Past UC president Roger Hull squares off with Mayor Gary McCarthy: A clash over the role of Union in Schenectady

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By Brian Karimi

Last Wednesday evening, old Proctor’s Theatre in downtown Schenectady  was host to a different type of show.

This one was no less entertaining than the others that have rolled in through the years. It packed in jokes, promises and drama. It featured a member of the college community who is probably more familiar to alumni returning to Union this weekend than current students.

The show was the city’s mayoral debate. Roger Hull, president of the college for the 15 years before current president Stephen Ainlay, is running for mayor against current mayor Gary McCarthy (D).

Hull’s time here saw the acquisition of property in the college park neighborhood, including properties on Lenox Road, Seward Place and Roger Hull. Also acquired were the nearby playing fields and College Park Hall, formerly a Ramada Inn.

In his years here, the college also saw the birth and rise of the Minerva system, the contentious relocation of fraternity houses and the termination of the civil engineering department.

In reaction to high taxes in the city, Hull formed the Alliance Party. Bradley Lewis of the Economics department, a Republican, and Professor of Political Science Emeritus Byron Nichols, a Democrat, joined him.

Hull is currently endorsed by the Republican Party, but says that his party is bipartisan. He opposes what he calls the city’s “Democratic Machine,” which has held power for over 30 years.

The city’s crippled financial state was the center of the debate. Neighborhoods in the city are crumbling, property values are low and residents lament the high property tax. The city currently borrows from its reserves in order to balance the budget.

McCarthy noted that his plan includes an increase of “owner-occupied” homes in the city as a way to increase the tax base. He mentioned his selling of the mayor’s car as a symbolic gesture of the city’s commitment to getting finances back in order.

“Gary, you’ve been in charge of this city financially for 16 years,” Hull shot back. “Why now?”[pullquote]“I would ask that Union College rethink their position and fully participate as a member of Schenectady and pay its fair share.”  Gary McCarthy, Mayor of Schenectady[/pullquote]Hull proposed preventing city employees from taking vehicles, consolidating services with the country,  starting with a fresh budget each year and having the Metroplex Development Authority play a role in the city’s housing troubles.

When the college came up, it had to do with a commonly mentioned issue: PILOTs.

PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, is the name given to the sums of money rich non-profits  pay local governments to compensate for the property they take off the tax roll.

As it was Hull who removed numerous taxable properties from the tax roll when the college expanded westward, he had a bit of defending to do.

Hull explained that non-profits ought to do what they can in terms of compensation, but should not be pressured by the city to contribute. During his tenure, he was reluctant to pay PILOTs to the city for fear that they would be used to “pad pensions.”

Nonetheless, he sought to “clear the record up” by explaining that he did, in fact, pay PILOTs a sum of $5 million over his years at Union. On average, that’s $325,000—more as a percentage of assets, controlling for size, than any college in New York state, according to Hull.

McCarthy stressed the need for large institutions like Union and Ellis to be looked at differently than the traditional not-for-profits. The college, according to Hull, uses $500,000 worth of services each year. He said that Hull did not do as good a job as other college presidents in assisting the surrounding community.

“The expansion to the western side of the campus took an excess of $8 million off the tax rolls, it put the city at a disadvantage, it reduced the tax base and it shifted the burden back to the rest of us. We have to rethink that,” he said.

Hull explained that Union, by moving westward,  made a larger investment in its community, as a percentage of assets, than any other college in America. He said that property values in the neighborhood had gone up threefold since then.

“What the college has done is take crack houses and derelict properties off, and has replaced them with properties that have gone up in value,” he said.

It remains to be seen how the community feels. They will go to the polls Nov. 8.

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