JOHNSTOWN - Gov. David Paterson sugarcoated nothing during his visit to the area Friday, telling an audience of about 500 that all New Yorkers must make sacrifices as the state deals with a cavernous $15.4 billion deficit.
"This is a very difficult undertaking," Paterson told an overflow crowd at the Fulton-Montgomery Community College gymnasium. "Every part of the state is going to be hurt."
In a "town hall meeting" moderated by WVTL radio talk show host Bob Cudmore of Amsterdam, New York's 55th governor fielded questions for about 75 minutes Friday. Afterward, he answered more questions at a short conference with the news media.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Northampton Town Supervisor Linda Kemper shakes hands with Gov. David Paterson at the end of a “town hall meeting” with area residents Friday at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.
The sobering question-and-answer forum was mostly tough talk punctuated by ironic wit from Paterson, who was thrust into the spotlight after Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation last year.
"This will be the worst budget year in our state's history," Paterson said. "Oh, why do I have to be governor at this time?"
Paterson is conducting a series of town hall meetings across upstate New York. His tour was to continue this morning in Auburn and Wednesday in Binghamton.
Paterson told the local gathering that any excuse anyone can cite in defense of spending is "off the table."
"Everybody has got to step forward," he stated.
Paterson said the $15.4 billion deficit is three times worse than in any period in the state's history. He said 500,000 New Yorkers might lose their jobs in the next six months.
The Empire State can return to prosperity, Paterson said, but he has the difficult task of prioritizing the way the state makes cuts.
Jan Woodcock of Johnstown told the governor that middle class upstate residents are suffering. She said she turns her thermostat down to 56 degrees at night and she's lost half of her retirement savings.
New York state has "been a mess for years," Woodcock said, and she asked Paterson: "Our bills are paid on time, why aren't yours?"
"The same problem the American consumer has is the same problem the American government has," Paterson responded.
He said government is "seduced" by credit and overspending the same way the public is.
Paterson said the Dow Jones Industrials Average quadrupled between 1990 and 1998, but New York state outspent its revenue in five of those years. Paterson said all the cuts, including those in education, are aimed at trying to reduce the state's $36 billion in debt to $7 billion in the next two years.
Asked about the state's School Tax Relief program, which offers tax exemptions and rebates for property owners, Paterson said the program "hasn't worked." He said the state's Property Tax Relief Commission wants to cap property taxes by 4 percent, at 120 percent of the inflation rate.
He said the STAR program has been popular because it is well-publicized and results in rebate checks.
"I still open birthday cards and hope there's money in it," he said.
Paterson spoke optimistically about President Obama's economic stimulus package, which he said could provide 1,900 "shovel-ready" jobs for New York state.
The House of Representatives passed the spending bill, and the U.S. Senate is expected to take it up next week. Paterson predicted the package will "ignite the engine of our economy."
"The stimulus is not just economic, it's psychological," Paterson said.
Former Gloversville Mayor Frank DeSantis told the governor the upstate region is lagging behind the rest of the nation in consolidation of its government entities. He asked Paterson why the state can't force consolidation or regionalization of local governments.
"You just articulated every governor's fantasy," Paterson said. "[But], these are very local issues, and politics is local."
He said he wouldn't want to live in a state where governing is "from the top down."
Jennifer Petteys, executive director of the Montgomery County Youth Bureau, asked the governor what he's going to do about the fallout from his proposed cuts to youth programs, which she said could result in more child abuse, juvenile crime and low birth-weight babies, among other problems.
"I don't think people really understand how bad this state's economy is, or even our country's," Paterson said.
He said the state deficit represents 25 percent of the state's budget, and he can't "peddle simplistic" answers to where the cuts will lead.
If the state receives its fair share of the federal stimulus package, Paterson said, he will look at youth services and human services and consider whether some funding for them can be restored.
Michael Fitzgerald asked about unfunded mandates from the state, which Paterson called a "government game."
"What we would like to do is reverse that," the governor said. He said the federal government's 50 percent share in Medicaid costs is not enough.
"We're not asking for a handout, we're asking for a handback," he said, prompting applause.
Paterson touched on energy research and development, which he said is "exciting" and may lead to many jobs upstate. He also discussed agriculture and tourism issues.
"We have plans; the problem is we don't have tourists," Paterson said. "This is a worldwide and national problem."
He said the state has upgraded its "I Love New York" campaign, but travel on the New York State Thruway is down and the hotel business is suffering.
Paterson, who is legally blind, traded quips with Cudmore throughout the event. At one point, the moderator asked Paterson why he doesn't shave.
"If I try to shave, I'll kill myself," the governor answered.
Outside the gym before the program, members of the state Public Employees Federation were holding signs saying "Tax the Rich."
Bill Agresta, PEF vocational instructor, said the group hoped to ask Paterson why New York was reducing the capacity of the Tryon Residential Center.
Fulton County Office for the Aging Director Andrea Fettinger stood in line with many others entering the gym.
"I'm here to hear what the governor has to say," she said. "There are some things that could affect my office."
Among those in attendance was Salvatore Mannino, the owner of recently closed Salvatore's Restaurant in Gloversville. He said he was interested to hear if Paterson had anything to say about downtown revitalization.
At the press conference, Paterson was asked how he tells businesses that "New York is the place to come."
"The overall way to change the business climate is to lower the encumbrances," Paterson said. "We've got to do everything we can to put people back to work."
He did concede 40 percent of the proposed federal stimulus package consists of tax cuts.
Gloversville Mayor Tim Hughes said the governor was the bearer of bad news everyone knew.
"Obviously, how do you portray bad news?," he asked. "We all knew it was coming."
Johnstown Mayor Sarah Slingerland added, "It's always a pleasure to have a governor visit our community college."