A divided town board
For most of the first decade of the new millennium, the town board was a quiet place. The knock-down, drag-out fights of the past were replaced with officious administration. Unanimous votes were so common that the Republican chairman eventually began keeping a tally of consecutive 5-0 votes than ran into the hundreds. That all changed this year, when supervisor Greg Helsmoortel departed and was replaced by Kelly Myers, a Republican who had previously served on the village board. Myers got off to a rocky start when, during post-election budget discussions 2011, she suggested the supervisor should receive a $15,000 raise. When her term began, she frequently found herself on the opposite side of issues from councilmen Bruce Leighton and Fred Costello. Divided votes became commonplace. She was criticized for holding lengthy executive sessions after campaigning for transparency. Myers has been more hands-on with certain aspects of the job, like payroll, which led to the criticism that she was incurring late fees by spending too much time reviewing paperwork. She stood alone in opposition to a deal with developer Steve Aaron on back taxes, arguing that the town could get more if it went to court, with rest of the town board urging her to sign the agreement. Most recently, some on the board say it’s the supervisor’s fault the town didn’t include social services charges in the town budget.
Supporters point to the supervisor’s continued fight against tax breaks for developers as a case of promises kept: they correctly point out that local officials tend to assume any large project is entitled to pay a fraction of the taxes everyone else pays, and are willing to take settlements for much less than face value to stay out of court. They also say the fact that the long-time Helsmoortel supporters on the board are at odds with Myers is to be expected. She can’t be expected to administer things as smoothly as her predecessor, they say. Saugerties Times had hoped to include a lengthy interview in this issue with the supervisor reflecting on the highs and lows of her first year in office, but she wasn’t available.
Myers will have most of 2013 to make the case for reelection. The Conservative Party nomination will be crucial: Myers beat out Helsmoortel for it in 2011, and if Helsmoortel had got it that year and received the same number of votes on that line Myers did, he would have been reelected. In the closing months of 2011, current School Board President and former Conservative Party Chairman George Heidcamp began publicly attacking Myers for her handling of the budget process, which resulted in a tax cap busting 6 percent tax increase. If Heidcamp still holds sway in that party, and the opposition nominates someone the caucus can stomach, Myers could be in trouble. (If George were here, he’d be sure to point out that his letters about the supervisor were written as a private citizen not as the board president. We think it’s implied that a public official can express opinions—particularly about issues with no connection to their office—that won’t be taken as official policy statements. We inform readers of the officeholder’s title only as a frame of reference.)
Hinchey’s retirement, Gibson’s election
The year began with the announcement that favorite son Maurice Hinchey, our representative in Congress for the last 20 years and in the state Assembly for 18 years before that, would not seek reelection. That fact colored all his public appearances over the year, with many goodbyes. Many longtime supporters doubted Mo’s successor could possibly combine his strident environmental advocacy, anti-war stance, pugnacious style and earmark efficacy. If told then, in January, that 11 months later we’d decisively elect a Republican who signed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge, they wouldn’t have believed it. But thanks to redistricting and effective moderate positioning (as well as a limp and petulant campaign by Democrat Julian Schreibman), Republican Chris Gibson became our new representative, our vote in the interminable negotiations of taxes, spending and debt. After voting for the first Paul Ryan budget and its huge cuts to domestic spending, Gibson was one of few Republicans to vote against it the following year; he said because it contained too much defense spending, more cynical observers said because he was positioning himself to run in a more Democratic district the following year. After the election, Gibson said because he’d be representing a new district, his “no new taxes” pledge was void. Regardless of whether the argument will hold up in Grover Norquist’s court, it indicates Gibson wants to compromise; he’s not an ideologue. That’s been comforting for local moderates, but cold comfort for local progressives who, in Hinchey’s attacks on fracking and foreign wars and vigorous defense of entitlement spending, had someone they could really cheer for.
The issue that arguably decided the supervisor election in 2011 continued to draw the most forceful and motivated opposition in 2012. Affordable housing, in the form of subsidized apartments of around 50 units, has been proposed in three locations in Saugerties in recent years. Just a few weeks ago, a 55-unit project that combines workforce and senior housing was approved. Other projects in Glasco and Barclay Heights have languished; though opposition has been strident, the reason seems to be a lack of state funding, not protest.
It’s not clear how many Saugertiesians oppose affordable housing. When it’s proposed for their neighborhood, dozens of homeowners usually come out in force to oppose it. Savvy opponents try to find problems in the site plan or raise safety concerns, such as fire truck access. You can’t oppose a project because it will change the makeup of a neighborhood from placid single-family homes to a more transient housing complex with more noise and inevitably more visits from police, or because it will cost the community in services (chiefly school costs) while receiving tax breaks (which most any large project gets nowadays).
In 2011, the most effective argument against a project in Glasco supported by then-supervisor Greg Helsmoortel was also the most spurious. Residents of not just the neighborhood around the proposed site on Route 32 but the entire town were outraged when the assistant superintendent estimated the project would cost the town over half a million dollars. He got the number by multiplying the estimated number of school-age children by the per-pupil cost (around $13,000). The superintendent quickly moved to correct the record, explaining that not every new student costs $13,000 – actually, it’s likely the students would be spread equally over the grade levels, and no new staff would be required, and costs would be negligible. But it was too late; that number appeared repeatedly in attacks on Helsmoortel and the project for months afterward.
The guaranteed tax breaks for large new projects, even as the taxes for established businesses and residents increase every year, was the main source of opposition in 2012. Commercial or industrial projects don’t face the same issue because they promise to employ local residents. Residential projects, on paper, take more than they give back when they receive generous tax breaks.
But regardless of the opposition, project approval is a technical, not a political matter. The Planning Board is charged with reviewing project applications and testing them against the zoning code. If the building has the right kind of use for the zone it’s proposed for (industrial, various types of residential), it orders studies on the impact the project will have on the environment, traffic patterns and water runoff, ensures the design will match surrounding buildings, makes sure the sign isn’t gaudy and the building is a certain distance from the road, and might ask for trees to screen it. But the applicant for a large project is always very professional, and takes care of these issues without being told. So if the community decides it wants to stop large residential apartment complexes, it will have to change its zoning law—and that was the discussion in the waning months of 2012, as a committee tasked with rewriting the town’s master plan (which informs the zoning laws) held a public hearing. Most who spoke pointed to growth in rentals in the village: they now account for 56 percent of all occupied housing there, up from 52 percent 10 years ago. That’s too much, they say; the heart and soul of their vision of Saugerties matches the American Dream of homeownership, which carries with it attendant virtues of pride in appearance and civic engagement
After a busy year of construction, and over four years after the community first learned of HITS president Tom Struzzieri’s plans, Diamond Mills officially opened in the center of the village in January 2012. The hotel, restaurant and convention center seemed to represent the positive effect HITS has had on the local economy: like the horse shows, most of its patrons hail from a well-heeled international subculture with no intrinsic connection to Saugerties or the Hudson Valley; and just as the HITS crowd helped the downtown recover by patronizing local boutiques, antique shops and restaurants, Diamond Mills, with its location right next to the shops, inaugurated a year of unprecedented activity in the village. It’s impossible to know just how much credit the horse shows and Diamond Mills deserve for revitalizing the village. But one thing is clear: the Partition Street of 2012 was a far more vibrant place than the Partition Street of the late ’90s, when the loss of IBM led to vacant storefronts. While other places in Northern Ulster County are still suffering the effects of IBM’s departure, Saugerties has largely recovered. The influx of money hasn’t changed the local character so much as its allowed local businesses to be solvent, and that’s the reason Saugerties is doing so well: it’s unique and alive.
Town Hall naming controversy
The Saugerties Town Hall is now officially the Col. Roger Donlon Town Hall – and after the controversy of the past few months, no one will ever forget it. The final decision to name the hall after Donlon, a Saugerties native and Medal of Honor winner, came after months of controversy following an earlier vote by the Town Board to name the building in honor of Greg Helsmoortel, Saugerties town supervisor from 1999-2011. Reached for comment, Donlon said he’d already been honored enough (his name graces the auditorium in the village hall and a park at the American Legion), but supporters pointed to a forgotten 2001 vote to name the town hall on High Street after Donlon. Politics was a factor, too. Helsmoortel had just stood for reelection a few months earlier and lost, and those opposed to his positions also led the fight against the naming. (Though the board’s April vote was unanimous.)
Supporters said Helsmoortel was integral to the town hall effort, which consolidated several offices under one roof, and deserved to have the building bear his name.
“It took someone with the strength of character to stand up and serve this community, to locate the town hall there and to make the tough decision,” said Councilman Fred Costello at the time.
In the end, the building was named for Donlon, and Helsmoortel’s name was given to the new wing, which includes the police and planning departments.