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Syracuse Common Councilors Approve Pandemic Relief Funds For Urban Forestry, Land Bank Initiatives; Voting Delayed On Other Proposals

These newer trees line the brick walkway along the Ostrom Ave. side of Thornden Park. The city hopes to plant about 3,600 trees using $2 million from the city's $123 million pot of American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Scott Willis
These newer trees line the brick walkway along the Ostrom Ave. side of Thornden Park. The city hopes to plant about 3,600 trees using $2 million from the city's $123 million pot of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

As expected, Syracuse common councilors Monday postponed voting on a number of proposed pandemic relief spending items, with two exceptions. One of them was allocating $2 million for the planting thousands of trees in city parks and along city streets. Councilor Pat Hogan is a former parks commissioner who knows the importance of trees to the urban infrastructure.

"I've run city parks programs in a lot of these neighborhoods. Believe me, I can attest to the temperature changes in the neighborhoods that have trees and don't have trees."

Hogan says tree canopies also show the stark contrast between the city’s poor and wealthy neighborhoods. Councilor Khalid Bey understands why some might question spending relief funds on urban forestry versus other city needs. But he says the spending is warranted, if not overdue.

"I don't think there's an argument that can be made against the devastation caused by the Labor Day Storm; the fact that we've never had an opportunity to [repair] the damage that was done. [Tree] cover and the value of it, it's aesthetic appeal and the like, I don't think can be undervalued."

Councilors also approved $5 million for the Greater Syracuse Land Bank to stabilize or demolish vacant properties that negatively impact neighboring properties.

But councilors held or withdrew several other items pending more discussion, including 10 million dollars for water department projects. Councilor Michael Greene says they’re meeting Tuesday to evaluate those and other spending priorities.

"I think it's important to take a step back and say, we have $123 million; holistically, are we spending it the right way. So far, we've had some areas where we all agree and move forward, and some we're not sure they're the right priorities, and make sure we get the details right."

That includes $4 million in business relief funds, which was first introduced more than three weeks ago.


In other business, common councilors approved changes to the city budget to cover the costs of a recently settled contract with the police department. The majority of the $8.5 million agreement covers wage and benefit increases retroactive to 2017 and are only good through last year. But it also includes $10,000 raises to officers with more than 20 years experience, as well as pay hikes ranging from $12,000 to $18,000 for those who attain the ranks of captain, lieutenant, and sergeant. Councilor Khalid Bey says it might not be sustainable long-term.

"The very thing that people are making the demand for now that the police department be filled out could be contradicted by this in years to come. I would go as far to say in 15 to 20 years that we may not be able to afford the police department at this rate."

Bey, who’s running for mayor, says that could set the stage for downsizing or even consolidation. But Mayor Ben Walsh was clearly pleased, calling it a good day for public safety and community-police relations. In a statement, he says the retention incentives will keep more experiences officers on the force, and a residency requirement will strengthen the connection between officers and the people they serve.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at