By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
A virtual budget forum hosted by state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-46, drew dozens of speakers vying for funding for their causes in the upcoming state budget.
The forum, held Feb. 22, was hosted by Hinchey, who represents Coeymans and Ravena, and a representative from Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy’s office, along with over 80 residents and community groups pleading their case for funding in the budget.
Fahy, D-109, who represents Bethlehem and New Scotland, was unable to attend the forum due to a family health emergency.
Hinchey explained the state budget process, which is still in the works.
“The way that this process works is the executive — our governor — puts forward their executive budget proposal,” Hinchey said. “Gov. [Kathy] Hochul and her team put forward that executive budget proposal a few weeks ago and now the Legislature is going through it. We are going through that proposal and now we are responsible for both the Senate and the Assembly putting forward our one-house budget proposal.”
Hinchey was gathering testimony at the virtual forum to gauge community input into how state funds should be allocated as budget negotiations continue at the state level.
“We feel that a budget is a values document,” Hinchey said. “It’s a document that should really prioritize, emphasize and showcase very clearly what we want New York state to be, how we want to lead the country, the things that we want to step forward with and show what we can do. For us, that’s making sure that we are helping our constituents across New York state.”
The first speaker to present testimony on the budget was Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven, who voiced concerns that are widespread across upstate New York — the challenges municipalities face with aging water and sewer infrastructure.
“Many have spoken for decades about the desperate need for investment in restoring and rebuilding crucial water and sewer infrastructure across New York state, but I’ve heard very few acknowledge the actual responsibility for this infrastructure is entirely at the municipal level,” VanLuven said.
Bethlehem has 400 miles of water and sewer lines, and maintenance is the responsibility of the town, which delivers 1.6 billion gallons of drinking water and processes 1.6 billion gallons of effluent from the sewer treatment plant. An aging infrastructure system is a costly expense for Bethlehem, along with other municipalities around the region. A new infusion of federal monies for infrastructure repairs could ease some of that burden, but only if the dollars are directed to municipalities, he said.
“The intention of the federal infrastructure dollars is to restore and improve our nation’s aging infrastructure. I assert that we have this opportunity with the influx of other dollars to really start taking a real bite at this overwhelming challenge,” VanLuven said. “Please do everything you can to get these dollars to municipalities, where it will actually be used to improve critical water and sewer infrastructure, and thereby will best serve our residents and businesses, create jobs and protect the environment.”
With utility prices soaring, Laurie Wheelock from the Public Utility Law Project advocated for low-income New Yorkers who are having trouble paying their electric and other utility bills.
“As of January 2022, we had 1.3 million households behind on their electric and gas bills for a total of $1.7 billion that is owed,” Wheelock said. “This month, electric and gas customers are also getting their bills and seeing a massive surge because of the commodity issues on the federal level. We have had National Grid upstate customers and Central Hudson customers contacting us with bills that are two to three times higher than they were last month.”
One Central Hudson customer reported to Wheelock’s group that they typically have a monthly electric bill of $250, which soared to $900 this month. New Yorkers need help, Wheelock testified.
“Our message is simple — we need the state to come up with a uniform, common-sense plan to address the utility crisis and have that work through the New York state budget,” she said.
An extension of a moratorium on essential utility shut-offs would help residents catch up on their rising bills, Wheelock said.
“We also need the state to come up with a common-sense broader approach on what to do with this large arrears and so the next ask is that the state appropriate $1.25 billion of the federal American Rescue Plan funds to go directly to low- and moderate-income energy customers,” she added. “This would protect their accounts from termination while also lessening their financial stress, allowing them greater ability to pay rent and mortgage and food and medicine, and not worry as much about the utility arrears debt that has accumulated.”
Larry Krajeski, from Catskill Mountain Housing Development Corporation, advocated for support for programs that assist New Yorkers in need of rural housing and housing preservation.
“It allows us to participate in a variety of home repair, trailer replacement and community development programs,” Krajeski said. “The New York State Rural Advocates have recommended an increase in the budget to $6.25 million to fund an increase to $100,000 for each of the 60 rural preservation companies that serve rural communities across New York state.”
Hinchey agreed housing is critical, and that rural housing doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
“We know that we’re in a housing crisis and a lot of the issues and a lot of the things that we typically fund in the budget help more urban areas with housing,” Hinchey said. “They quite often don’t fund or help our communities with housing initiatives.”
Mark Gorelick, a member of the board of trustees at the Cairo Public Library, pleaded for more funding for area libraries.
“Libraries fulfill a very strong emotional factor in a town’s health and also provides financial support to people who otherwise would not be able to do things as simple as buying a book or downloading a movie,” Gorelick said.
Libraries also serve core functions in communities as meeting places for local groups, Zoom and in-person senior classes, and more, he said.
“It’s a tangible return on investment that not all taxpayers see through their other tax contributions,” Gorelick said.
Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association, said his group provides grants to aid in marketing and promoting the region. Supporting businesses in the hospitality and tourism sectors is vital after the impacts of the years-long COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Gail Volk, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters of Albany County, asked for financial assistance for municipalities to support new state laws on early voting.
“In 2021, the Legislature passed the law to lower the number of voters designated to early voting poll sites and extend poll site hours of operating during early voting,” Volk said. “These reforms will strengthen the early voting process for many voters, but only if counties have the resources for staffing and equipment to be able to complement them.”
There is still time to submit written testimony about how state funds should be allocated in the coming budget via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.