I have fond memories of the bus system in the City of Poughkeepsie. When I was a kid at Poughkeepsie Middle School, and allowed to take the bus by myself at the age of ten, it was liberating. I knew the bus routes by heart. I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world that a small part of my weekly one-dollar allowance (the fare was ten cents at the time — with a free transfer!) could get me to all four corners of the small city I grew up in. I could get to the mall. I could go to Iron Vic’s Comics —and even to K-Mart to buy my own Star-Wars action figure. The possibilities to the ten-year-old me were endless.
On those rare snow days when school was closed, I would sneak out and catch the Hospital bus (so named because its route ran crosstown from St. Francis to Vassar), get off at “the hub” at Market Street, and transfer to the Shopper’s Special (whose route is self-explanatory). I would ride all day and talk to many of the elderly people of the city. To me, the bus was the city – my connection to all generations of the community.
When I read Poughkeepsie councilman Chris Petsas’ scathing and vitriolic May 26 op-ed in the Poughkeepsie Journal lamenting the switch of the city bus service to Dutchess County via a contractual “shared agreement,” I got caught up in the hoopla.
I started repeating the same talking points that Petsas had raised. I was a knowledgeable, responsible citizen of the city, and I thought I knew the issues.
As the op-ed suggested I should, then I did my homework.
“The controversial decision to shut down our bus service is not based on our city finances — though it has been painted that way to spread a smoke screen across our city in an attempt to cover up the real reason,” wrote Petsas. “This is nothing more than a coordinated power grab between the county and city administration — just like the sales-tax grab that has cost this city millions of dollars over the last few years. If this decision to shut down our buses were truly based on finances, then we should all be ashamed of the lack of homework conducted by the administration and councilmembers Matthew McNamara, Lee David Klein and Mike Young because they fail to tell the taxpayers the real truth. The real truth is that the city will receive nothing — zilch, zero, zip — for the millions in assets we own when the county takes over on July 1.”
People mobilized. Protests ensued. It was said that bus drivers would lose jobs and that the county was planning bus routes that disenfranchised regular riders.
Poughkeepsie, The Queen City on the Hudson, has been in doldrums since IBM’s exodus from the Hudson Valley in the 1990s. It has struggled since then, always on the cusp of renewal, while cities like Albany, Ithaca and others with similar demographics to Poughkeepsie like Beacon, Hudson and Kingston have moved on. Often Poughkeepsie’s aspirations would lead to a good year, only for the city to crash and burn at the sound of one gunshot on a humid summer night, causing visitors from outside to feel unsafe again.
I needed first to understand the meaning of “shared services.” I started with an example from the eleven years in which I lived in New York City. Various agencies, like the city government, the MTA and Port Authority, run the subways and buses, the commuter railroads into the city, the airports, the bridge and tunnel systems, Amtrak, etc. It’s easily the most complex system of public transportation in the United States. All the various connections make the city the gateway of the world.
Is it perfect? Absolutely not. No single agency could transport the 15.3 million passengers that traverse the New York metropolitan area on a daily basis.
What are shared services? According to New York State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli:
“Shared services can help municipalities increase effectiveness and efficiency in their operation. As municipal responsibilities become increasingly complex and demanding, municipalities should explore shared services and other cooperative opportunities as a way to reduce or avoid costs, improve service delivery, or maintain services.”
Shared services might have presented solutions to issues that have been looming over us for years, like streets in disrepair, unions with no contracts, parks not being taken care of, and many more.
The fiscal context
For many years, Poughkeepsie residents witnessed their Common Council approving actions that added to our debt and created discomfort for our people. For example, the city rejected a $315,000 state grant to aid in the transition to a new integrated transit system. Additional parking revenues were budgeted for 2016, but the Council did not adopt the necessary legislation to implement the proposed new fee schedule. causing a $400,000 budget shortfall. The Common Council also approved the sale of Pelton Manor and Wheaton Park for $600,000 and added that revenue to the 2015 budget. That transaction failed to close and therefore the revenue was not received.
Today, in 2017, we have a solid budget. The city is making solid fiscal progress, and major improvements are being seen, including the purchase of new DPW vehicles for plowing and other duties, as well as new police vehicles.
One of the primary elements of that 2017 budget, approved by the Common Council, was to turn over the bus system to Dutchess County on July 1, find jobs for the displaced drivers, and eliminate future city subsidies for the bus system.
This hasn’t happened yet. The Common Council, pursuant to local law and the city’s procurement policy, must pass a resolution to turn over the assets of the bus system to the county. The council hasn’t taken that final step. While the county buses run the city routes, the city buses purchased with federal money remain idle in the city garage, depreciating assets from which no one benefits. Only in Po’town.
There has been progress despite the gridlock on the Common Council. Dutchess County has added routes to serve our city, revising some routes and adding new ones to fix gaps in the initial deployment. I’ve seen the new buses in action. They are reliable, on schedule, and remarkably efficient.
Because the city buses were purchased largely with federal grants, there is a requirement that the city pay back nearly $1.9 million to the FTA Indeed, the FTA has already frozen some $595,000 due the city until such time as the asset disposition plan is fulfilled. A $750,000 award from the state’s Financial Restructuring Board might be in jeopardy. More immediately, the delay in asset turnover has caused the city to incur insurance costs of as much as $117,000 to maintain coverage on the parked buses.
The costs of intransigence
Local business and property owner Jeff Amon is one of a handful of knowledgeable citizens on this issue in the city. “People all over the Hudson Valley have heard about this controversy and constantly ask me ‘What is wrong with your city council?’ This is sickening. It paints a horrid picture of our city.”
Amon blames Petsas’ intransigent stance against any type of partnerships or shared services with Dutchess County or any other agency. “He has taken a strong stand against shared bus services because, as he states, he doesn’t want Dutchess County taking over what belongs to the City of Poughkeepsie,” said Amon. “Most people I’ve talked to believe, as I do, that while it was nice having our own bus system that was totally under our control merging ours into Dutchess County is a win-win. It will boost Dutchess County transit ridership numbers, which may facilitate getting grants in the future. It relieves the City of Poughkeepsie from subsidizing the city bus service by about $500,000 per year, and it eliminates redundancy in our overlapping bus routes.”
Amon is sure the single system will result in improved services, “Poughkeepsie residents would get new buses, better routes, expanded hours of service, weekend service, routes won’t get cancelled every time there is a minor problem with a bus, a mobile app shows real-time information, and there is a phone number to call with questions and/or problems that someone actually answers,” he argues.
Why would Petsas not support this? Why would he want to keep the buses? “It appears he has political ambitions,” Amon concludes about the recently reelected First Ward councilmember, “Like our former mayor [John Tkaczyk], that will fizzle once exposed.”
Councilman Petsas’ dream is that someday we can bring back our own bus system. This might sound nice, but the city is more than $12.5 million in debt. It has many more pressing issues with which to deal.
“The savior of our bus system” ignores the fact that the bus system never did work all that well. Bus ridership has declined by more than 30,000 rides per year. Change in our city will require change in our transit system, change that a standalone bus system would be incapable of accommodating.
I question Petsas’ landslide First Ward landslide primary victory and easy win in the general election as a mandate on anything other than his exemplary tenure as councilman. He’s taken the initiative to clean and cultivate local parks, fix potholes and even shovel residents’ driveways after snowstorms. He’s been a noble warden for his constituents and certainly a skilled practitioner of realpolitik.
One contributing factor to the city’s large debt load is that our property taxes were kept flat for a number of years while governmental expenses were increasing. Our 2017 budget came with a 16.5% property-tax increase, a painful jump. Most people seem to have come to the conclusion that unpleasant tax hike was an important element in righting our ship.
The unwillingness of the Common Council to transfer our existing bus assets to Dutchess County means that we will owe the federal government (FTA) approximately $1.9 million, plus insurance and maintenance costs. Where will this money come from? It is expensive and maybe impossible for a city this deep in debt with to borrow money to fill the gap. What could happen? City personnel layoffs — the unions have already been notified, I hear — a reduction in services, and could even lead to another substantial tax increase next year if a solution isn’t found quickly.
Democracy in action
I reached out to council chairman Natasha Cherry of the Sixth Ward. Cherry’s frustration at the stalled resolution is palpable. In many ways, she’s been left hanging, forced to be the spokesperson for a Common Council that’s been derelict in its duty. Cherry suggested I come to a public hearing on the matter where I could get a chance to see our democracy in action. And what action there was! The chamber hosted a standing-room-only crowd.
By far the most entertaining exchange came between councilman Petsas and city resident Laurie Sandow (“Our own, local Bernie Sanders,” two men sitting behind me joked.). Sandow, armed with a FedEx envelope and lots of notes, spoke at length. She questioned the cancellation of a previous meeting to pass the resolution, which Cherry canceled because Petsas and three others would not be attending. It would have been a waste of time to hold a meeting without a quorum, Cherry noted.
Sandow and Petsas got into a heated exchange about how these collusions and meetings were communicated. Petsas and his colleagues had also been no-shows at several previous meetings to pass the resolution. There would be others.
A November 3 letter from the FTA gave the city 30 days to complete the bus transfer before the agency “takes further action.” The night before the election, November 6, the Common Council met again, and a resolution was once again offered to approve the bus disposition. It failed. Two councilmembers, Ann Perry of the Fifth Ward and Randall Johnson II of the Seventh Ward, voted against it. Petsas and Lorraine Johnson of the Third Ward were absent. Petsas said he was out campaigning day and night, and Johnson said she had been “under the weather.”
It was after that meeting that I got a better sense of the players involved, and I have seen the council at work. It’s one thing to read about these meetings, but another thing to attend. The procedurals are extraordinarily yawn-inducing, but I’ve always been of the mind that good representative government should be slow and deliberate, forming a dialectic with fast-moving, grassroots activism.
Absences, abstentions and abdication
Among other folks, I met and talked with city administrator and former finance commissioner Marc Nelson. Nelson, an affable and transparent city official who deals in data and numbers, not speculation, is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the city. Pursuant to the City Charter, he served as the city’s chief financial officer and treasurer until mayor Rolison promoted him to city administrator last month.
Nelson wouldn’t comment on the position of any individual councilmember, but “with respect to those who have voted against transferring the bus assets to the county, I believe that they have created a situation where we are not in compliance with the various grant provisions applicable to the federal grants that the city received when the busses were purchased,” he said. “Essentially, the city agreed to the terms of those grants which, among many other points, require that the depreciated value of the assets be returned to FTA in the event the city exits the transit business.”
According to Nelson, the city missed the September 28 deadline for the allocation and transfer of assets to the county. At that point, a potentially bad financial situation only got worse. The Common Council’s fiscal year 2017 budget funded our transit system through June 30. “Since that time, the resolution required in order to actually transfer the buses to the county — so that they may continue to serve our city residents — has failed to pass on four occasions.”
Nelson explained as well as anyone has the reasons for the absences or abstentions of one or more councilpersons from the meetings. “Five votes are required, and the resolution has gained only four. I can also point out that, pursuant to our city charter, the mayor has the power to break a four-to-four tie,” he said. “Obviously aware of that fact, one or more councilmembers have abstained on multiple occasions. For example, at the most recent council meeting on the subject, the vote was four in favor, three opposed, with one abstention. It is unfortunate that the will of the majority of the council, the mayor, and obviously our partners at the state and federal level is negated by a lone abstention.”
Would the city have to pay the potential fine that looms large over the failure of the transfer of assets? Might there be some amnesty or forbearance allowed? Nelson responded, “Discussions with FTA and other stakeholders regarding possible forbearance cannot occur until after the FTA formally imposes its right to recapture and notifies the city in writing. To raise the amount claimed by the FTA would require an approximately seven percent tax increase to real-estate taxes citywide.”