Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Aug. 18, 2011 edition of the Kingston Times.
On the surface, the campaign for the Common Council’s First Ward seat looks like a classic contest between “old” and “new” Kingston. Republican and Conservative party candidate Al Teetsel, 69, is a lifelong ward resident, stalwart supporter of the local Kiwanis club and veteran of two terms on the council, where he earned a reputation as a no-nonsense lawmaker with a tight focus on the city’s fiscal bottom line.
His Democratic opponent, Matt Dunn, is a 37-year-old attorney who moved to Kingston two years ago and has championed progressive urban policies like the Complete Streets initiative aimed at making the city more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
But beneath the differences both men speak of the need for more careful, deliberative decision making in Kingston’s legislative process. Teetsel, a retired banker, speaks of the need for a “fiscal business plan” for the city and cost-benefit analyses of city services. Dunn, who specializes in wage and benefits litigation, wants to put in place “criteria and standards based on facts” on host of issues to avoid inconsistent, ad hoc decision-making.
“If you have those standards, at least you have something people can agree or disagree with,” said Dunn, who also holds the Independence and Working Families party lines. “Without them, you’re just making decisions blindly.”
Ward 1 occupies an irregularly shaped chunk of the city’s northwest corner bisected by Lucas Turnpike. It is a largely residential area with a mix of single-family homes and apartment complexes. The ward is also home to the Dietz Stadium sports complex and Forsyth Park. Politically, the ward is one of the city’s more Republican-friendly districts. Registered Democrats make up a full third of the ward’s 518 registered voters, but Republicans make up 23 percent of the electorate while the non-affiliated make up the biggest block of all with 36 percent. Despite the lopsided enrollment numbers, a series of Republicans, most recently mayoral candidate Andi Turco-Levin, have held the council seat for the past decade.
Teetsel held the seat from 2006 to 2010 when, following the death of his son, he decided to sit out an election cycle to spend more time with his family. During his tenure, including a two-year stint as minority leader, Teetsel placed a strong emphasis on fiscal issues. He led an effort to get the council more involved in the city’s budget process, sitting in on talks between Mayor James Sottile and department heads as they worked out spending plans. Teetsel was on the council and played an active role in the painful process of developing the city’s 2010 budget, which ended with a 9 percent tax hike despite 14 layoffs in the Department of Public Works and an agreement with the unions representing city police and firefighters to defer raises and other benefits. That process, which also included cuts in police overtime and city recreation programs, led to far leaner city workforce and an improved fiscal position, but left lingering concerns over an erosion in services.
Today, Teetsel said, the city’s finances may have improved a bit from the grim days after the 2008 financial collapse, but he said, to move forward, lawmakers need to “stop putting out fires” and develop a comprehensive financial plan. Teetsel said that the effort should include attaching realistic costs to every city service in order to make decisions about what to keep, what to boost and what to cut.
“Before you can do anything with taxes, you need to develop a financial business plan,” said Teetsel. “We need to know as a community where we are, where we’re heading and how we get to the next plateau.”