Fiscal stability, economic growth and housing improvements in Center City are among on-going issues Mayor Dick Miller said he would address during a second term at Oneonta’s City Hall.
Miller, who last week announced his candidacy for another four-year term, said his Collaborate for Oneonta mission succeeded on the 2009 campaign trail and into his work as mayor. With more time, changes created under a revised City Charter, including hiring a city manager, plus rezoning and redistricting in the city, can be firmly established, he said.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff,” Miller said during an interview in his second-floor office at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. “The operative word is ‘we.’”
No one has stepped forward to challenge Miller, whose announcement was welcomed independently by all eight Common Council members this week. Miller has led the city through some difficulties, they said, describing him as a leader who is fair and a listener.
“He has a really strong ability to bring people together — he works hard to form coalitions,” said Maureen Hennessy, Common Council member from the First Ward and a Democrat.
Miller draws people into the process, she said, and works through disagreements. In her three terms on the council, this group has worked best together, she said, and “everyone puts the benefit of the city first.”
Politics don’t seem to matter much in city business, council members said. Several council members said Miller and Michael Long, the city manager hired in October, complement each other and will be an effective team in governance.
Miller said the Otsego County Democratic Committee executive board approached him about running on the Democratic line in the Nov. 5 election. The board reported its endorsement of Miller on Friday, which prompted Miller’s announcement.
Miller, who said he will run on the independent Collaborate for Oneonta line, has asked for endorsement by the Otsego County Republican Committee, which won’t meet until spring.
“I want it very clear that I reached out to both parties,” Miller said.
In the 2009 election, Miller bested Republican Erik A. Miller, then-Third Ward alderman and no relation, by 1,123 to 934. The mayoral term ends Dec. 31.
Of 4,728 registered voters in the city of Oneonta as of Wednesday, there were 2,142 Democrats and 1,184 Republicans, Otsego County Board of Elections officials said, and unaffiliated voters numbered 1,011. The Independence Party had 291 voters, and the Working Families Party had 19.
Miller, 69, said he and the Common Council are stepping back from the day-to-day operations of the city since the hiring of a city manager. With the change, Miller took a pay cut from $19,350 previously to $12,000 this year. He also moved from the long-time mayor’s office on the first floor of City Hall to a smaller room on the second floor.
During Tuesday’s interview, Miller said his biggest challenge as mayor was learning how government works. While his background included business and education, including positions in the State University system and locally as a former president at Hartwick College, Miller said he didn’t have any experience with municipal operations.
Since taking office in 2010, Miller said, the toughest issue he faced was addressing behavioral and command problems in the police department. Though some feedback was that the reaction was “heavy handed,” the outcome was positive, he said.
A more recently formed Police Department Task Force is looking at staffing, assignments, resources and other issues. Miller said previously he hopes for a positive outcome similar to results of a Fire Department Task Force that addressed staffing and other concerns and resulted in changes at no cost to the city.
Miller said his accomplishments include no layoffs, wage increases and labor contracts; multiyear planning for budgeting, facilities and capital projects; initiatives for arts and for housing and funding and award for micro-enterprise grants.
“I love this community — it’s been great to me,” Miller said. “I think I have made a contribution — I think I can make a greater contribution.”
Miller said the city’s pending business also includes:
• The structural deficit and management of reserves and debt capacity.
• The economy of Main Street, of the city and immediate area.
• A need for more owner-occupied residences in Center City neighborhoods.
Miller said he still strongly favors a merger between the city and the town of Oneonta, which has resisted the idea. To someone from outside the area, the city and town of Oneonta are indistinguishable, he said, and development shouldn’t be hindered by municipal lines.
“I’m not going to pass up any opportunity for shared services, including marketing,” Miller said. The city can be part of a cooperative effort to identify an economic region, including Southside in the town, that attracts business and visitors to a greater Oneonta area, he said.
“We have to get purposeful about making the most of that market opportunity,” Miller said. The area rises and falls as a group, he said.
Miller has established himself as a champion of economic and cultural development, said Larry Malone, council member representing the Second Ward and an unaffiliated voter.
“We’re really very well-served by him,” said Malone, an economics professor at Hartwick College. “I think he’s going to be way out in front in terms of bettering the community.”
Miller’s background and focus on long-range planning are benefiting the city, said Bob Brzozowski, an Independence Party member representing the Seventh Ward. Miller is a “good manager” who runs meetings efficiently, which reduces bureaucracy, Brzozowski said.
Madolyn Palmer, a Republican representing the Fifth Ward, said Miller has “a tremendous financial head,” is open-minded, fair and patient.
”He can lead and listen,” Palmer said. “A lot of mayors just lead.”
Long, who said he was “very pleased” about Miller’s intent to seek another term, said the mayor’s ability to identify priorities and to consider diverse views to reach the “best decision” put him among the best mayors with whom he has worked.
“Government really is about building consensus,” said Long, who registered locally last year as an unaffiliated voter. Long said he has worked with about 10 mayors in 32 years of government service.
Michael Lynch, council representative from the Fourth Ward and a Working Families Party member, said the mayor has his “full support.”
Miller did a good job guiding the city through the police department scandal, Lynch said, and through a “massive turnover” of department heads that could have “rocked the city.”
Miller is “very inclusive — that’s a good instinct to have for a leader,” Lynch said, and differences of opinion don’t carry over among issues and city business.
”I just don’t see how we could do any better,” Lynch said. “He’s earned another term.”