Sunday, November 21, 2010

Upcoming: Black Friday

Black Friday is fast approaching, and the mood in Saratoga Springs is cautiously optimistic. Yesterday I briefly chatted with Marc Strauss, of Mabou memory, while strolling through the Downtown Marketplace, the closest thing to a department store in the city. He owns the place, and the largest retailer in it, Pangea. Marc commented that business was picking up, and if the next six weeks held up as expected, it would be a good year. This sentiments were echoed by other merchants on Broadway.

The rate of sales tax collections as presented by the Finance Commissioner last week are also pointing to a steady pace of business.

Is this extensive to the whole of the Capital area? Not according to Mr. Strauss: “We have built a moat around Saratoga Springs.”

The metaphor is bit too defensive for my taste, redolent of Maginot line rhetoric. But it points to the fact that Saratoga Springs downtown has built a business model that seems to hold up in these lean times. Residents complain that nothing of their everyday needs is being offered on Broadway, that the trade is geared towards the tourist, the transient, the visitor. Still we meet acquaintances and friends every day strolling on Broadway, either to do banking, sip coffee, have a meal or on the way to somewhere else.

Maybe Saratoga Springs can be modeled on what Germany has been doing in the world economy. With strong unions, high labor costs and an extensive social network Germany has outcompeted its way to becoming the second exporter in the world (after China). How? By concentrating of educating its population, and enabling them to produce real material goods known by quality and advanced design that can command a premium in world markets. Can Saratoga become a premium destination by offering a unique shopping experience in quality and design?

Parking is still mainly a summer issue. Nowadays open slots along Broadway’s sidewalks are easy to find, sometimes even right in front of our destinations. Should the City move to some form of paid parking? This is not a question that should be deferred, because any finite resource in growing demand needs some form of allocation method. It can be done intelligently and the Downtown Business Association should participate in its design and administration. Surely offering parking facilities close to their storefronts is in the merchants’ interest.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Budget debate in Saratoga Springs

You would think that budgets are about money. Really?. Last Sunday the New York Times put online a new game. It asked the players to become politicians and slash the deficit, enumerating their preferred places to cut or increase budgets by filling in little squares, grouped in chunks of 100 billion dollars.This game invites us common mortals to step into the minefield of our convictions. Now we are asked to play like the big boys.

During the election campaign -now, thank God, behind us- the goading MLM (main line media) journalists liked to embarrass candidates by pressing them to state where they would cut the local, state and federal budgets to flesh out their assertions. Then they feigned surprise at hearing back generalities, platitudes and impossibilities.

A budget is an edifice of assumptions and choices; the assumptions evaluate the present state of affairs and its evolution (try to do that eschewing ideology!), and then make the choices of resources that have to be employed to achieve the overarching desired results. Which goes to show that there is no such thing as a non-political budget. We have to rewrite the slogan into “it is the politics of the economy, stupid.”

At our local level most of us will look at the one figure: what decisions have been made about the property tax rate. We call it “the bottom line”, a distillation of magnitudes into one simple, understandable number; we disregard the rest, the steps that lead to that result, as chaff and at our own peril.

Because the budget is above all a statement of intentions, a program, a blueprint of where the imagination of the people putting the figures together aims to take the community. Fleshed out, it should provide a narrative of the future.

In Saratoga Springs there is only one budget officer: the Finance Commissioner. The agents of the 2001 Charter Revision, no doubt in thrall to the continued failure of the Albany legislators to provide the State of New York with a timely budget, inserted the requirement that if the five Commissioners could not reach an agreement on the yearly budget before November 30th, the budget presented by the Finance Commissioner would become law, making him the most powerful person on the City Council. This escape clause did provide last year a spending blueprints without the approval of the full Council. The legislators refused to legislate.

So the City’s finances have been in default mode, freeing each Commissioner from the disciplined constraint of a negotiated agreement, and leading to piecemeal ad-hoc discrete decisions that will, in time, come home to haunt us.

It is also true that a very large part of the City’s expenditures are determined by State and Federal mandates, some of them unfunded, as well as by New York State procedural requirements.

Previous administrations had worked to write procedural manuals with detailed handbooks and nomenclatures with a view to create a bedrock of consensus on which to build each year’s budget; this excellent work seems to have been set aside, replaced by obfuscation and short term reaction-ary short term poultices. Deficits are announced and disappear at will, money is found in unexpected places, rainy-day funds are raided repeatedly and exhausted. The Finance Commissioner emerges as an all-conquering hero, wrestling with intractabilities like Laocoon and his serpents.

On the other hand, modest man that he is, never boasting of “the vision thing”, he has been filing all along with the State Comptroller a long term budget projection, as required by law and common sense.

Who knew?