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The “Red Sea,” and a Wave of Change
Saratoga Springs City Council
SARATOGA SPRINGS – An overflowing council chamber, which looked more like a Target team member meeting, or perhaps a Boston World Series home game than a usual audience, greeted new Mayor Joanne Yepsen and the 2014 Saratoga Springs City Council at their first regular meeting of the new year on Tuesday, January 7.
The first order of business was a public comment period, which normally is scheduled for about 15 minutes.
But not on this evening.
A virtual sea of red-shirted, red-scarfed, red everything-clad audience comprised the overwhelming majority of the dozens who lined up to express their opinions on the pending siting of a capital region expanded gaming facility.
Most of the commenters (this reporter estimated that perhaps as much as 80 percent of those who went to the public microphone) were members, or had some degree of support for the viewpoint of of SAVE (which stands for Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion), an organization that is strongly committed against the siting of an expanded gaming facility in the city or in Saratoga County.
To be sure, there were several people during the comment period that expressed support for such an expanded facility in town, most notably at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway (SCR). These commenters were both a cross-section of SCR employees, management (represented by Vice President George W. "Skip" Carlson) and members of Destination Saratoga, a group which advocates siting the capital region expanded gaming facility at SCR) as well as private citizens who favor such a facility.
However, numbers do not lie, and it cannot be denied that SAVE has once again exhibited the ability to turn out big, motivated, visible numbers. This would be evident even if you were watching the proceedings on a black-and-white television.
But the questions remain: will those numbers count? And will the city council count those numbers and do what several SAVE members, as well as some of those not part of the “red sea” advocate: to pass a firm resolution against siting an expanded gaming facility in the city?
It is no stretch to say that the council has a tough soul-searching road ahead as it formulates its position, if any, on this issue.
By and large, given the amount of commenters and the intensity that advocates on both sides feel about this issue, the gallery was generally well behaved, and if not silent, cordial to opposing viewpoints. Mayor Yepsen needed to use her gavel just once to restore order.
Yet, the people who wished to opine on both sides kept coming, and the public comment period, rather than a quarter-hour, extended well into a second hour.
After the public had wound down, the council went into executive session for about 45 minutes. It appeared that it was shaping up to be quite a long night.
Yet, remarkably, once having emerged from executive session, the council conducted an orderly, organized and most importantly brisk session in which a large agenda with several important items were dispatched just under 60 minutes.
As this reporter has vehemently criticized the council for previous meandering, ponderous and near-endless pointless discussions, they must be credited when due. Here’s hoping that this sea change in comportment continues.
Among the notable developments in the January 7 meeting:
- -The capital budget was amended, by a 5-0 roll call vote, to provide funds for the public safety department to complete its renovations of the police department facility. This in itself is notable in itself; more so, because the council agreed to modify the usual agenda process to move up this important item much earlier in the process, allowing the interested public to hear the discussion and vote. Normally, public safety department items would among the last to be considered.
- -Mayor Yepsen announced that her State of the City address would take place on Tuesday, January 28 at 7 p.m. at the Saratoga Springs City Center. The mayor also appointed Robert W. Manasier to the recreation commission. She also gave an update as to the status of the new Code Blue facility, which began on December 24 (see related story on page 7), noting that the city of Glens Falls had inquired about information about Saratoga Springs’ experience with an eye towards establishing its own facility.
County Supervisors Matthew Veitch and Peter Martin reported on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors’ organizational meeting and detailed their committee assignments. Supervisor Veitch has been named as the vice chairman of the board, which means he will be the chair of the law and finance committee and will have primary responsibility for preparation of next year’s county budget. Supervisor Martin noted that among his committee assignments he will be a member of county racing committee, a committee whose scope has been expanded to include all forms of gaming.
Will it Pay to SAVE?
The Birth of a Citizens Movement
SARATOGA SPRINGS — An overflowing cross-section of the community gathered on Monday evening, November 18 at City Hall to learn about and make pledges to participate in activities to resist a casino inside the city and county limits.
The meeting, organized by the group Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion (SAVE) brought such a large response from the citizenry that the city council chamber was not enough to hold them, necessitating an impromptu second simultaneous presentation in the hallway by Sara Boivin, one of SAVE’s organizers. Inside the council room, a tightly packed agenda brought about a wealth of information and the revelation as to SAVE’s action plans.
SAVE organizers Colin Klepatar and Clem Marino described a multi-pronged approach which, in addition to an online petition, included neighborhood and event canvassing, media and political outreach.
They asked each attendee to speak for a minute about their reasons for attending if they wished. The major subjects that were stated involved concerns about potential rising crime, the social costs of gambling and a general deterioration in the quality of life should Saratoga Springs or Saratoga County host a table-gaming casino facility.
“We’re the ones to give voice to the 20 percent,” said Klepatar, referring to the weight that community support, or lack thereof would count on a casino application. He also noted that there were no specific guidelines as to how that aspect could be gauged.
Both Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County soundly defeated casino Proposition 1 in the recent November 5 election, though it passed statewide. In the Capital Region, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer and Schoharie Counties passed Proposition 1.
SAVE organizers asked each participant to sign their petition and to commit to at least one clear action to help spread the word.
The organization’s website, www.savesaratoga.org, has a mission statement which reads in part: “(SAVE) seeks to preserve our thriving downtown, rarely seen in America today and recognized nationally; our world renowned performance art spaces; our thriving economy and our social and individual security and pride that generations of thoughtful and caring Saratogians have worked to build, rebuild and preserve.
“Casino gambling is a single-destination activity, which succeeds only by keeping its guests at the casino. Casinos are a drain on local businesses, directly competing with them by discounting their hotel rooms, entertainment, and amenities, drawing customers away from downtown Saratoga. The projected tax-revenue benefits are guesswork and when gambling revenues decline, it is the taxpayers who are burdened – with lower property values and higher rates of real estate foreclosures. Critical and already overburdened local services, such as police, fire, and hospital services, will become further stretched.
“The social costs of full casino gambling are potentially significant as well. Gambling is a regressive tax, exacting its profits from those who are least able to absorb financial losses. This can result in spikes in poverty rates, unemployment rates, and crime. The projected benefits of full casino gambling have yet to be convincingly documented. We are concerned that the promise of a windfall for host communities will not be realized, especially in light of plummeting revenues at casinos across the country. Meaningful guarantees and demonstrated long-term value are lacking. SAVE Saratoga contends that the revenues will never outweigh the costs and this is a risk our community will not take.”
It is obvious based on last night’s attendance that these ideas have broad appeal. The SAVE organizers came ready with a plan it will be interesting to see whether we witnessed the beginnings of a new form of broad-based citizen action in Saratoga Springs.