Hawkins campaign in Syracuse: Priorities are progressive taxes to fund schools, living wage jobs

Howie Hawkins made the following statement at his announcement on September 14 that he is running as the Green Party candidate for 4th District Common Councilor in Syracuse:

We chose this location at the corner of South Salina and Colvin streets to announce my candidacy for 4th District Councilor because it demonstrates how the government is shutting down services and failing to meet the needs of this community.

Public Services Are Closing Down

Look across the street. That post office, the Colvin Station, is slated for closure. They already closed the Elmwood Station on South Avenue. That post office is an anchor for this business district we are working so hard to revive. If it closes, the residents and businesses of this neighborhood will have to travel miles away to get services from the post office.

Behind me is a church building that is being destroyed by water damage. It needs a new roof. But our government doesn't have the resources to protect this community asset. The sanctuary in there has been the site of innumerable community meetings, a sanctuary where the acoustics are so good they allow someone speaking in a conversational voice to be heard by a capacity crowd of 1200 people.

Our public schools have suffered 470 teacher and other staff layoffs this year.

The mayor wants to close down the Ida Benderson Senior Center, an extremely popular program for the seniors of the 4th District, which is named after one of the foremost advocates for the people of this community, Ida Benderson.

Due to state and federal spending cuts, Centro has cut bus routes and raised fares. Over half of the workers here on the South Side use the bus or walk to work.

The Youth Build construction jobs training program is shutting down because of federal spending cuts.

The funding for the salaries of the directors of the Human Rights Commission and the Citizen Review Board have been eliminated.

The city has even failed to appoint members to the Citizens Review Board. There are two vacancies for city seats on the board of the CNY Regional Transportation Authority.

Austerity Policies Rule in Both Major Parties

It seems like every public service is being cut. Austerity policies dominate both major parties, from the White House to the State House to – unfortunately – City Hall.

But I don't believe that you can improve student achievement by firing 470 teachers and other staff from our schools.

I don't believe you can reduce the 40-60% unemployment rates in the neighborhoods surrounding us here by cutting job training and making the buses less frequent and more costly, making it harder to get to jobs.

I don't believe you should balance the city budget on the backs of seniors by closing one of four city senior centers, the senior center that happens to be located in the 4th District.

I don't believe – as do most of the politicians in both major parties – that we should pit the public against public workers in order to justify cuts in public services and cuts in the wages, health care, and pensions of public workers. That kind of divide and rule approach will hurt both the public who use the services and the public workers who provide the services.

I don't believe we can shut down the public infrastructure and services – which are public avenues of private commerce – and expect jobs and economic prosperity to return to Syracuse.

If we want businesses and jobs to prosper here, we need top rate schools, parks, public transportation, and arts and culture, so businesses want to do business in our community.

We can't cut our way to revitalization. Austerity is not the road to prosperity.

Is a Financial Control Board in Syracuse's Future?

And the public austerity policies could get much worse.

The city has had a recurring structural deficit of $10-15 million a year for years. The city is running out of one-year stop-gap solutions, including special state aid and drawing down the fund balance.

For the 2010-11 budget, the city is using $13 million of its $33 million fund balance to stay afloat. The fund balance is down to $20 million, from $63 million just five years ago in 2007-08.

Syracuse is just a year or two away from bankruptcy and a state control board of bankers appointed by Governor Cuomo – unless the city fights for and wins progressive tax reforms at the state and local level. The state Comptroller can recommend a fiscal control board when the Syracuse fund balance falls below $10 million. That could happen in the next budget cycle.

If that happens, the Common Council and the School Board may propose, but some state-appointed bankers will dispose. We will lose our municipal democracy.

The control board will have the power to cut services at will and throw out public employee contracts.

Syracuse Must Speak Up For Itself to the State and Federal Governments

Federal and state aid account for 27.9% of the city budget and 53.5% of the combined city and school budget. So the city government has every right to speak up for Syracuse to the state and federal government for a progressive taxation and revenue sharing and a progressive urban policy that reverses the decay of our inner cities.

But Common Council has been silent. Syracuse was the only Big Five city that did not tell the state legislature and governor to extend the millionaire's tax.

That is the least we can do when the top 1% of New Yorkers now take home 35% of all income, up from 10% in 1980, while the tax rates for the rich have been cut repeatedly since 1980.

City government has every right to call for cutting the trillion dollar US military budget and funding human needs. The National Conference of Mayors passed a strong resolution supporting that last June. But where was Mayor Miner on that? And why was the Common Council been silent? If I am elected, there will be no silence on these issues.

First Priority: Progressive Tax Reforms to Fund the City and the Schools

If I am elected, my first priority will be progressive tax reforms so we can fully fund our schools and city services.

Adequate funding is the prerequisite for having the resources to deal with the top issues on the minds of 4th District residents, namely, jobs, schools, and public safety.

I will proposed that the Common Council pass resolutions in support of progressive taxation and revenue sharing at the state level – and then follow up with lobbying and public campaigns to put the pressure on our state and federal representatives.

We should demand that the state live up to Section 54 of the State Finance Law that says the state is supposed to share 8% of its revenues with municipal government to fund its mandates. Instead, every year they pass a budget that excepts them from that law and shares only about 2% of state revenues.

Sharing the revenues of the progressive state income tax is far preferable to cutting our schools and city services and raising regressive local sales and property taxes to balance the city budget.

We should also demand extending the millionaire's tax – and go beyond that for a truly progressive income tax. If New York State went back to the progressive income tax structure of 1972, the state would raise $8 billion more in revenue while giving 95% of New Yorkers a tax cut. In 1972, New York State had a personal income tax with 14 graduated brackets, ranging from a low of 2% to a high of 15%. Today, if the millionaire's tax expires, New York will have only five flatter brackets, between 4% and 6.85%, and you reach the top bracket as soon as you have a full time low-wage job.

We should also demand that the state keep the stock transfer tax it collects. The state has collected between $12 and $16 billion in recent years, but rebated it all back to the traders. Just keeping this money would more than bridge the $10 billion fiscal gap the state faces in 2012.

We can also make local progressive tax reforms. The most obvious would be to levy a small progressive income tax on ourselves – and on the incomes of the 62,000 commuters to city jobs.

These 62,000 commuters have most of the middle and upper income jobs at four levels of government, the three big hospitals, and Syracuse University/SUNY ESF. They use city services: police, fire, roads, water, sewers, trash disposal, parks, and other city services. But they don't pay taxes to support these services.

Most of their employers are not-profit and government employers who don't pay property taxes, which is why over half of property in the city is off the tax rolls. And most of these employers are in the 4th District.

If these 62,000 commuters paid an average of $200 an year – less than $4 a week – it would raise $12.4 million a year, just about what the Syracuse recurring budget shortfall has been.

Second Priority: City Jobs for City Residents through a Community Hiring Hall

My second priority is the creation of a Community Hiring Hall as part of expanded and enforced Living Wage Ordinance.

A strengthened Living Wage Law should require city departments and contractors to hire qualified workers from a Community Hiring Hall if they cannot meet minority and city resident employment goals. The Community Hiring Hall would also provide job counseling, placement, training, and support services to help people qualify, get into, and stay in training programs and jobs.

The fastest way to get living wages jobs to unemployed 4th District residents is to ensure they are getting their fair share of jobs with the city and city contractors.

Blacks and other minorities are only getting one-third to one-half of their proportionate share of jobs with city contractors, according to data collected and reported by the Onondaga County Human Rights Commission. The city is not enforcing or monitoring the Equal Employment Opportunity Program authorized in City Ordinance 302 in 1973.

If I am elected to Common Council, I will work to make sure that the Living Wage Ordinance is enforced – parking lot and airport employees who qualify still don't have it.

I will work to expand its coverage to all city contractors, including recipients of economic development benefits like Carousel Mall/Destiny USA.

And I will work for to incorporate practical implementation the Equal Employment Opportunity Program by taking affirmative action to achieve that goal through a Community Hiring Hall.

Public Power, Municipal Development Bank, Youth Jobs and Recreation Programs, Transportation Justice, and Block and Neighborhood Issues

Let me add a few more policies that I think we can move through Common Council.

Public Power has broad support in the city and on the Common Council because it will reduce energy costs for city residents and businesses and give us the power to build clean, green, renewable energy sources. It needs a champion on the Common Council to get it moving. That is what I will be for Public Power if I am elected.

I will also advocate for Municipal Development Bank with the capacity to plan, help finance, and advise community-owned businesses. We must be pro-active in developing our economy. Offering tax breaks and waiting passively for businesses to come has not worked. The city needs to be the developer of the businesses our neighborhood business districts need and our industrially zoned areas are largely lacking.

I will push for increased funding for Youth Jobs and Recreation Programs. That can make a big contribution to reducing crime and violence. We can make legitimate work and educational and recreational programs more satisfying, rewarding, and exciting than the streets. We can erase the hopelessness that makes getting high seem preferable to living in reality.

I will also work hard for Transportation Justice. As I noted, over half of the workers on the South Side bus or walk to work. The proportion is also high on the East Side and Downtown, with their high student populations. Affordable and convenient public transit is a huge issue throughout the 4th District.

Why can't we have bus shelters with electronic schedules and notices of when the next bus will arrrive, like the New York City subways? How can we have “complete streets” for safe bike and pedestrian travel, which both the city and the county are commendably working on, if we don't have first rate public transit that reduces auto traffic?

There are many issues in the 4th District. I am not going to give a position on all of them now. But will just add that I take the so-called small things very seriously – the problems unique to each block and each neighborhood. I intend to be available and responsive on these issues throughout the district.

We're the Underdogs, But We Can Win

I have demonstrated through decades of organizing and activism, including many electoral campaigns, that I have the commitment and energy to work hard to make these changes happen.

We know we are underdogs given the habitual voting for Democrats by the majority in the 4th District.

But we also know that the 4th District voters are the most progressive in the city. The Green Party program is really more closely in tune with their policy preferences.

So we may be underdogs, but we are also convinced that we can win this election.

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