While raising the alarm that her city could soon face bankruptcy, Syracuse’s mayor has been busy consolidating city departments, sharing services with other local governments and blocking $2 million in spending authorized by the city’s Common Council.
She negotiated zero increases with the city’s unions except for the police, with whom the city is now negotiating. Miner slashed Syracuse’s workforce to the lowest level in modern history, and said she can’t rule out further cuts.
But while she insists she has done everything she can to balance the $300 million budget, there is still a roughly $30 million gap, and little more she can do, she says, without changes from Albany.
It’s unclear what changes will come. Last week Cuomo administration officials emphasized that struggling cities like Syracuse should handle their own problems.
A Cuomo spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that municipalities had to “put together a plan for addressing their cities’ fiscal challenges, since the governor is dealing with the state’s fiscal challenges.” An anonymous administration source bluntly told the New York Post that big-city mayors need to stop asking for a “handout.”
Miner and the mayors of Rochester and Yonkers responded by pointing to the gravity of their financial problems, the deep cuts already made and budget gaps that are “too large to be bridged from within those cities.”
“To say that localities have to fix it on their own—we can’t,” Miner said in an interview with City & State earlier this year. “How can we fix pensions? We can’t. How can we fix health-care costs and binding interest arbitration, when the state says in [the] Triborough [Amendment] that’s off-limits? We have nothing to do with that. When you look at where we’re spending our money, it’s all being dictated by Albany policies. So if they want us to fix it, then they have to either give us revenue or they have to release some of those requirements.”
Miner, who has become something of a spokeswoman for municipalities’ fiscal challenges, secured a more high-profile perch this year when Cuomo named her co-chair of the state Democratic Party.
She and her co-chair, Assemblyman Keith Wright, were introduced alongside the governor at a Manhattan fundraiser in July. Miner told the crowd how crucial it is to elect Democrats to office, and praised the governor for helping “put New York State back on the map”—from on-time budgets to same-sex marriage.
Miner’s new role has made her a bigger target as well. Republicans have criticized her for taking on another time-consuming position while Syracuse’s finances are teetering on the edge of collapse. And in late August, the mayor created a stir—and spurred more attacks—when she denounced the Republican Party as “the party of hatred.”
But Miner said serving as Democratic co-chair gives her the chance to explain to people in power the challenges Syracuse faces and what needs to be done to remedy the situation.
“I run into people from the Bronx who will say, ‘Jeez, we never knew; tell us about it,’ whether it’s the Bronx County chair or Denny Farrell or Keith Wright,” Miner said. “It’s beneficial to have those relationships, so that people who didn’t know you before are able to pick up the phone, know who you are, have a relationship and talk about the city.”
Miner, 42, was raised in Syracuse and graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in political science and journalism. In 1999 she finished law school and started a job as a labor lawyer, negotiating for private sector unions over health care and benefits—which are not on the table for her in negotiations with the city’s public sector unions.
Miner was elected to the Syracuse Common Council in 2002, was re-elected in 2005, and won a three-way race for mayor in 2009 with just over
50 percent of the vote.
She is married to John F.X. Mannion, a retired insurance executive. This summer, Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Dick Case noted that Mannion is “well-off” and suggested that Miner give up her $115,000 salary “for a year or two while we sweat out this financial crisis.” In response, Miner mailed Case a copy of the play The Vagina Monologues.
“I have yet to see anybody ever ask a male politician to give up his salary because of who his spouse is,” Miner said afterward.
The first female mayor of one of New York’s five largest cities, Miner stands out in other ways, too.
“There are all sorts of things that if I focused on them I could say, ‘This is what makes me different,’ ” explained Miner. “Look, I’m from Syracuse, I’m from upstate, I’m a female, and I’m 5’4″. That’s who I am. That’s the package.”
This summer Miner drove down to New York City for a NY Works Task Force meeting, where her pink blouse stood out among the dull tones the other task force members wore.
The task force is targeting key infrastructure projects to help boost the state’s lagging economy, but more will have to be done to counter the underlying fiscal problems.
Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor who co-authored a report this year painting a dismal picture of state finances, said pensions, health care and other federal and state mandated costs are simply growing too fast.
“And there’s now a cap on the property tax, which is the only tax that a city or a municipality can impose itself without getting permission from the state,” Ravitch added.
Ravitch, who has informally advised Miner on fiscal issues, said she is taking the right approach and trying to do what is best for Syracuse. He said a solution will come down to leadership, and everyone—public employees, bondholders, taxpayers—contributing something.
Miner has laid out some specifics: tackling the Triborough Amendment and the Taylor Law, and changing binding arbitration with unions so that a city’s ability to pay is taken into account.
“Our pension payments in the past 10 years have gone up by over a thousand percent,” Miner said. “Our health-care payments have gone up by 300 percent. And we have nothing to do with pensions. We’re just sent the bill. The state sets the benefits, the state sets whether there will be a contribution, how old you are, all of that, and yet the state turns around and sends us a bill, and we have to pay it.”
Miner warned that if leaders don’t step up, New York’s five largest cities—New York City, Syracuse, Yonkers, Rochester and Buffalo—could all have financial control boards.
But when it comes to Cuomo, Miner said she is not worried about reaching an agreement.
“Nobody’s closed a chapter, closed the book,” she said. “Nobody’s written the end of the story. And part of my job as mayor—and I also think, frankly, as a state party chair—is to make these issues known and to advocate for reform, for solutions, for good government.”