coming in March. I don’t think any other municipality provides such a comprehensive reporting to its citizens, and we are certainly proud to lead the way.

In Public Works, we are now implementing CarteGraph, an assert management software that will allow us to make better-informed, more cost-effective decisions about how we use everything from vehicles, to equipment, to facilities, to street lights, to signals. The implementation of this enterprise system across all city departments and all city functions has a goal of saving the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and we are well on our way to that goal.

We also have been effective in sharing services. In our first year, we began sharing tax collection services with the County, saving $1.2 million to date. In 2008, we began sharing GIS services with the County, saving $50,000 more and improving our ability to fight crime, upgrade infrastructure and attract investment. And last year, we kicked off what could be our most significant shared services initiative to date. Along with our partners in Johnson City, we now are sharing the services of Police Chief Joe Zikuski and our Assistant Chiefs, Bill Yeager and Dave Eggleston and our Detectives Unit is working closer than ever with its counterpart in JC. This effort is already saving the City more than $100,000 annually, and enabling greater coordination among law enforcement in our Metro Area. Tonight, I want to thank Johnson City Mayor Dennis Hannon and the Johnson City Board of Trustees for joining us to realize these benefits for our constituents. In the year ahead, I look forward to advancing similar shared services partnerships in the Police Department and wherever else possible.

As a result of all these strong fiscal management polices, we have brought our general fund and special revenue funds back from the brink. For example, we reversed a $300,000 Water Fund deficit and made the honest, necessary decisions to bring stability and health back to this fund. In the same way, we restored the health of the General Fund, which we took from an historic low of $200,000 to more than $1 million today. Our administration’s commitment to fiscal discipline is even clearer when you look more closely at the facts: if you exclude the uncontrollable, mandated increases in pension and health insurance costs, we have actually limited spending increases to just 2% annually since we took office, and we have done this despite huge spikes in oil and commodities prices, the collapse of our national economy, and in the face of flat revenues.

We have improved the bottom line without hurting City services or our workers, and by stabilizing our funds, we are better positioned to continue minimizing taxes and investing in vital projects, from street paving to parks development, to additional technology reforms that will save even more dollars and make services even better.

We have taken a once costly municipal golf course off our books and all reports point to this public/private venture as being very successful.

But this is not to say that all of our financial challenges are behind us. In fact, the coming years challenges may be greater than ever. For one, the State now projects a 40% increase in the City’s annual pension contributions, a hike of $2.3 million. Second, we expect our health insurance payments to spike another 15-18%, or approximately $1.6 million. These two increases alone represent a $3.9 million projected budget gap, and we have not even started talking about other potential cost increases.

Our goal, as always, will be to meet these challenges without compromising our values, to ensure that we develop the best strategies possible to cover this gap. We cannot wait to begin the budget process for 2012 and beyond. It starts now. I will be sitting down with my department heads and the City Council in the coming days and weeks to outline how we will limit property taxes without jeopardizing vital services, and I will host neighborhood meetings over the next several months to explain the breadth and depth of our financial challenges, what we have done about them and the next steps we need to take. I hope many of our residents will join us for these discussions. It is important that all of us constituents understand the complexity of our local fiscal crisis so that together we can advocate for real and meaningful reform at all levels of government.

In truth, the full picture of the challenges we will face will not be known until the State adopts their budgets and, for that matter, the federal government’s budget is in place. I think you all probably know what I refer to at the State level. It is the imminent 2% property tax cap. Obviously, we all know that property taxes are too high in New York State, and that things need to change. But I have participated with mayors from all over the state to address this proposed cap and our clear and uniform message of this taskforce is that a 2% property tax cap without meaningful mandate relief is a recipe for financial disaster for all municipalities in New York State. If the worst case scenario becomes reality, a tax cap with no mandate relief, our choices as a community will be dire. That is why these citywide meetings and an ongoing dialogue will be very important.

Just as important, my administration is sitting down with our unions to find solutions that work for everyone involved. Since 2006, we have negotiated contracts through which we have balanced the City’s financial needs with our commitment to fair compensation for our workers. For example, we have complemented salary increases with higher employee contributions toward their health care. Over time, our continued dialogue with labor has built greater trust on both sides. That trust will be crucial as we move forward with negotiations with all five of our bargaining units in the next year. It is clear that shared sacrifice will be necessary if we are to preserve the positions that provide the vital constituent services that our citizens rely on. We face many difficult choices, but I trust we can solve them together.

Many in the government and the media are attacking our public employee unions, and to be certain there are issues that are rightfully drawing attention, such as pension padding and how we control the costs of the pension system in general. But we as citizens should not tolerate the wholesale attack on public employee unions and labor in general. Since their inception, unions have been the target of those who have little or no interest in workers’ rights and working families. In recent decades, these anti-union efforts have intensified during economic downturns, and the current recession is no exception. Indeed, many have made public employees and other union workers the scapegoats for our financial crisis, demanding that government balance its budget exclusively on the backs of these workers. At a time when 2% of Americans control 95% of the nation’s wealth, and with the wealth gap widening further and further, blaming public employees and labor for today’s hardships would be laughable if it weren’t outrageous.

And so we will stand with labor not only in speaking out against those who demonize workers, but also in striving toward economic equity and justice. That means resisting calls to weaken critical worker protections, and it means demanding that Wall Street shoulder some of the sacrifices that Main Street now is making alone. It also means that we will continue to be vocal about a fair and progressive tax system, one that will bring back the middle class. In that spirit, I am honored that representatives from our City unions and other local labor groups have joined us here tonight. We may not always see eye-to-eye from across the negotiating table, but we are in solidarity when advocating for the health, safety and fair treatment of all our workers and their families.

In closing tonight, I would like to say that crucial to effective and inclusive government is that we utilize all available resources to provide our citizens the services and opportunities they need now and for future generations. We have applied this approach not only to the functions typically associated with City government, but also to the many other important issues facing our community. We do not only give lip service to being inclusive. I am proud that we were the first administration to raise the Pride Flag, and that we issued an executive order that the City would recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. I am proud that this administration and City Council have urged the New York State Legislature to pass the marriage equality bill, and now that legislation looks likely to pass. I am proud that we have been a leader in protecting our climate at the local level, by signing the Mayor’s Climate Protection agreement, passing legislation to reduce Binghamton’s greenhouse gas emissions and developing a Climate Action Plan to reach that goal. We have joined with state and regional organizations in opposing irresponsible gas drilling. We have joined the nation’s growing chorus of local leaders and citizens calling for our federal leaders to redirect our tax dollars from unwise, illegal wars to our neighborhoods, businesses, schools and our crumbling national infrastructure. And of course, we have joined our partners in labor to advocate for the rights and protections of working families.

We have done all of this since we started—even when others told us that we couldn’t, and that we shouldn’t, that it just isn’t our place. To those critics who say we don’t know our place, we say “we know our place just fine,” and though it might not always be a comfortable place, our fervent prayer is to make sure City Hall remains that space where we reaffirm and uphold our values, and our passionate commitment to public service; a space where all our citizens can unite, pursue their hopes and chart a common future of shared prosperity and fundamental fairness. These are the values that have allowed us to strengthen our economy, create jobs, revitalize our neighborhoods, engage all our citizens and move our community forward despite all the obstacles of the early 21st century. These values have made the state of our city strong. And by continuing to infuse them in everything we do, we will continue to be stronger together. My partner Shelia’s favorite quote for these times is by Carl Sagan and it says: “You are by accident of fate, alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet…..Don’t sit this one out. Do something.”

Tonight I ask all our citizens to participate in any way you can to make our City, our County, our State, our Country and our world a better place.

Thank you and good night.

About the Author

Michael Vass
Born in 1968, a political commentator for over a decade. Has traveled the U.S. and lived in Moscow and Tsblisi, A former stockbroker and 2014 Congressional candidate. Passionate about politics with emphasis on 1st and 2nd Amendments.

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