“This isn’t politics,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said. “This isn’t a game. This is real people, real life.”
But for the room full of residents, officials, local politicians and activists at the mayor’s annual State of the City address in City Hall Monday night, the news was no surprise. After addressing the challenges facing city — such as securing state funding, home foreclosures and the state of the job market — DeStefano’s 30-minute speech took a markedly optimistic tone. The city will pull through tough times, DeStefano asserted, as long as there is a focus on sharing the burden.
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“There is no reason to be intimidated by the federal and state economic crisis,” DeStefano promised, “because the fundamental city economy is strong.”
In the speech, he called on city unions to make significant concessions in order to avoid layoffs, and he promised to provide local high school students with the economic means to attend college.
DeStefano, who announced he has taken a 3-percent pay cut, said he plans to hire 45 more police officers in the coming fiscal year and fund the expansion of the ROOF foreclosure prevention initiative.
Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield said he was surprised at how “positive” the speech was. Goldfield said he was glad to be reminded of the challenges the city has overcome in the last 15 years. He was especially happy to see that the mayor plans to avoid further layoffs, Goldfield added.
“We could all fall down and bemoan our fate, but that doesn’t get us anywhere,” he said. “I know that it’s a cliché, but I guess it’s a cliché for a reason: ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ ”
DeStefano’s speech was sprinkled with rhetorical questions meant to excite the crowd, which included ROOF employees and Edgewood School students.
“Things are going to get worse before they … do what?” DeStefano called out.
“Get better,” the audience murmured.
“That’s right, get better!” DeStefano repeated.
Ward 1 Alderwoman Rachel Plattus ’09 said she found the speech to be more stirring than she had previously expected, especially when it came to the mayor’s promise of college scholarships to local high-achieving public school students. The desire for a city-funded scholarship is something Plattus and other aldermen have mentioned to the mayor, but DeStefano has never discussed the matter officially with the Board of Aldermen, she said.
“This is something that the board has talked about for a long time,” Plattus said. “It was really exciting to hear the mayor talk about this.”
But Ward 2 Alderwoman Gina Calder said she was unconvinced by the plan. Calder said it is vital that the city encourage local youths to achieve their goals and obtain an education, asserting that she would like to know more about where the funds would come from, and how many young people would be affected by the plan.
Calder’s response was more pragmatic when it came to DeStefano’s assertion that there would be no more city layoffs if local unions make reasonable concessions before Feb. 16, the deadline for a labor agreement. (Last September, the city laid off 34 employees from across 12 departments and the Board of Education.)
At least, Calder said, it is probable that the city will go another year without further layoffs. Goldfield agreed; if unions make unselfish decisions, no one will be left out to dry, he said.
“If everybody is willing to take a little less, then we’ll make it through this,” Goldfield said. “We all understand that these are dire circumstances.”
DeStefano will release his recommendations for next fiscal year’s city budget on Feb. 26.