Notes from Meeting with Chuck Lesnick, 8-5-2011 ☆

| August 11, 2011

YPU Meeting with Chuck Lesnick
August 5th 2011
Law Office of Chuck Lesnick
733 Yonkers Ave 10704

Chuck Lesnick
Adam Brill, Communications Director to Yonkers City Council President

Kevin Gray
Rafael Herrero
Michelle Soto

Three members of Yonkers Parents United (YPU) met with Mr. Lesnick and Mr. Brill on Friday, August 5th. These notes were taken during that meeting. As notes, the conversation covered more ground and in more detail than these notes convey. The meeting was not recorded, so everything below is paraphrased and, we believe, accurately summarizes the spirit and content of the discussion. We provided Mr. Lesnick with a set of questions at the beginning of the meeting which are repeated at the end of this document. [Phrases in brackets are my own thoughts, or clarifications.] While the conversation was non-linear, most of our questions were addressed.

We encourage you to continue the conversation in comments below, with neighbors and coworkers, and in your own letters, phone calls, and emails to Mr. Lesnick and other mayoral candidates. Thank you, again, for paying attention and being involved.

AB: Can you tell us more about your group, and your intentions for this meeting?

KG: Explained our intention to share our findings with other parents and community members who were unable to attend. We agreed to share our write-up with Mr. Lesnick and Mr. Brill before publishing to invite their corrections/additions/responses to what we thought we heard in the conversation. [Their clarifications have been added here in italics.]

KG: Introduced YPU, followed by some discussion of the group’s origins, mission, and potential future. YPU decided against PAC status at this time. We realized some parents in the group are more conservative, and others more liberal, and that collecting money and working out how to legally use it influence this year’s elections was a step removed from our core focus. We currently collect and distribute information about Yonkers’ city government, education policy, and candidates for public office so that members of the community can be better informed and therefore make better decisions for themselves and their families.

CL: Had two children in Pearls Hawthorne between pre-k and 5th grade (and Yonkers Middle School for 6th grade). Part of a parent group that secured enrichments including art and music for Pearls, but after Mayor Spencer and a new superintendent (Andre Hornsby) cut 500 teachers and the enrichment programs the parent’s group had coordinated, CL and family made the decision to move their children to Riverdale Country Day.

KG: Asked about “Maintenance of Effort” (MoE) and what that means.

CL: MoE means that if Yonkers contributes $218 million to YPS this year, it can’t reduce that amount, or increase it, without changes to other city expenditures. If the amount is increased this year, it can trigger MoE regulations that prevent Yonkers from spending less than that in the schools budget the following year. (Mayor and) Republican Councilmembers have been concerned about increasing the YPS budget because of the MoE obligation to maintain such an increase the following year. I think that’s a good thing. The choice was then framed this year as keeping $ in the YPS budget under MoE or giving it to taxpayers, resulting in a 4.4% tax increase this year instead of the mayor’s proposed 4.8% increase. I favored keeping that money in the school budget. Many, if not most, people might not notice a .4% difference in this year’s tax increase, but our schools would definitely notice that difference in programs and jobs saved.

KG: [There was some mention at this point about the TFA home rule request made by the Council and rejected by the NYS Comptroller, and the role in that process played by Mike Spano. We may want to ask about this in more detail, or invite both candidates to explain their perception of how and why the TFA failed to gain traction in Albany. As the Council’s first proposed solution to the budget crisis, and with several offices involved in the attempt, more transparency here may be helpful for us to help us better understand with the TFA and TRS.]

MS: The city used to provide most of the schools’ budget in the past, but in recent years, the state has provided the majority of the YPS budget. Also, Yonkers city only contributes $0.34 per local tax dollar collected to YPS compared to the Westchester average of $0.76 per dollar spent on schools. Most parents would think more of our tax dollars go to the schools, I would think. Do we need more than that going to our schools, and how do we change that?

CL: Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse (RBS) get more than we do. We all go to Albany every January and ask for more, it happens every year. The state funding formula is based on property values, but I’m not so hung up on the formula because the state has done other things to help Yonkers outside the formula. We tried to increase the contribution from the raceway from $20 million to $40 million, but that effort failed. [Also something to ask Mr. Spano about?] We are the only city with gaming that gets a direct contribution from the facility in its community, all others go to the state and are redistributed across the state from there. There are things independent of that formula the state can do, and has done, to help Yonkers.

CL: The desegregation money was done outside the state formula, as another example. Mayor Spencer and Gov. Pataki settled the desegregation lawsuit as a series of annual payments from the state to Yonkers. These payments were graduated, more paid the first year, with less each subsequent year. Part of the deal was that Yonkers agreed to commit to increasing city taxes to keep that decreasing annual settlement amount from hurting the YPS budget over time. As the settlement payments decreased, Yonkers would put more into the YPS budget to maintain the YPS budget at the same level. Instead, Mayor Spencer and City Council President Martinelli went for short-term political gains and did not increase revenues from the city enough to live up to that obligation. One year, there was a 0% tax increase. [Both M. Spano and C. Lesnick point to this as one of the roots of YPS budget problems.]

CL: We can do better than $0.34 per dollar, but we can’t go to $0.76 in one year. In fact, some communities in Westchester fund schools at $.54 per dollar, so we may not get to $.76.

CL: We need to bring unions together as partners. Ask teachers–where do you stand with other comparable teachers? Yonkers used to be dead last, we’re now in the middle. We have the highest starting salary for firemen in the United States, the highest paid police overtime. We have very well paid firemen and police officers. Among 7 similar cities (Akron, OH; Rochester, NY; Worchester, MA; Providence RI; Jersey City and Elizabeth, NJ) we had the highest or 2nd highest costs in these areas. But, do we have enough people on the job?

AB: Yonkers is required to have 66 on-duty firemen 24/7. 4 men per truck. New York City is the only other City with a minimum required per truck (which they just dropped from 5 to 4, and we have far fewer skyscrapers. )

CL: The Taylor law in NYS responded to public service union strikes, banning them. Then the Triborough amendment says that in the absence of a new contract, since there are no public union strikes, the old contract applies. Right now in Yonkers, public unions are working without a contract, which means they continue working under the terms of the last negotiated contract. That last contract is the one that requires 66 active duty firemen 24 hours a day.

CL: We need to be flexible, to govern smartly. We need more incentives for reducing costs, more flexibility in contracts. Try pilot programs in sanitation and energy, and merge redundant services [multiple vehicle maintenance facilities and financial accounting across departments were mentioned as possible examples]. Why not give money to Saunders High School and help them buy solar energy panels, teach the students to install them on the roof, and transform our vocational education program in a pilot that preps our students for a green economy? There are cost-saving solutions in sanitation, too, but people say we can’t put larger bins on the hilly streets of Yonkers. So, we have flat streets, too. Find some and run a pilot program. Retrain those workers to install LED and green light bulbs in buildings and traffic lights. And, we need to have more diversity in the mayor’s office, too.

KG: In the time I’ve been paying attention to all of this, which admittedly is only a few months, it looks to me like territorialism is run amok in Yonkers. Territorialism that is painful, rampant, and hurting Yonkers. It sounds like you’re talking about a change of culture.

CL: Yes, absolutely a change in the culture of the way things are done in Yonkers. I’ve been close enough to it for six years to know how it can be changed, how things can be done differently. I see one of your questions is about the difference between being City Council President and Mayor. As City Council President, I play a more diplomatic role, finding where the Republicans and the Democrats on the council agree and disagree, and trying to create compromises that we can move on. That’s made difficult when certain councilmembers refuse to vote on anything, but that’s a different role than the mayor. As a mayor…the mayor sets the tone. The mayor presents the budget and goes through the process of negotiating the contracts with the unions that, by the time they get to the Council, have already been agreed upon. The Council is responsible for ratifying the contracts, but by that time, if we want to change something, the Mayor can say, “Well, we tried that, and this was the best we could get.” Also, as Mayor, I would appoint my own replacement for City Council President. The Council votes to approve that appointment, but it could be anyone who is a resident of Yonkers, not necessarily a current council member.

CL: I believe in learning from others. If it’s been tried and hasn’t worked in Cleveland, or Atlanta, or wherever, we should know about it and be informed by the results.

KG: Thank you for meeting with us, and for your time. We appreciate it very much.

CL: Of course, this is the most important thing. The most important group of people in this race to me are the parents of Yonkers. I’m in this to do the best I can for the parents and the students of Yonkers.

To contact the Lesnick mayoral campaign directly:

Why did Yonkers have an epic budget process this year, and what will be done to improve either with you as CC Pres. or Mayor going forward? Is the answer the same regardless of role, or are there different strategies you would pursue in each position?
What is the history of Yonkers city contributions to YPS, and the state payments from the CFE and Desegregation settlements? [Do the stories from the 3 people we’ve met with match?]
I’ve heard others say that you are against separating the BOE and YPS budget from mayoral control. Is that accurate, and if so, why? Under current conditions are potential solutions in that direction still “non-starters?” What is better about other possible options to improve the educational system and it’s funding in Yonkers?
If elected mayor, what will you do differently than the previous administration? What will you do differently than other candidates running for mayor this year?
What will you do to address police and fire overtime abuses, YFT relations, and mayoral office perks and privileges that appear to the public to be excessive in times of cutting pre-kindergarten and core school programs?
What do you think of Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ analogy of Yonkers to a family that only feeds some of it’s children?
We are tired of state reps pointing to local mismanagement and local reps pointing to state budget cuts and want all of our leaders to come together in humility and for the public good to walk a common path to solutions for Yonkers. Are you the person who will do this?
We would also like to see more transparency and public vetting of city budgets. For years, people were not paying attention who are now paying much closer attention. Broadcasting and internet archiving of Council and Mayoral meetings is a part of this. As mayor, and as CC Pres., what will you do to increase transparency and accessibility for Yonkers voters who are now paying attention in a way we have never before?