2021 State of the City Address
Good evening. By law, every January, the Mayor is required to produce a report to the public on the state of the city. Normally this report is delivered during a Common Council meeting at City Hall, but due to the pandemic, we deviated from the regular format to ensure everyone’s safety. I’d like to thank you for tuning in to listen and thank Oswego City School District Superintendent Dr. Mathis Calvin and the technology team at WBUC for allowing this address to be lived streamed on their television station.
It has been six years since we started this journey on a new beginning and last January, as we kicked off our second term in office, we reflected on the undebatable accomplishments we’ve made together, since 2016. We outlined goals for the future, including, but not limited to, capitalizing on our waterfront, boosting our neighborhoods and using our revitalized downtown area to retain and attract city residents. We didn’t know, however, our biggest challenge yet, in the form of a global pandemic, was on the horizon and would attempt to derail our progress on multiple different fronts.
2020 was a challenging year to be sure, but from 2016 to 2020, we made it happen. From our downtown revitalization efforts resulting in historic buildings being rehabilitated, new buildings being developed, public space improvement projects, neighborhood revitalization efforts, strong code enforcement, news parks, more public amenities, paving city streets, to lowering taxes and attracting new businesses, the record of what we’ve done is staggering. But we stood to lose it all with the invasion of COVID-19.
Once the virus arrived in New York State, my primary obligation as Mayor was to do all I could to protect the general health and wellness of Oswego residents, while disseminating factual information for residents to consider in an effort to protect themselves and their loved ones. I found it critically important to have local government ready to respond to the negative impact the pandemic would surely have on our citizens. When COVID finally arrived in Central New York, shutting down schools and closing the economy, we did our part to control the virus locally. Oswego was one of the first municipalities in CNY to implement a “Stop the Spread” essential-travel-only policy, conduct information and educational campaigns at local retail stores, hold mask distribution drives and implement social distancing enforcement details through all in an effort to protect our community. As a result of these quick and dramatic actions, we fended off the first wave and held a low caseload through Spring and Summer. In addition, we promptly partnered with Little Luke’s and the Oswego YMCA to offer free childcare to Oswego families, with priority given to first responders and those working in healthcare. We built an emergency COVID-19 resource website, implemented virus detection into our city wastewater system and partnered with SUNY Oswego to test all essential city employees weekly to protect our workforce and maintain adequate staffing levels to deliver the services our residents expect. On March 20th, 2020, NYS ordered all non-essential businesses to close. That same day, we made $275,000 in no-interest commercial loan funding available to businesses and worked swiftly to distribute funds within ten days. We developed a restaurant business guide, informing the public of restaurants still open for to-go and delivery options through the shutdown and mailed it to every household in the city. We assisted with PPP funding applications, re-opening guidelines and directly circulated safe practice materials.
While COVID continues to have a strong presence in our community, the distribution and administration of an effective vaccine acts as light at the end of the tunnel, but our work is not done. Mask wearing, social distancing and smart behavior is still required, but our focus is shifting to an economic recovery. Many of our small businesses survived the shutdown but the struggle continues. I want our business owners to know local government remains committed to maintaining the vitality our small business community experienced pre-pandemic. To help, in the short term, we’ll provide another $10,000 in immediate funding for a second round of the successful “Buy One Get One” Program we developed last month. The “Buy One Get One” program quickly infuses money into our downtown area and gives residents a reason to shop local. January through April is ordinarily a slow time for our local small businesses anyway, so a mid-winter “Buy One Get One” round will be welcome news to residents and businesses alike. Until a vaccine has been administered to the general population, our battle against COVID wages on and it’ll require a community approach to overcome the virus. A community approach means making a concerted effort to support local businesses and exhibit the proper behavior to slow the spread, stabilize our data, stay healthy and avoid more economic restrictions. We owe it to our small business owners, front line workers, friends, family and to ourselves to do the right thing, and the state of our city, rests on our ability to beat and fully recover from the current health crisis.
While coronavirus continues to disrupt essentially every aspect of our daily lives, it has also brought out the very best of our region. A state-wide effort to flatten the curve was successful. Generally speaking, our community has done a great job social distancing, abiding guidelines and reducing community spread, compared to other states and other regions within our own state. Partnerships were developed and strengthened, like our relationship with SUNY Oswego, who quickly developed a robust testing program to protect students, faculty and the greater Oswego community from spread and then allowed city government to incorporate our essential employees into their testing program. Simultaneously, Oswego Health, located right here in downtown Oswego has been the testing headquarters for the general public, and is leading the way with vaccine distribution efforts. Local government can’t do it alone, and I am forever grateful for the leadership and partnership SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley and the leadership at Oswego Health have extended to me personally, and to our community, during this chaotic time.
The effort to beat the virus has been led by our frontline workers. Within city government, Fire Chief Randy Griffin, Assistant Fire Chief Jon Chawgo, the Oswego Fire Department, the Oswego Police Department, and the Office of Economic Development all played important key roles in our preparation, response and on-going recovery and I thank them for their efforts. Beyond city government, local doctors, nurses, and staff who work right here in town, or commute to Syracuse area facilities, continue to work long hours in high-risk situations. These frontline workers are family members, friends, and neighbors and deserve our upmost respect and appreciation. This year, they were and continue to be heroes, in every sense of the word. Our community needed them, they stepped up, and we’ll continue relying on them through 2021 and beyond. Back in 2018, we launched the Resident Recruitment Initiative, a comprehensive partnership with major area employers, such as Oswego Health and others, to try encouraging employees who work in Oswego at these facilities, to live here. The Resident Recruitment Initiative was designed to educate these employees on all Oswego has to offer. As our city continues to change, we must tell our story and further incentivize these employees to choose to live in Oswego. To that end, I’m announcing the creation of a new program that will serve a dual purpose. First, the program will acknowledge and thank our frontline workers and first responders for their continued heroic service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, it’ll incentivize and encourage our first responders and health care workers to not only work here in Oswego, but to live here in Oswego. The new “Heroes as Neighbors” Program will partner city government with Pathfinder Bank to cover the closing costs associated with the sale of a home in Oswego to a frontline worker, first responder or active member of the military. Closing costs can quickly accumulate, surprising young professionals when they go to close on a home for the first time. It can mean the difference between buying or renting, moving or staying put. We want and need more nurses, doctors and police officers in our community, as residents, making our community a better place. They’re assets to our community, both in and out of the workplace, and encouraging them to live in Oswego adds to our fabric and character. The “Heroes as Neighbors” program can be that extra nudge to potentially capture more young professionals and families to consider staying or moving here and serves as a gesture of appreciation for the work they do, and I thank Pathfinder Bank for partnering with us to administer this new program.
The addition of more professionals and families will only add to the great progress being made in our neighborhoods. Our neighborhoods are improving, in part, because of our aggressive code enforcement program, community-wide enhancements and renewed confidence among citizens and homeowners. As individual homeowners beautify their homes, the city at large is becoming a more desirable area, and it all starts in our neighborhoods. Homeowners are investing in their property and taking great pride in their community. During last year’s construction season, the city issued almost 600 building permits. The majority of these permits were issued in residential neighborhoods because people feel comfortable and confident enough to invest in their property. We need to facilitate more investment, encourage more growth, and what better way to do that than to make it easier and more affordable to invest in your own property. The nature of pulling a building permit is a positive action. The activities requiring a building permit are activities we should encourage, like fixing a fence, repairing a façade, rebuilding a porch or replacing a deck. The building permit fee was last adjusted over 15 years ago. It is time to re-calibrate these fees and by re-calibrate, I mean to adjust in a way that will further encourage the activity we desire. I’ll bring a proposal later this year to reduce the fees for building permits, across the board, by 50%. When property owners come to City Hall to upgrade their property, City Hall should become a partner and granting permits, informing of regulations, and reviewing planned improvements or developments should be viewed as a service we are thrilled to offer, rather than an opportunity to collect a measly fee. We welcome your investment into our community. The reduction minimizes a deterrent and allows property owners to keep their money to put towards their project, rather than bureaucratic paperwork.
City government needs to make investing, maintaining and living in your property practical and affordable. We’ve tightened the belt at City Hall to control spending and cut waste. City-wide overtime is down to the lowest point in over a decade, processes have been streamlined, efficiencies found and, as a result, for three straight years, with the help of the Oswego Common Council, we’ve either lowered or held the line on taxes, without using the general fund to offset expenses, the first time that’s been done in at least fifty years. Even though the cost of doing business continues to rise, we’ve balanced our budget and delivered for the taxpayer. It’s a true, city-wide, team effort and I’d like to thank the Common Council and the team of department heads throughout city government who’ve contributed to our recent success. But our work is not done. In 2019, we reduced the flat rate annual water and sewer bill by $200 and promised then, to do more. Last month, we completed our $56 million west side sewer separation project as mandated way back in 2010. The project, while expensive, upgrades our municipal infrastructure and protects the environment by successfully separating our storm water system from our sewer system, therefore reducing the amount of sewage discharged into the Oswego river and Lake Ontario. The final phase of the project came in ahead of schedule and under budget, just the way we like it. We can now take a serious look at our sewer charges to homeowners. As we reduced the bill by $200 in 2019 for flat rate users, I promised another adjustment not only for flat rate users, but metered users as well, so we cover all users in our efforts. In the coming weeks I’ll propose to the Common Council another $100 annual reduction in the water and sewer bill, across the board, for both flat rate and metered users to offer financial relief to all residents. For many years, our residents were strapped with double digit tax hikes and frequent fee increases. Those days are long gone and as promised, we continue to offer financial relief to our homeowners the moment we find it responsible to do so.
In 2021, in addition to our COVID recovery, our primary focus will be dealing with another on-going crisis. Beginning in 2017, due to a drastic change to the water management plan through the Great Lakes controlled by the International Joint Commission, Lake Ontario, the last lake before the Atlantic Ocean, was not releasing water through the St. Lawrence River, into the ocean fast enough and, as a result, filling higher and higher with water from the great lakes to the west. The new water management plan, known as Plan2014, caused water levels in Lake Ontario to be, on average, two feet higher than before, and in some cases, during peak months, as high as three feet above the normal average. The new plan and new water levels flooded our shoreline in two of the last three years, causing $5.5 million in damage, closing our marina and tremendously hurting the local boating, fishing and tourism industry.
Quick action by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature has helped Oswego deal with the problems presented by the high water. In 2019, the Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, known as REDI, was created to aid municipalities along the lake with repairing damage. We worked quickly to capitalize on this opportunity and developed a plan to not only repair damage but transform our waterfront into something special. Our plan called for repairs and articulated a vision allowing us to finally capitalize on our world class waterfront. Luckily, the state endorsed our vision and in November of 2019 we secured $12.6 million in REDI funds to make our vision a reality. In addition, we secured $3.5 million in FEMA funding. All told, our waterfront is in the midst of a $16 million transformation, and once completed, Oswego will be using the water as an economic tool and viable attraction like never before.
Our upgrades to Breitbeck Park with seating areas and fire pits, and facelift to Harbor Trail have attracted crowds of people on a nightly basis. On the east side, our new Lakeside Park at East 10th ½ street, complete with a pavilion, volleyball court, small beach area and a kayak launch has been a big hit. This is just the beginning.
On June 1st we will re-open the new Wright’s Landing Marina, following our $3.5 million investment, completed in-house by the Oswego DPW led by Tom Kells, with a new, all-inclusive pavilion, fully remodeled rest rooms and bathhouses, a welcome center and gift shop, marine fuel availability, another firepit seating area on the water and the entire marina will be accessible to those with physical limitations. And remember the water plan that raised water levels, closed our marina and caused millions of dollars in damage? We’ve addressed that, too, by literally raising the entire marina three feet in elevation to prevent future flooding and eliminate the issue created by the new, high water brought forth by the flawed Plan2014. Once complete, Wright’s Landing Marina in Oswego will be one of the premier marina’s along Lake Ontario and will easily attract more boaters from the water and more pedestrians and residents from land. And…should the water rise again as the plan projects, Wright’s Landing will be one, if not the only marina, built to handle the new water level and able to stay fully open and easily operating. While the closure of the marina last year was difficult, and the construction was disruptive, the end product will be worth the trouble and our boating, fishing and tourism community, the ones who’ve suffered the most, stand the most to gain from our work.
Success along our waterfront will certainly translate to success for the rest of our community, as demonstrated by the projects we’ve already done. The new Wright’s Landing Marina may serve as an extra propellor for our local economic engine, but the next waterfront project, will serve as an entirely new apparatus for our community to leverage. The pier extending out into our harbor, known as the International Pier, since its creation, has been underutilized. If you study other communities with as much waterfront property as Oswego, the waterfront and a pier is the most valued, coveted piece of property in the community. For whatever reason, our pier is a gravel driveway, used only for access to a former private club, providing little to the greater community in terms of value. It is time to use this unique piece of property as a community attraction and economic asset. This Spring, we’ll break ground on a $9 million project that repairs and stabilizes the pier, placing new sheeting piling around the perimeter, and transforms the surface from a gravel driveway to nowhere, to a pedestrian only, interactive boardwalk, complete with public dock access, more seating areas and community space for gatherings, events and different public activities. The new boardwalk pier will welcome travelers coming into Oswego from Lake Ontario and serve as another reason for Oswego residents to engage the waterfront. We’ll be extending Harbor Trail to connect through the marina, to the pier boardwalk, and between the three completed projects, our westside waterfront area will be complementary and comprehensive. Harbor Trail, Wright’s Landing and other upcoming projects will present an attractive, desirable, impressive area along Lake Ontario, adding value to our community and creating a destination point worth traveling to experience. The City of Oswego has, for decades, failed to fully capitalize on our waterfront and natural assets. In 2021, that changes as we use our waterfront to our advantage and capitalize on the natural resources, we are so fortunate to have right here in our own backyard.
Between the addition of Lakeside Park, completion of Harbor Trail, the improvements to Wright’s Landing and the transformation of the International Pier, 2021 will be a historic moment for Oswego’s waterfront. Years from now, residents can consider 2021 as the year we viewed our community differently and took action, so it is only fitting to mark this historic time, with a nod to the past. Part of what makes our waterfront so important are the landmarks and treasures that incorporate our waterfront into the community. The waterfront and geographic location led to the founding, development and re-development of Oswego several times over, and special, iconic landmarks underscore the importance of our natural assets and our rich, nautical history. The lighthouse, Fort Ontario, Breitbeck Park, Bridie Manor, Old City Hall are all important pieces of Oswego and the waterfront. Along with the West Linear Riverwalk, Veteran’s Stage, Wright’s Landing Marina and the historic Cahill Building, the oldest building in the city, built in 1828. A special individual played a key role in many of the landmarks I just mentioned.
From inheriting the redesign of Wright’s Landing Marina from Mayor Fitzgibbons, along with the creation of the West Linear Riverwalk in the 1980’s, Mayor William S. Cahill, Jr made significant improvements to Oswego’s waterfront at a critical time in history. The projects he managed are still coveted today, forty years later, and even though we lost Mayor Cahill last year, we think of him as we re-develop our waterfront some four decades since he did it last. In addition to being Mayor from 1980-1987, Bill Cahill and his wife Anne, owned and operated a restaurant, Cahill’s Fish Market, in what is still known today as the Cahill Building along the Oswego River and was one of many downtown revitalization projects, fully renovated and restored in 2018. Mr. Cahill would set sail on his commercial boat, the Elanor D., heading out onto Lake Ontario, casting nets and catching fish to ship to customers and sell to Oswego residents routinely lined up outside the restaurant. Bill knew Lake Ontario and Oswego waters like the back of his hand, spending countless days on the lake, running his business and, as Mayor, running the city. Oswego is a better place because of Bill Cahill. He did a lot for our community, as Mayor and as a businessman, particularly along the waterfront, but he’ll be most remembered for being a genuine, hardworking and absolute gentleman.
We can honor his legacy by continuing to improve our waterfront. He’d be proud of our work at Wright’s Landing and would likely be excited to see the International Pier, reaching out into the same harbor he motored in and out of for so many years, redeveloped and actually being enjoyed by the people. To recognize, remember and honor Bill Cahill for the mark he left on our community, upon completion, we’ll dedicate the new pier to him, bearing his name, a name so closely affiliated with our waterfront and city. The International Pier, a gravel road to nowhere, is no more. The Mayor William S. Cahill, Jr Pier, a beautiful, people friendly, interactive, inviting and exciting public common area, set to break ground this Spring and be fully completed in 2022, will best represent the value and importance our waterfront will play in our community for many, many years to come.
We’ll do everything I’ve outlined tonight and more to keep the momentum with us. We’re in the midst of developing a multi-faceted police re-imagining plan that I presented last month, designed to bring law enforcement closer to our community, while supporting our police department and officers. While some thoughtlessly chant to defund the police, we’ll do the exact opposite and defend the police. Our intelligent plan invests in our officers by supporting modern training programs, funds special initiatives to place more officers on routine foot and bike patrols in parks and neighborhoods and implements quality assurance surveys throughout the department. Our plan is thoughtful and in touch with the real-world conditions in our city. We plan to incorporate mental health counselors to co-respond to appropriate calls, use our community policing unit to coordinate with service provider groups in an effort to better connect individuals to the helpful resources they need, and we’ll participate in key initiatives and programs like Service to Aid Families, HOPE and Handle with Care, all designed to offer support to folks who want it. But, let me be clear, our new police plan does not mistake criminals for victims, and our police department’s top priority is, and will remain, to protect the law-abiding citizens of Oswego by arresting criminals who break the law and responding to calls from Oswego residents in urgent need of assistance.
We’ll open the new splashpad water playground at Breitbeck Park, install a river dock along west linear park, refurbish the box lacrosse court at Fort Ontario, continue cutting costs, lowering taxes, improving municipal services, cutting bureaucratic red tape, eliminating government obstacles and making Oswego a desirable place to do business and a better place to live, work and raise a family. Yes, this agenda in the midst of an on-going pandemic is aggressive. Yes, it is optimistic. Yes, it will be a challenge to pull off. But, what else would you expect? This government, this administration, is about getting things done. Not just talking about change or imagining what we could or should do. We get it done. We’re competent, effective, results oriented. Local government, more than any other level of government, needs to produce real, tangible results because its closest to the people. We need to make the most of the opportunity we have in front of us. Anything less would be an injustice. We’ll do this, because it’s what it takes to keep improving this community, enriching the lives of our residents and helping our neighbors.
After all, that is what government and public service should be about. Last Wednesday, as rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, I was glued to the footage. The images on the screen shook my soul and should serve as a wakeup call to elected officials at all levels, and to the public, and I hope to never see anything like that again in my life. No person who considers themselves an American, can support what took place on January 6th. Since when do elected officials work to divide people? Since when is it okay to have such deep-rooted anger and hostility towards folks who may disagree with your politics or personal views? How is that helpful?
America’s greatest strength comes in the ability provided to us through the constitution brilliantly constructed by our Founding Fathers to think differently, to disagree, encounter gridlock, embrace diversity and continue to function, to flourish and still remain the United State of America, “One Nation, Under God.” Extreme difficulties come with being a democratic republic. Our Founding Fathers intentionally constructed our government system to be complicated, and complicated it is. But when it functions, and people respect each other, tolerate different views, consider others, and want what’s best for the collective, anything is possible.
Look at Oswego. Look at what we’ve done in a short time. Mayor and Council, working together, republican and democrat, public and private, east and west, old and young, look what can happen when government functions and people work together. While the federal government seeks to find its way in the coming weeks, let Oswego serve as an example of the good that comes when the main objective is to improve your community and better the lives of those around you.
Following Mayor Cahill’s passing, his son Billy, told a story about his dad. Mayor Cahill was speaking to a class of students in school when one student raised his hand and asked what Mayor Cahill thought his greatest accomplishment was, as Mayor?”
Mayor Cahill had several considerable accomplishments, many of which would’ve made for an exciting answer. Instead, he told a story about a young family. A mom, dad and a young baby in danger. The family came to Mayor Cahill’s office out of desperation, looking for assistance with this very private, serious matter. As Mayor, Bill Cahill didn’t have the ability to directly help the family and he could’ve easily said “sorry, wish I could help but nothing I can do.” But he called in a favor, to then New York State Governor Hugh Carey, who promptly assisted the family. At the end of telling the story, Mayor Cahill grew emotional. And then, a different classmate, raised his hand and asked, “Do you believe it’s the job of a mayor to get so involved in a private family matter?”
The Mayor pointed his finger, raised his voice a bit and said, “Son, when you have the chance and the ability to help someone in life, you help that person!”
When you can help somebody, you help them. That is what we do. That is what public servants, government officials, friends, family and neighbors are supposed to do.
Mayor Bill Cahill epitomized the Oswego spirit and his words still ring true in Oswego City Hall today and every day, serving as the beacon of this city administration. During every famous Oswego sunset, we must ask ourselves two fundamental questions. “How did we improve our community, today?” and, “who did you help?” Not in 2016. Not last year. Not yesterday. But today.
It is our obligation, our most basic responsibility, as leaders, as parents, as community members, as human beings, to do all we can with the short time we have on this earth to make a positive impact and improve the lives of those around us. There is more happening in this community now than has happened in decades. We are doing things today that other people have been talking about doing for forty, fifty years!...and, despite whatever is working against us, we just need to keep moving forward. This city has limitless potential, and we are unlocking more of it every moment. All we have to do is work together, be positive, be confident, believe in ourselves, lift each other up and work hard to improve our city each and every day. That’s exactly what we’re going to do in 2021 and is precisely why the state of our city is strong!
Thank you for tuning in this evening. Happy New Year, wear a mask and May God Bless you!
January 12th, 2021
William J. Barlow, Jr
Mayor of Oswego