City Councilman Sam Barone came by Main Street Coffee this morning for a chat. He was one minute early. Punctual. I like that. Over a couple mugs of black coffee, while white collars settled into their cubicle chairs and farmers into their plow seats, Sam and I talked about city life in a small town, what gets a man to run for office and what it's like to watch your kids leave home for greener pastures.
Sam grew up in Batavia, not far from Austin Park, he tells me. He taught science for a living out in Byron and Bergen, until he retired. But that doesn't mean he's any less interested in the science of life — animate or otherwise. He'll always have a soft spot for Batavia's parks, even if they paved over the wading pool to put in a spray park. He knows the trees of those parks intimately, some of them more than a century old, he says. Worth preserving. Worth appreciating.
Sam took a seat on the City Council only about five months ago. Why did he do it? Why would anyone do it? "Basically," he says, "the taxes."
"Last year, they proposed a large increase in taxes. So I started attending meetings to get information on how the city operates and realized we had some very serious deficits."
Still, Sam wanted to hang in the back seat. So when the Democrats asked him to run on their ticket back in July, Sam said: No. Of course, we know he gave in and got elected. He and his fellow Council members battled their way through the budget — laborious, he says — and reduced the tax increase to 8 percent, compared with the 23 percent hike from the year before, says Barone.
That laborious struggle to balance the budget may soon seem like a cakewalk as the city gets ready to roll up its sleeves and take a long hard look at the question that nobody seems to want to mention out loud: consolidation.
Albany recently approved a $93,000 grant for the town and city of Batavia to look at consolidating services and "potentially merging the two municipalities into a single entity," according to the Albany Project.
Sam admits that he's a bit wary of consolidation talk himself. He doesn't want the city to lose its cultural character by merging with the town. But at the same time, he doesn't see any reason the county can't help pay for ambulance service or the town can't share its snowplows with the city.
"Some areas should be consolidated," he says. "Some shouldn't. I want Batavia to have an identity."
He finds that identity in the city's parks, its green open spaces, its ball field and its homes. We talked at length about Batavia's homes — the facades along Main Street were the first thing I fell in love with when I took a virgin drive through Batavia earlier this year.
Sam spoke of the Brisbane Mansion, once a home, then turned City Hall, that now houses the police station. He told of the Briggs home down Walnut Street. I drove down that way to find it, but there were so many fetching abodes that I couldn't say for sure which one would take the prize. I snapped a photo of this yellow one that seemed a dollhouse erected for normal size people.
There was a very nice old home right at the bend where South Main turns into Walnut that also had plenty of fancy dressings and age spots to recommend itself as another contender for most interesting old big house in that ward of the city.
Heritage homes and ancient trees aside, the first thing on Sam's mind was bringing more jobs into Batavia, likely the first thing on most folks' mind these days around here. Sam has three boys. All three left their Batavia home for somewhere they could get a job. His eldest may not have gone far — to Rochester to work for a communications manufacturer — but the other two couldn't have gone farther, without leaving the country.
One boy took off for Portland, Oregon. Sam calls him "the free spirit" — he left to play music out on the west coast. The other left for Florida after he lost his machine supply job up here. Both are doing well for themselves, but they're doing it far from home.
"Part of it is the taxes," says Sam. "Part of it is the type of work you're looking for. People are finding the work elsewhere."
That might just be the biggest challenge for a City Councilman in these parts: get the work to come thiswhere. Best of luck with that, Sam.