For the first time in 20 years, Albany will have a new mayor next year. The changeover is important not just for the city itself, but for the tens of thousands of people who go there each day for work or entertainment. Even if you don't live in Albany, what happens there probably affects you in some way.
The key point in the process of electing the next mayor is next Tuesday, September 10, primary day. Because the voter registration in Albany is overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner of the Democratic primary for mayor will almost certainly win the general election.
This week we talked with the two Democratic competing in the primary -- former common councilman Corey Ellis, and current city treasurer Kathy Sheehan. We asked them each the same set of questions on a range of issues -- from why they want to be mayor, to an aquarium downtown, to what books have influenced them -- and we're sharing those answers at length. The Q&A is set up so it's easy to scan and focus in on the questions that interest you.
On Thursday, we had the responses form Corey Ellis. Today, answers from Kathy Sheehan...
To see the answers to each question, please click the text of each question -- the text of the answer will be revealed below it. (You can also roll the answer back up by clicking the question again.)
Why do you want to be the next mayor?
As treasurer I developed a very deep understanding of our city's finances and the city's operations. And I've also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in our community helping to launch initiatives like the Albany promise, supporting SNUG, and I believe with that background and experience -- including my business background and experience -- I have the institutional knowledge and the leadership style to move our city forward and work through the challenges that we're facing.
What specific plans do you have to deal with the budget gap in the city?
We meed to basically strip our budget back down to its base and build it back up. Instead of taking the budget and looking at what we spent last year, and then just adding to that amount or trying to trim around the edges, we need to understand our cost structure at a much deeper level.
We spent over $250,000 on a management audit that was done by an outside firm, a person who was the former budget director for New York State under Pataki, and that report basically concluded that they couldn't identify savings for the city because we don't have the data to provide them a real understanding of our cost structure. So we need to, first of all, put that technology in place so that we can make better management decisions, and then build from the ground up with respect to our budget.
Is that going to be enough to fill -- it's a big gap.
No. It's not going to be enough. But I think what we need to do is demonstrate on the operations side that we are doing all that we can to streamline our operations, to increase productivity, and to make sure that we are spending our tax dollars wisely. So, one example: We pay 1,400 employees based on paper time sheets and hand-punched mechanical cards. So I can guarantee you that our payroll is wrong every week. It's incredibly labor intensive and it's all manual. As treasurer, I brought in ADP to see how they could help us -- you know, here's this large company that does payroll -- and they looked at our payroll system and said, "There's not much that we can do that's going to be cost effective. It's your processes that are a problem, it's your timekeeping that's a problem." Timekeeping is a management tool. So you need to have the leadership that's going to say to all the departments: You are going to change your timekeeping methodology, you're going to use it as a management tool to help keep overtime down, to help prevent people working out of grade. It's an incredible tool if it's used properly.
So, that alone can result in a between 1 and 3 percent savings in payroll. And our payroll is about $76 million a year. So as you start to add up those savings, yes, I think that we can definitely streamline our operations.
On the other side of it, though, we have to come up with a revenue formula that makes sense. So if we can do what I'm talking about doing, which is what I did wearing my business hat, we can go to the state and we can say, "Every time we send a firefighter into Empire State Plaza because someone in there is having a heart attack or slips and falls or whatever the emergency call is, this is what it costs us." And we can start to have a conversation about how we balance what the residents should be paying for and what the state should be providing to us give that almost 80 percent of our property -- our commercial property -- in the city is not taxable.
What are some of the specific ways that government could be more responsive to requests and complaints and ideas from residents in the city?
We need, again, to be willing to embrace 21st century technology. And it's starting, but it's still very piecemeal. One of the things that city finally did was hire a chief technology officer who gets it. It's like having an architect before you build a skyscraper. So we need to put, basically, an infrastructure in place and then build from that infrastructure. But the tools that he and I have talked about implementing are things like using mapping so that a resident can click on the city website, click on their street, and see when it's scheduled to be paved -- even if it's not going to be until 2015, at least you know.
We have all this data out there now about vacant and abandoned buildings, that's one database. We have a database that talks about crime statistics in certain neighborhoods and particularly certain addresses. Then we have tax information that's then in another database, and delinquency information from the county that's in another database. We need to pull that all together so that in real time residents can have an understanding of what's going in their neighborhoods. And most of what people want to know is linked to property addresses. It's, "Hey this house next door to me, I think there's six or seven college kids living there and that breaks the grouper laws, and they're leaving their garbage out on the wrong night." And you want to be able to communicate in real time with government and see how it responds.
So, there are 311 -- Dallas has a 311 system, there are a lot of places that have that 311 system. And the thing I love about that is that it's not just a way to get your complaint heard, but it's way for you to see, and it's provides metrics for the city to measure itself. In Dallas, one of the things they do is, they track all those calls -- everything from there's a dead animal in the road to there's a tree limb on this house. And they track those calls, when it was resolved, and how long it took them to resolve it. And then they measure it against what their benchmark is for how long it should take. And then they break it down by ward. So some of the issues we have in Albany where's there's a sense of injustice -- and understandably so -- that certain neighborhoods get better treatment than other neighborhoods, it breaks it down and it allows decision makers to see things in black and white and maybe we'll see some thing that we don't like. The way the police department, when the Times Union did that investigation of the number of strip searches we had in the city of Albany, we saw that we were way out of whack with any of the other cities in this area. So sometimes we're going to see things we don't like, but if we have that information we can learn from it, we can adjust and make changes.
A persistent criticism of the city is that residents of its less well-off neighborhoods -- such as West Hill and the South End -- have a hard time getting their voices heard, and don't enjoy the same level of service from local government. How can city government make sure each neighborhood is getting the attention it needs and deserves?
We need to be relentless about empowerment and engagement. You can't have empowerment without engaging people, and you can't engage people without being willing to empower them. We need to have leadership -- and I'm a person who I don't mind being told things that I don't necessarily think I want to hear, because I can't lead and make decisions if I don't have all the information available to me. So if we have an empowered community, we have a community that now has a sense of ownership, and who is going to make demands that need to be made in order to rebuild some of these neighborhoods.
It's gotta come from within the neighborhoods because ultimately if you come in and you bring something from the outside, and the community doesn't have a sense of ownership around it, then you don't have that sea change that needs to occur where people say, "I'm going to start taking on responsibility for some of this." So when you look at many of our more affluent neighborhoods, you have really active neighborhood associations with resources and with people who say, "I'm not going to wait for government to do this, we're going to clean this park or plant these tulips." My husband was president of the Helderberg neighborhood association, I volunteered with the neighborhood association -- there were many things we just took over and did on our own, whether it's planting trees or making sure that a single-family property stayed single family or that a two-family property didn't get broken into many apartments. We've got to have that same support structure in place in all of our neighborhoods and that comes from empowering people.
What's your take on the current job being done by the police department and what are some of the ways it can improve fighting crime. Specifically, gun violence.
I have tremendous respect for our police officers. They do a job that most people are not willing, and I think even fewer people are able to do. And we need to make sure that we are setting a strategy for our police department of what they want, what we need for them to accomplishment, and how that fits into a broader strategy about the direction that the city is going in. And I believe that we are on a really good path. We have a police chief who not only is a cop and, you know, knows police work, but he is also very data driven. And I think that's important because we need to be able to be analytical in the decisions that we're making and prioritize so that we get it right, and that we're not focusing on something that we think is a big problem, but if you look at the data and look at the numbers and look at what's driving it, we really have a different problem over here.
So that data isn't just numbers, it's that community piece. And I believe that this police chief more than any other has done a tremendous amount of community engagement, where he brings neighborhoods together and says, "Tell me what the issues are in your neighborhood. What do you think the police need to be doing in your neighborhood."
So I'm giving kind of a long answer to that question, but I believe we are on a good path and there is work still to be done. And one of the opportunities that I see for the mayor is to communicate across all departments that public safety is not just the job of the police department. That the Department of General Services has a role to play. Our code enforcement officers have a role to play. Even the Department of Recreation has a role to play, in the overall feeling of safety in our city, and how we respond to different challenges in this city. Not everything can be laid at the feet of the police department. And if we start to look at the consequences of decisions that are made in those departments about how they respond to complaints, and where that can lead from a public safety standpoint.
Vacant and abandoned buildings are a perfect example, right? We know that they're magnets for trouble. We can't expect the police department to be in charge of boarding up buildings or checking to make sure that a building is not infested with pit bulls or you hear all kinds of stories of what goes on in these properties. We've got to work together and have a collective and cooperative response to those issues in our neighborhood.
And what about guns?
We have a demand problem in the city of Albany. We have too many of our, particularly our youth, demanding guns. And if we don't fix the demand problem, I don't know how much on the supply side is really going to be effective. And that is something I've heard our police chief talk about.
And, again, this is an area where it's not just up to our police department to police our way out of this problem. We have to provide real opportunity for our youth. We have a graduation rate that is a huge piece of the overall economic development story of our city. So when you only have about 50 percent of the kids graduating from high school, what's happening to that other 50 percent? Where are they going? What are they doing? Do they have jobs? And do they believe that they have a future? And if we can't address that from an educational standpoint, the business community needs to be part of it, our institutions of higher learning need to be part of it, we have to tackle that problem because otherwise we're going to end up with kids in trouble with the law and none of that benefits the city if we ultimately have to deal with that problem by using law enforcement.
What are your thoughts on an aquarium or some other sort of destination museum or attraction for downtown?
My approach to developing downtown is to start with an engagement of the stakeholders in our downtown. If you look at successful development, for example Chattanooga -- which is the shining example being used for an aquarium -- Chattanooga didn't start saying "We're going to build an aquarium." Chattanooga started with a problem: They had about 130 [or] 170 acres of property on their waterfront that needed to be redeveloped. And so they started a process with their business community and their residents and their other stakeholders to say, "What are we going to do to bring this back? Because the way that it is now is not what we want for the future of our city." And out of that planning came the idea of an aquarium on the waterfront because it tapped into strengths that existed in that community.
And so I believe that we've gotta start by asking our stakeholders what we want. What is going to be regionally relevant to the city of Albany? We have incredible strengths in our history and the infrastructure of our history. The oldest building in the city of Albany sits on the current convention center site. The oldest green space, where the Dutch used to come and graze their animals, you know, public green space, sits on that site. So if we want to build that attraction I believe where we can have the greatest outcome is if we build from that strength, because that is what is unique to us, that's what's going to draw people in and say, "Oh my gosh, this dates back to the 1600s." And if you can go from there all the way to nanotechnology, again, that's a strength.
So if we're going to talk about center there or something on that site or downtown, I think it should be something that's going to naturally tap into where we have know-how, where we have financial resources. I imagine there'd be far more financial support from the charitable side for something that's going tap into science, nanotechnology, what's going on in our city, than an aquarium where our university doesn't even have a marine biology program. So that's why I have hesitancy around feasibility studies for an aquarium. We need a feasibility study for that site that looks at our strengths. Because I think all you do is look at 787 and Empire State Plaza and see what you get when you tell a community what they need instead of asking them what they want.
What's your vision for downtown?
My overall vision for downtown includes continuing to incentivize residential. We need to do conversions downtown. We have lots of office space downtown that will never be filled with offices unless there is some radical change that I don't foresee in the demographics and in how we work in this country. The days of the big office towers seem to be on the decline.
We need to attract retail downtown. We need to have businesses downtown recognize the importance of being open 24/7. So being much more responsive to a weekend crowd, and the evening crowd.
And the other thing we need to do is come up with a marketing plan that doesn't just focus on the demographics of what is around downtown. So if all you do is look at a census map and you look at that as your potential market, I think we are shortchanging ourselves and our sales pitch because what we have to do is go up. Go up into the office buildings that are there. Go up into all the state office buildings. And look at who comes to our city every day. Our population grows by 65-70,000 every day. Who are those people? What are they looking for? What would get them out onto the streets? So you might say, well, we can't support a grocery store. But what I hear from state workers is, "It'd be great if there was a grocery store downtown because it would be really convenient for me to stop in there, get my grocery shopping done and then go home."
So one of the things that's happening that I'm really excited about is Capitalize Albany Corporation is undertaking a tactical plan for downtown. It's not just another study. It is a view towards finding out what tangible investments need to be made in order to attract residential, retail, and other attractions to downtown Albany. What's it going to cost? Where is the money going to come from? What's the impact that's going to be on our tax base? So that we can make better decisions about how we make it happen. And that's going to be something that's going to happen relatively quickly. But, you know, I look at what we did when there was a feasibility study that was done that said we could support a convention center and we sat around and looked at an empty site for 10 years. And we know it's not going to get built. I don't want to do that again. And I think we need to take the time, and I'm not talking about paralysis analysis, but we need to take the time to be smart about this, and come up with a plan that we know we can execute with measurable steps so that we know along the way whether we're accomplishing what we need to accomplish at a point in time in order to make it happen.
Albany is a very old city, and much of the infrastructure in the city is also very old. And there have been ongoing infrastructure problems -- like the exploding manhole covers. What is your take on the state of the city's infrastructure and what plans do you have to maintain it and/or upgrade it?
We, first of all, need to make public the plan for every road and every sidewalk. There are systems for grading them. You know what they are and the Department of Transportation, these are measurable, and we need to lay these out and understand what the longterm costs really are going to be in order to deal with that infrastructure. We also have the issue of the combined sewer overflow, which is a regional issue, and that is on its own path. So we have to understand what the costs are going to be for that.
And then I would like to partner with our other, particularly upstate cities who share our same challenges around infrastructure, and talk about we come up with a way to shore up the infrastructures of our center cities. Because it's pretty convenient to forget that the entire reason the suburbs burst into existence was that they were subsidized by the state and federal government. Infrastructure in our suburbs was subsidized. And continues to be subsidized in many ways. You know, Route 20 in Guilderland gets plowed by the state, they get to the city line, they lift up those plows and they turn back around. So we are still using a sort of 20th century view of our cities to make these decisions about how resources are going to be allocated, when what has really happened is that the wealth has left the cities and now we're expecting the cities to continue to support their infrastructure with a depleted tax base. It's not working.
So that means lobbying for state and federal money?
It means lobbying state and federal money. It means potentially lobbying for an infrastructure bond that would be statewide -- again, something that would have be approved by the taxpayers depending on how you structure it. But I believe that if we don't start, if we don't have a strategy for it, then we won't accomplish anything. And I believe with a statewide approach to this, where we quantify what the challenge is, and when you look at the stark difference in median incomes, taxable property, overall wealth, for our city centers where these problems are greatest, and for our surrounding suburban communities, I believe that there is an argument to be made for how we do this collectively.
What can city government do to help reduce the number of vacant buildings?
We can embrace the county land bank. And advocate for properties that we believe need to be, and can be, put into that land bank. So I'll give you an example: There are properties that are being foreclosed on because they haven't paid their taxes, that's done at the county level. But we have lots of other properties that are in code enforcement court where they are just not able to do the work that needs to be done -- and that's why they're in codes court, but they're paying their property taxes, usually because the taxes are so low because the property's worth nothing. So, a land bank would give us another tool to use in codes court to say to a speculator or property owner who's way in over their head, "Listen, as opposed to paying these fines, if you take this property and deed it into the land bank, free and clear of all liens, then we will resolve your outstanding codes case." Or with this much of a fine and deeding it. Then that allows the land bank to accumulate properties and it allows the land bank to use tools like dollar houses and really creative disposition techniques to get those properties into the hand of people who have a plan and the ability to get that property back on the tax rolls. That's one tool.
Another tool is that we need to work with the state to get the ability to put in place tax incentives similar to the ones we provide for big development. So that if you have a property in the city of Albany, you're willing to put it back on the tax rolls, invest in it -- but in order to get your financing you've gotta show that your tax bill on day one, once you've improved, is not going to jump up to what the rate would be, we'll give you five years or ten years to get up to that rate. That's another tool that we can use.
Another thing that I want to explore, again regionally, because I think success will come if we can work regionally, is to identify for each property that is vacant or abandoned a plan for that property. Some are going to have be torn down. Some of them are going to require 20, 30, 50, 100,000 dollars in investment. We have a lot of that information. What we need to do is go out to the community and say, "Who's willing to fund this? What would you need in order to invest in it?" You're a small business owner and there's a storefront on Livingston and the neighborhood has said what we could really need there is a green grocer, how do we get you into that property? What do you need in order to do that? And create a regional fund that would provide grants and low interest loans in order to do that. And then you replenish that fund with a portion of the increase in the property taxes once that's back on the tax rolls.
Over the last few years there has been a tension between the city, residents, and owners of entertainment businesses over concerns such as noise and crowds. The shows at the Washington Ave Armory are one example. How can that situation be resolved -- or, at least, moved toward a point where there's more common ground?
We need to do what other legislative bodies do. We need to have hearings to understand what the issues are, that are community focused -- very similar to what the police department does. They go into neighborhoods and say, "What is it that's important in this neighborhood?" Because what's important in the South End could be very different from what's important in West Hill or even the Ten Broeck Triangle or other neighborhoods in our city. And then, we're never going to be able get 100 percent agreement, but we at least need to be collaborative with each other. And then we need formulate, if necessary, legislation that's responsive to that.
And I think what we've done is we have this sort of once-size-fits-all, this cabaret license, which was a reaction to a shooting in a bar. I mean, I'm oversimplifying, I know. But it was reaction to frustration over the lack of responsiveness from the [State Liquor Authority] to shut a bar down, and saying how can we do it ourselves. And this idea of the cabaret licenses was born.
I think that we need to have a much more neighborhood-focused approach because what works for the warehouse district is going to be different from what works on Lark Street and what's different that works on Madison Ave -- from lower Madison Ave to upper Madison Ave might be different. So, it's hard work and there will be shouting and unhappy people. But we have to do that hard work in order to get it right.
Because what we're doing now clearly isn't working. It's confusing, it's difficult for people to navigate, and to me nothing is more detrimental to business growth than uncertainty. And when you add a lot of uncertainty to a business person who is looking to invest in a business in Albany, you're going to find that they're going to go elsewhere.
The mayor of Albany doesn't have any direct control of the city's schools, but it's an issue that concerns a lot of people in the city -- especially the graduation rate at Albany High School. So, as mayor, what specific actions would you take to address the issue?
First of all, I will be a partner with the school district. I will not be a critic of the school district. We have failure in our schools because we have a healthcare system that's failing our kids, a social services system that's failing our kids, a criminal justice system that's failing our kids, we have failures all the way around.
So, specifically, I will be accountable for what the city needs to do in order to assure that our kids arrive at school every day ready to learn. And what I have already done is help found the Albany Promise -- which is far from perfect, but at this point it has done more to get people in the room together from the business community, higher ed, the teachers union, the school district, the not-for-profits that are impacting our kids and working with our kids, the county, the city -- all in a room together to say, "How do we collectively work together in order to move the needle for our kids?" We have a report card, we know where we are. We have focused on three areas where there's the highest need. And we have started by implementing plans that have developed out of work groups with stakeholders. We have an early childhood working group, full of stakeholders in early childhood. Third and fourth grade success, and then the high school. As mayor, I will make sure as Albany Promise continues to grow that we focus our city resources -- [community development block grant] money, for example, we give out $3 million every year roughly in CDBG money -- that those funds need to be funneled to programs that are operating in the Albany Promise. Where they're providing data, they're sharing resources, and they're working on the targeted goals that we collectively have decided that we need to focus on in order to change outcomes.
It's making sure that we as a city are functioning in a way that is creating safe streets, after school support. You know, we have our kids for all those hours that they're outside of the classroom.
And another thing that we need to make sure that we do is have a cooperative approach with all the schools who are educating our kids. This idea of pitting charter schools against public schools against private schools has gotta stop. We have to make sure that every one of our kids receives a quality education.
And for me, the economic development potential of our city starts there. If we can graduate our kids from high school, we can have a healthy community. But we have to graduate them from high school, ready for college and ready for a career.
It's not uncommon for families with small children in the city to think hard about whether they should stay -- because of concerns about the schools, or taxes, or other issues. What's your pitch to keep them here?
We have an excellent school system. The perceptions of our school system arise from very really challenges. And many of those challenges are a direct cause of financial vulnerability that we have in many of our neighborhoods. But we have excellent things that are going on in our school system. And when you look at the courses that are offered, when you look at what happens when your child has the opportunity to participate in the STEM program, in AP course, in getting an International Baccalaureate degree, that those all provide the foundations that led to our valedictorian and salutatorian going to Harvard.
So I believe that we also provide a really diverse experience for our kids. And that kids that come out of our schools are prepared for life. Because we know live in a global economy where we have to compete globally. And I believe that our school district provides an opportunity for our kids to interact with one another in a far more realistic environment of what they're going to face when they get out in the world because of not only the racial/ethnic but also the economic diversity that exists there.
What's an issue the city's facing that you think not enough people are talking about or aware of?
I don't think people are talking enough about the real underlying financial challenge that we face. So, in the city of Albany we have two tax rates. We have a homestead rate that residents pay, and non-homestead rate that's levied on businesses. It's just simple math the way that that works. We have a $54 million levy. A certain percentage is levied on residential property, and then another percentage of it is levied on businesses. The denominator for the amount that's levied on businesses is very small, because 80 percent of our commercial property is not taxable. So what that has resulted in, as difficult as it is for homeowners because our property tax rate is about 20 percent higher than Colonie or Bethlehem or Guilderland, that property tax rate for businesses is 57 percent higher than Colonie or Bethlehem or Guilderland.
So when people look at downtown and they look at our neighborhoods and they don't see the types of stores and the types of services that they would expect to see, the underlying issue is that we have a tax problem in the city of Albany. And if we don't address it, it's going to be an impediment to our ability to move our city forward.
So when I go out and talk to neighborhood groups I have a powerpoint presentation that I bring out and I have graphs and I show them how this works people literally gasp. Because they think of Albany as 60 percent of our property is not taxable. Well, that's bad enough. But when you break it down into its components, the real challenge is that portion of our commercial property that's not taxable.
So what that says to me as a business person is: We need to focus on our residential neighborhoods. That's where most of our revenue comes from. So if we can increase that denominator then homeowners are going to be on the right path to having a sustainable tax base. But then on the other side of it, when you look at the business community and what they're expected to, the burden on them, the simple thing would be to say let's have one tax rate -- they want us to have one tax rate. Great, a homeowner's tax bill sky rockets and a business's tax bill goes down 15-20 percent. We can't do that overnight.
And so that's where the challenge is, where the conversation with the state needs to occur. To say here is how your decisions around how you utilize state property directly impacts our ability to spur growth and economic development in our business community. So, those tax-free zones, the decision around converting a building on the Harriman campus to yet another state office, it frames that conversation in a way that we can look at the direct impact and start to talk about the what-ifs with the state. So, what if you took 15 acres of the Harriman campus and came up with a plan for privatizing that and putting that back on the tax rolls, here's what the impact would be. And here's how we would then use it to accomplish what we need to accomplish, which is to get ourselves out of this tax problem that we have.
What's an experience or idea or person -- or even a book or movie or something similar -- that's significantly shaped the way you look at the world?
I read a book by Paul Tough called Whatever It Takes. And it's a book about the Harlem Children's Zone model that Geoffrey Canada has spearheaded in Harlem. With the whole idea that you start small, you start with a block, and then you grow. And it's whatever it takes in order to make sure that every single child from cradle to career succeeds. And it sounds so simple but when you look at the systems that all need to align in order to make that happen, it really captured my imagination. Because the city of Albany is small enough that I do believe that if we take a systems-based approach where we work collectively together to create that pipeline. And the pipeline is not just educational stuff, it's what supports does a kid need, what's preventing a kid from getting to school. Is it a health issue, is it a family issue, is it a clothing issue? What is it that's preventing that kid from getting to school? And then what services do we need to put in place to make sure that that impediment to success in school is moved out of the way.
So that book really captured my imagination about how to approach what's happening in Albany in a way that I believe will result in real outcomes. Because we all like to feel good. And there are a lot of programs out there that make people feel good. You know, when you show up with sandwiches at a park on a Wednesday afternoon in the summertime and you see literally dozes, if not a hundred, kids lining up and you know that you're providing them with food, that's a great feeling. But from systems approach, my question is: Why don't they have food? So how do we start to really have an impact collectively so that all our kids have what they need in order to succeed in school.
What does the Albany of four years from now look like to you?
I think the Albany of fours years from now is a place where our residents have easy access to information. Where the business community has a clear idea of what's expected from before even when the ink dries on their business plan of what's going to be expected of them in the city in order to succeed, so that it's a very streamlined process. It will be a city where we will have seen significant development of residential downtown and through land banking and incentives that I've been able to put in place that we will see entire blocks of neighborhoods that have been transformed. So that we've got real movement around the troubled properties, the troubled areas of the city being now on a path where you're seeing windows go in where there are boards now and people living and working in neighborhoods where we right now have a lot of decay and disinvestment.
This interview was conducted in person. It's been lightly edited and condensed.
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