City

Audience members take stand on major issues at merger debate

Colin Davy | Asst. Photo Editor

Audience members were engaged at the debate, offering applause and numerous questions for central New York officials.

A murmur ran through the crowd when County Executive Joanie Mahoney took the floor at Wednesday night’s debate over the proposed merging of the governments of Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse.

She was one of several audience members to join into the discussion during Wednesday evening’s debate.

Important politicians, potential future mayors and concerned community members packed Maxwell Auditorium for the debate. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci argued against the proposal. On the other side, James Walsh, a former congressman for the 25th Congressional District, and William Byrne, chairman of the board at Byrne Dairy, defended the proposal from their committee, Consensus, which published a series of recommendations in February calling for government consolidation.

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Audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions of the debaters after opening statements and a period of rebuttal. Mahoney was the last to speak, but was the most prominent audience member to come forward, a position she used to defend the county.

Miner earlier in the debate had accused the county of being silent of issues related to gay marriage, poverty and immigration, specifically the sanctuary city issue.

“The city of Syracuse is in Onondaga County,” Mahoney said. “Onondaga County also represents African Americans, gays, immigrants and everybody. And we do it well and we do it proudly.”

The two women are at odds because Mahoney is a supporter of government consolidation, while Miner has been a very outspoken critic. Numerous audience members also showed concerns over the effectiveness and quality of the proposed merger through pointed questions to the debaters.

A key component of the merger that many voiced concerns about is the exclusion of the school districts in the plan. Currently, the Consensus plan includes a recommendation for an entirely new committee to be convened for the single purpose of considering the issue.

An audience member who was in the overflow room — the audience exceeded the number of seats in Maxwell Auditorium — asked how the Syracuse City School District, a city entity, would be funded after a merger.

Walsh said the district would continue to be funded by city taxpayers and the state, which is currently a large source of funding. He also used the moment to take a jab at the city’s budget.

Rae Kramer, a resident of Syracuse, called schools the “elephant in the room” and asked how schools could possibly be ignored.

Walsh said that the Consensus group did discuss schools but decided not to study them because it would have been too difficult to add to their work.

“You can see how difficult it is just for this, just for governments,” Walsh said.

Kramer pushed on, however, and said that the community should not vote on a proposal until it included the schools. Throughout the night, Walsh and Byrne were pushing to have the plan be brought to a referendum, which became a point of contention.

In an interview after the debate, Kramer said the community could not move forward on the merger issue until they approached it on common ground, rather than as adversaries of white versus black, county versus city.

Sharon Owens, the director of the Southwest Community Center and a resident of Syracuse, made a statement to the audience saying that the Consensus committee — which she was a member of — could not make decisions about the schools until foundational problems in the city were addressed.

Said Owens: “Until this community begins to deal with some deep-seated, real, socioeconomic and racially driven issues we have, you’re not going to sell me the swampland that a kid on South Ave. is going to have the same ability and shared resources of a kid in Fayetteville-Manlius.”

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