Endorsed in the current election cycle by the Democratic and Working Families Parties, Tracey Bartels served two terms in the Ulster County Legislature, from 2004 to 2007. At that point, “I opted not to run again because I was pursuing a career in film that required a lot of traveling,” says Bartels. “The Legislature is as much as you give to it. I couldn’t do it halfway.”
Several things have changed since then. Bartels, who grew up in New Jersey and moved to Gardiner after completing her degree in Filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has become the mother of ten-month-old Polly, so can’t travel like she used to. Her current film-in-progress takes place in the US and “can be done much closer to home,” she says; international projects have been placed on hold for the present.
Another critical change is one that took place in the County Legislature itself. In her past terms, says Bartels, the legislators were “inundated by every detail of running every department, the businesses-within-businesses of county government.” But now, “With the executive branch being taken over by an actual County executive, there’s an opportunity to focus on legislation,” so she finds herself itching to jump back into the political game again.
Bartels’ notable achievements from past terms include her co-sponsorship of legislation that ended closed-door meetings on county property and her chairmanship of the Special Committee to Investigate Matters Regarding the Pre-Planning, Planning & Construction of the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center (UCLEC), a bipartisan committee tasked with investigating the scandalous cost overruns that plagued the construction of the new County Jail. “I’m really proud of the work that we did,” says Bartels. “As a result of that report, a grand jury was convened, and we made recommendations to prevent it from happening again. But since that time [February 2007], none has been formally adopted. You can’t rely on the continuity of an executive to adopt ideas internally; they have to be formally adopted by the Legislature.”
The District 16 challenger believes that the mistakes made in the County Jail fiasco are a cautionary tale that should be heeded by the present legislature in addressing the Golden Hill quandary, as well as other capital projects that are bound to come up for the next legislature. “The county is in possession of many other buildings in need of maintenance and repair,” she notes. “We had issues with the capacity of county courthouses. It concerns me that there have been no changes to policies in place for capital projects.”
With regard to the nursing facility, “If the county keeps it, Golden Hill is going to need physical work…This [current] legislature is going to have to decide for the next budget. It could decide not to accept the county executive’s plan and just raise taxes. Everybody’s up in arms about the county executive’s proposal, but what does the legislature propose instead? They knew this was coming. It’s a matter of due diligence: You don’t wait for the executive to back you into a corner.”
So far, Bartels does not seem impressed with the incumbent’s response to the issue. “Hayes says that he favors a public/private partnership. That’s nice talk, but what is your plan? What is the ‘public’ part of that partnership, and how are you going make it happen? He needs to speak in tangible language, with numbers attached.”
What would Bartels do if she were an incumbent dealing with the issue now? “I don’t have a hard-and-fast position. At first glance, the executive’s plan makes sense to me. The goal is not to lose the beds within the county. Everything has to be on the table. But I don’t know if I could turn to the voters and say, ‘Everyone’s going to have to pay double-digit tax increases.’”
Based on her record, Bartels certainly does not fit the stereotype of the “tax-and-spend Democrat.” “My general feeling always was that tax increases are off the table, and I still feel that way,” she says. “The responsibility is on the legislature to find places to cut. I suggested millions of dollars in real cuts every year. In fact, in 2005 I suggested more cuts than all the Republican county legislators combined.”
“Have you ever actually read a county budget?” she asks. “It’s a massive, daunting document. But you don’t have to have majored in accounting to look critically and start asking questions. You have to be willing to look at every line and ask, ‘Where can we find savings?’ That’s something I’m not afraid to do, and my record shows that.”
Although she admits that “It’s a trying financial time” for Ulster County residents, in which “The tax cap, mandated costs plus the economy adds up to a ‘perfect storm,’” Bartels thinks that the search for potential budget cuts doesn’t have to be a totally painful process. “Sometimes cuts are actually opportunities for improvements,” she says, citing the recent example of consolidation of redundant Department of Public Works jurisdictions. “People are afraid of change. But we can find ways of saving money that are win/win.”
One area where Bartels feels that the County Legislature missed a prime opportunity to reduce spending was by not implementing the alternative energy generation and conservation projects that were proposed by the Environmental Committee on which she served. But that committee was abolished after her most recent term, its responsibilities parceled out among other committees of the legislature and its recommendations dropped, including a Request for Proposals that Bartels had prepared to create incentives for solar projects in the county. “The numbers we ran in terms of savings were pre- the large jump in oil prices,” she notes. “Those projects would have been mostly paid for by now.”
If she is returned to the legislature, Bartels would like to see more emphasis on green energy projects, and her dream job would be to chair a reconstituted freestanding Environmental Committee. “We should be thinking about using hybrids and alternative fuels for county vehicles,” she says. “Those are total win/wins.” By contrast, she says, since she left office the county has accepted several military-surplus armored Humvees, as well as a van equipped for disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs), that were offered by the federal government, simply because they were free. “I can only imagine how many miles per gallon they get. You have to look at the impact all the way from the top down. That’s something that I would be mindful of.”
Bartels feels that a stand-alone Environmental Committee that “gets its due respect” is a key component of an approach to economic development that will mean better times for the county, where “people with postgraduate degrees are applying for $9-an-hour jobs.” “The primary issue is containing costs by looking for consolidations, efficiencies, cost savings, how we administer mandated services. The other arm is attracting new businesses, which increases the tax base and brings jobs that are desperately needed. We have to ask, ‘What does it take to position Ulster County as an attractive place for businesses?’ We need to look at how we can improve our infrastructure and how we can keep this a really beautiful place to live. Our outdoors is a tourist attraction. That’s a big incentive for businesses to relocate here.”
Tracey Bartels is hoping that on Election Day, the voters of Gardiner will give her another chance to focus on economic development as their District 16 representative. “I’m really excited about being able to move forward with legislation and create policy,” she says. “That’s what made me want to run again.” ++
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