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Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll Interview

Beth Croughan interviews Mayor Driscoll

Beth Croughan interviews Mayor Driscoll

Interviewed by Beth Croughan

Beth: Mayor Driscoll, in your state of the city address, you highlighted your Syra-Stat program. How did you come up with the initial idea and you said it resulted in more than 50 million dollars in savings. What are some examples, where have the taxpayers seen those savings?

Mayor: The original idea actually was not mine. This comes from a fellow by the name of Jack Maples who’s since passed on, but it was a program that was then adopted in Baltimore. We spent three days there looking at how they collected data and used it to help affect outcomes in their operations. Brought their program back here and changed much of it, retuned it, added new components and we created Syra-Stat here. But some examples of re-occurring expenses have been just inefficiencies of how we pay our bill, is an example. Reducing overtime, that was over a million dollars in savings a year right there. Because we are able to track and monitor people’s time within targeted budgets so that we can measure along each step of the way where they are with their budget, man hours used, versus not. Those are two examples of where we’ve done that. We’ve reduced out energy consumption by 20 percent; we did a complete overhaul of our entire management system in the city. So all of our buildings throughout the city, that the city owns, have been retrofitted with new equipment based on a lot of the analysis we did out of Syra-Stat.
Beth: In your state of the city you talked about housing. But there still seems to be a major problem with low income housing throughout the city. For example, absent landlords to the closing of Kennedy Square in 2007. In what are of housing can you say, ‘We took care of that?’

Mayor: Kennedy Square was the perfect example of what’s not right about public housing. Back in the days when public housing was viewed to be more spread out, taller properties, smaller rooms–well what we know here in Syracuse and frankly across the country-public housing now needs to have more campus like setting things, more bedrooms. An example of where we’ve already done that has been a site called Maple Heights up on East Genesee Street which was, as you may recall, the former Cherry Hill. Long, dilapidated, crime ridden. Had all that torn down. We’ve completely rebuilt it. There’s 64 new units of beautiful campus style living. Those are the types of programs that we’ve done throughout the city of Syracuse that are making a difference in people’s lives.

Beth: And now, in your State of the City, you announce 63 million dollar redesign for Hancock. Is construction of the airport really that important right now when that money could be spent, maybe, elsewhere?

Mayor: But that’s the point, it can’t be. Under the FAA rules that money cannot be spent anywhere else. As a matter of fact, it’s use it, or lose it. Those dollars that are going to be used to reconstruct the airport come from everybody who flies-not only in and out of Syracuse, but through systems. The federal government created this program back in 1991. It’s called the PFC, Passenger facility charge, so every time you buy a plane ticket, you’re spending four dollars and fifty cents that goes to an airport somewhere along the line to use to re-invest back into airports for FAA approved projects. That’s what we’ve done here. So this project, this 63 million dollar green-lead reconstruction of our airport will change the face of our airport. And it’s done so at no cost to the local tax payer. It will create 500 jobs over 2 year’s construction. And it will make traveling in and out of Syracuse a more pleasurable experience.

Beth: And on a lighter note, what do you think about naming the newly refurbished terminal after you?

Beth Croughan interviews Mayor Driscoll

Beth Croughan interviews Mayor Driscoll

Mayor: I don’t think that that’s going to happen. That’s not my goal. My goal was to really make it more of a welcoming center and to make it green and lead certified and that’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to have a complete solar component. We’re changing out all the mechanical systems. It’ll be much more efficient in terms of its energy consumptions.

Beth: Now you mentioned green energy, why is it such a priority for you? At least it seems that way. And with the current state of the economy is this still going to be such a focal point?

Mayor: Well it was important for me when I was a kid. My goal in life was to be a park ranger. I ended up being the mayor. I don’t know what happened. But when I was on the common council in 1998, I spoke then about the importance of Syracuse to look at environmental initiatives as a way to not only protect the environment, of course, but to really enhance our accountability to the tax payers. When I became mayor in 2001, I made it a formal part of this administration. As I said, we went through every building the city owns. We changed out all the equipment. We’ve reduced the city’s energy consumption by 20 percent. We’ve reduced our CO2 ton-age by 11,000 tons a year. This building, we’re in now, is powered completely on solar wind and bio mass fuels. And so we’ve really talked about and led by example in terms of policy and process how we can get people to understand the importance of investing in these ways. Just out the window over here, we have the Center of Excellence going up in our downtown, another project that’s happening and bringing more life to downtown. You know, I said early on in the show that I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had a lot of great partners who’ve wanted to help. But I recall back in 1998 when I was talking about some of these things and I always tell the story that people looked at me like I had two heads when I talked about the importance of environmental stewardship. But, it’s become obviously very important and very popular and I’m pleased to see so many people in political office get on board. We have had, I just had in my own office, a week ago, an organization from Austin Texas. Austin is a very progressive community that has a lot of manufacturing in the solar end and we had a company come to visit here they heard about Syracuse New York about all the things that are happening here. And they’re looking to locate a manufacturing facility somewhere in upstate New York. So they came to see me. I’ve since spoken to the state people. We’ve hooked them up with state individuals; we’ll be having more conversations with them as well. But the point of the matter is that when you’re proactive and you’re out there, we’re taking all of the notoriety that we’ve gleamed and using it as a marketing tool for the upstate New York region. There’s a lot of promise here. We have tons of water, we’re centrally located, and we have a great labor pool. And so there’s a lot of promise for us to stay in front of these green collar job opportunities.
Beth: Aside from Armory Square, much of downtown is kind of struggling. There’s abandoned stores and numerous businesses that have up and left. Is anything being done to fix this? And what is really downtown to attract people?

Mayor: Well, you know, you point out one view but I would respectfully disagree. If you’ll look on one street, you’ll see that. But if you look on others, you’ll see much more. Under my administration in the last five years we’ve had almost 500 people move into downtown. There’s been a plethora of apartments and condos. Matter of fact, the ones that are being built right now are already pre-leased and pre-sold. On the south side of Armory Square, you see a 19 unit, 5 story building going up right now. The steel is in the air. That will afford another 19 condos and new businesses in there. So we’ve seen a huge impact in terms of the investment in our downtown neighborhoods. You’re going to see this year and in a couple of weeks, there will be ground breaking on the O’Brien & Gear-one of the nation’s largest environmental firms coming to our downtown, right in the heart of our downtown-bringing 300 young scientists and engineers to our downtown. It’s a 28 million dollar investment. That still does not negate the fact that we have challenges, as you point out, with some store fronts that have been vacant. We are right now in the midst of tearing down some old buildings that have been crumbling and have been a problem for adjoining property owners. I’m going to make that a temporary part with some kind of neat components of that. But we’ve brought in developers to look at the larger discussion of how we utilize that parcel as a blueprint to expand opportunities in the Warren Street area and those are the discussions that will continue throughout this year. But I have to tell you, Syracuse is doing far better than most cities in New York State in terms of investment right now.

Beth: Now, in your State of the City, you mentioned that, unlike many other New York cities, Syracuse will not have to make drastic cuts or impose extremely high taxes. How are you able to achieve that and why are we different?
Mayor: Well we’re different, I suppose, because I make sure that I watch the bottom line. Syra-Stat has been a big part of that. I come from a business background where I’ve managed several businesses and I’ve owned and operated some of my own. So every day when you come into this job, a lot of people have different visions about what the Mayor really does and I suppose you could do many things. But at the end of the day, what I make sure is every day I’m talking to my financial people, where our receivables are, where our expenditure are, are we within our targets of our budget? And I make sure I stay on top of all those things because you’re managing a business here. We’ve been able to do that through some pretty tough negotiations over the years-whether it was destiny, sales tax, or other business deals that I’ve done where the city tax payers benefited. When I came in the office, there was less than 20 million dollars on paper and I’ve built up a fund balance of over 63 million dollars. So I’ve not had to raise property taxes in three plus years and don’t intend to do so again. We’ve worked hard to protect the tax payer’s interest. In these struggling times, the last thing anybody needs is to pay anymore. My goal was to keep families employed and that’s what I’m going to do.

Mayor: You know, I come from the business world and I bought my first piece of property at 19, opened my first business at 21. And business people in general are not afraid to take risks. It’s different in terms of the political end because business people go out, they take risks, they do things, and their failures don’t usually end up on the front page of the paper. But, you know, I carry that same kind of position here.

Beth: You said it’s seven days a week – what has life been like for your wife Patty and your children over the past eight years?

Mayor: Well, you know, it’s a challenge for them too. But as I said, I was self-employed before I became mayor, so I was working seven days anyway. They were always kind of used to it. But it’s been a change for the kids because they’ve grown up through this now. Obviously a little notoriety – awareness from other students – in the good times and the bad. Kids can be difficult as we all know. But they’ve been great supporters, and so we’re just getting ready for the next step, and everybody’s looking forward to that.
Beth: Is religion important to you, and how has it affected your service?

Mayor: I practice my religion but I wouldn’t say it’s impacted my job. You know, I’m a business person – that’s what I’ve done, that’s what I do, and that’s what I’ll continue to do. That’s really what guides me.

Beth: St. Patrick’s Day was a few days back – what does your Irish heritage mean to you?
Mayor: Well, it means a lot. I spoke about that at the dinner that evening. My great-grandfather came to Syracuse in the 1800s from (?), became a city police officer for the City of Syracuse. On the other side, my great-grandfather Tom Shannon was asked to leave Ireland. He had the choice of going to either Canada or Australia. He chose Canada and they migrated to Syracuse. So, my roots are from Ireland and my family has been here ever since. All of my father – my uncles – were all public servants. Two firefighters, two police officers, plumber for the city, and a postman – everybody. I grew up in a family of uniforms. So I really – knowing my roots when I walk through those doors every day – I think about that responsibility – not only from where I come, but really, to represent all the people in this city.

Beth: Now, looking back on your 2001 election, some people said you only beat Kate O’Connell because of 9-11. What do you think about that?

Mayor: (laughs) Well, I hope that answers it. I guess the people that continue to say that are the people who ended up losing the election. We were 16 points up on the day of – unfortunately – 9-11. After 9-11 it grew to 28 because people didn’t want change. So, there’s no merit to that. The reality is I was here and I was working and doing a good job.

Beth: And in your 2005 race, you were re-elected in a fairly close race. Did you feel you had a mandate, and what is it like now, working with your former competitor?
Mayor: No, I had a mandate in 2001. But now, with the election of Joanie, who’s now our county executive, we have a great working relationship, and I think she’s seeing all of the challenges that are out there. It’s one thing to run and say you’re going to do all these things. It’s another to be here and understanding them, and get your arms around them. I always tell people we have a lot more demand than we have supply. There’s a lot of need and there’s a finite amount of resources, which is why it’s so critically important from a business perspective to focus on the things you need to do so that you can do them. If you become reactive – if you’re scattered – you will be ineffective. And I – we – have been affective.
Beth: And so now, what is next? Are you going to stay in government?

Mayor: Well, I’m going to keep all my options open. I’m going to start looking for a job this summer, but I’m going to make sure I’m doing my job here because I’m still being paid to do this job. So I’m going to focus on my primary responsibility, which is being mayor and I’m going to continue to do that strongly. But I’ll start knocking on some doors. And yes, there are opportunities out there, but I think I’m going to have to be mum on that until I can knock on some doors.

Beth: Is there something specific you hope the next in office continues with?

Mayor: Well, I think it’s important for anyone who ends up being mayor is that at the end of the day you have to keep your eye on the bottom line. This job is not for the faint of heart. You’ve gotta work seven days a week. For me it wasn’t an issue at all – I’ve worked seven days a week since I was 18. So it was no change for me in that respect. And really, just stay focused. I think if we do that, good things will come. I think – I know that I’m leaving this place in a far better place than when I got here. So I feel good about that.

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