On Tuesday, Nov. 6, incumbent New York State Assemblyman Peter Lopez, 51, defeated Democratic challenger James Miller, earning a fourth two-year term. He will represent the newly formed 102nd Assembly District, comprised of Greene and Schoharie counties, parts of Otsego, Delaware, Columbia and Albany counties and Saugerties in Ulster County.
In January, 2013, Saugerties will be the site of the first in a series of Town Hall meetings Lopez will hold. “I’m a true believer in grassroots democracy,” he says, “and I do my job more effectively with the input and guidance that comes from the community.”
Lopez spoke about the areas of particular concern to him, which include assisting local storm victims in the immediate future, and strengthening the economy, job growth, family farms, education and alternative energy options in the long run.
What would you like to accomplish in the upcoming term?
We need to be proactive, to try to move issues of importance forward. Retrospectively, for the last year and a half, a lot of my time, understandably, has been focused on flood recovery, and we still have a significant amount of our community still struggling with that, including Saugerties. As a priority, we need to make sure that we give respectful, proper support to our neighbors who were hit, and some hit again, to do the best we can to rebuild homes and businesses.
FEMA is only part of the equation; a lot more goes into it, including insurance issues, stream stabilization issues and infrastructure. As we move forward, we still have a commitment to honor our neighbors, the distressed homeowners and families and businesses who are working to recover from flooding.
Beyond that, education is one of my priorities. We have extreme concerns about funding for our upstate and rural schools, and I’m very concerned about supporting quality affordable education. I have been and plan to continue to push for state support for mandate relief; fair funding for rural and upstate schools.
Do you think the state should do something to help reduce the local share of property taxes that go to schools?
Yes, they need to. And there are a couple of ways that they can do that. One is through direct aid, another is mandate relief. Also, schools want flexibility with finding ways to improve their cost effectiveness, and that might include using alternate energy, or greater freedom to share services and administration between schools and units of local government. There’s a lot that can be done and to the extent that we can loosen the reins, so to speak, that all works in favor of achieving what I call the twin goals of quality, affordable education.
Do you think the two percent tax cap is having a good or a bad effect?
It’s accomplishing its intent, but the job is only half done. About two years ago, we were meeting with the governor in small groups, and I was there with a number of my colleagues. The issue of the tax cap came up, and people said, “Why don’t you do the mandate relief first, because the two are often equated together, and they need to be.” The governor’s answer was, “Honestly? No one will come to the table [if we do].” The feeling was that if we talk about doing mandate relief [defraying costs the state dictates to the town, like pension contributions], and people aren’t feeling the reality of the recession and economic scarcity, they won’t want to talk about changing the way they do business.
The acknowledgement is that much of the services provided to our community rely on property taxes, and this state is infamous for having property taxes higher than many other states in the nation. The governor’s point was that we need to find a way to get it under control. So now the cap has been put in place, and many municipalities and schools are staying within the cap, but schools are burning through their reserves, and I don’t think they can continue this much longer before they have to go through another round of Draconian cutbacks, layoffs and loss of service.
So a couple of things have to happen: one, the state has to help counties and schools with mandate relief, because those mandates are driving the cost of local government and education. Two, we can help promote growth, because that also will have a positive effect on local tax bases, where we can encourage investments and new ratables that will help on the cap side. The job is only partway done with the cap.