By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- Leaders from Rochester were at the Capitol on Thursday lobbying for additional state aid and making a renewed push to gain funding parity with Syracuse and Buffalo.
For more than a decade, Rochester officials have railed against the aid disparity. Rochester received $419 per capita in state aid in this year's budget, compared with $494 for Syracuse and $617 for Buffalo, according Rochester city officials.
The leaders have formed Building a Better Rochester, a coalition of unions and businesses, to push for more state aid.
"You don't think labor and management agree a lot, but we actually agree on a lot of things," said Aaron Hilger, president of the Builders Exchange of Rochester. "And we really agree that Rochester needs to achieve its fair share of funding to grow."
Rochester has long been viewed as upstate's most affluent area, leading to less state aid than Buffalo and Syracuse, Rochester officials said.
But Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards said that picture is changing, particularly after the bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak last month -- long the region's economic anchor.
"We are in a different situation than we have been historically, and that different situation needs to get recognized down here," Richards said.
The group said Buffalo received the most aid per student at $471 between 2006 to 2011. Rochester received $365 per student, and Syracuse received $338.
Richards warned that Rochester could end up in the same fiscal trouble as Buffalo, which is under a financial control board. He said the $119 million the city provides to the city schools and growing pension costs will eat up the city's entire property-tax levy.
He said the Rochester area could end up with "the anomaly of a successful economy in the region and a broke city."
Richards added that, "We have to get a story across here that it's a different era, a different situation and requires a difference response."
Buffalo is the state's second largest city with about 261,000 people. Rochester is the third largest with about 210,000 people, followed by Yonkers with about 195,000, according to the U.S. Census. Syracuse has a population of 145,000.
Other than an increase in state aid in 2008, Rochester has yet to gain funding parity with Buffalo and Syracuse.
Aid, particularly any increases, is scarce in Albany as the state has grappled with its own budget woes, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to limit state spending. Lawmakers from every region stake their political futures in Albany to bringing home as much state aid as possible.
Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said he understands Rochester's plight, saying western New York would thrive if its cities were growing. But he said his focus would remain helping Buffalo, which has suffered from extraordinary population losses and vacant housing.
"I'm not putting down Rochester, but I'm fighting for my district in western New York," he said.
Last month, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said the city is receiving about $6 million less in state aid than it received three years ago. Buffalo has lost more than half its population since 1950 and has 23,000 vacant properties.
Cuomo announced last month a $1 billion economic package for Buffalo.
Rochester leaders said they aren't trying to take from other cities. They said they are trying to find room in the state's roughly $132 billion budget for more aid, over time, for Rochester.
Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, Monroe County, called the latest effort "an organized movement" that could hopefully raise awareness about the funding inequities. They are also looking to help from Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, the city's former mayor who made the funding disparity a major issue during his tenure.
Media in Rochester, including the Gannett-owned Democrat and Chronicle, announced Wednesday an advertising initiative to build public support for an "AIM for Fairness" campaign. It launches Friday.
"Rochester is not any different than any of the municipalities in this great state," said Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester. "All the municipalities are suffering."
By JOSEPH SPECTOR