As he enters the second year of his current administration as Gardiner town supervisor, Carl Zatz seems to be hitting his stride. If recent Town Board meetings are any indication, this seasoned administrator — who earned a reputation during his previous terms of being occasionally less than diplomatic — has made some sort of vow to himself not to let people push his buttons, and is struggling manfully (if not entirely succeeding under every variety of provocation) to stick to that promise. A conversation with Zatz about the future of Gardiner is always an upbeat one, with emphasis on why it’s such a wonderful place to live and will undoubtedly continue to be so, even during challenging economic times.
“I came out of 2012 with an increased appreciation for how great a town this is,” he avers. “We have energetic volunteers. We have lively Town Board debates — it’s an institution performing at its best. We have a thriving library.” Citing such successful ongoing public events as Gardiner Day and the Cupcake Festival, he says, “We have a community that really appreciates activities and things that bring a community together.”
So what can Gardinerites look forward to in the New Year, besides more of the same? Zatz sees concrete in his crystal ball, for one thing. “We anticipate sidewalks through the business district during 2013… The sidewalk project has two components: one primarily funded by the federal government, one funded by New York State. The town just received authorization to go to bid on both projects simultaneously.”
Originally, the construction of the two phases of the project had been expected to proceed separately, the first — an 800-foot-long stretch of new sidewalk extending from the Gardiner Reformed Church to the Gardiner Library — scheduled for completion last summer. The other phase, extending along Route 44/55 from the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail crossing to Town Hall, was still awaiting final approval at that point, which meant that Gardinerites would have been inconvenienced twice by road closures through the middle of the hamlet. Now, however, both phases can be pursued at once, and Zatz estimates a 120-day maximum time window from start to finish.
The reason for the delay, Zatz explains, was that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), one of the funding agencies, “wasn’t satisfied with the bidding process — probably the wording of the bid notice — and rejected all bidders. This project gets the same scrutiny that the Tappan Zee Bridge gets…. Remember, there are two agencies involved: the FHA and the DOT [New York State Department of Transportation], each trying to comply with its own standards. There are a lot of bureaucratic eyes on this project.”
The challenge now is to time the issuance of the request for bids within a time window that will enable groundbreaking in April, early in the building season. Barring further unforeseen hitches, Zatz predicts, “If all goes well, it could be done by June.” Best of all, the fully funded project should give a shot in the arm to downtown businesses at no cost to Gardiner taxpayers.
But what Carl Zatz would really rather talk about is all the work that’s being done at Town Hall to bring communications between municipal government and its constituents — not to mention among different agencies of that government — into the 21st century. “I like communication,” says the supervisor, who has a deep professional background in electronic media. “There’s been a very positive response to the increase in communication channels that originate from the town: using Facebook and Twitter, an up-to-date website, ongoing, relevant and predictable communication via e-mail newsletters.”
His desire to upgrade the Town of Gardiner website, employ social media and institute a modern alert system took on added momentum in response to the destructive weather events of 2011, and the 2012 hurricane season found the town much better-equipped to keep its residents informed. “A great example of how it worked is all the information surrounding Sandy: road and school closures, weather updates. We did receive quite a few thank-yous, especially from people who were out of town when it happened.”
“What I plan for 2013 is enabling subscriptions to text and voicemail alerts, as well as to create response mapping for Gardiner that will allow us to provide emergency services much more quickly, such as evacuation and flood mitigation,” he explains. In Zatz’s vision, a system of zones would be created to facilitate communication based on the type of emergency that is anticipated, such as floodplains, mountain zones that are vulnerable to brush fires and forested areas susceptible to downed trees and power outages in an ice or windstorm.
The supervisor noted that a more coordinated disaster response can also be expected in future emergencies thanks to post-Irene discussions among local and county agencies. “During Hurricane Sandy, three people in Gardiner met to plan before it hit: emergency management coordinator Brian Stiscia, code enforcement officer Hank Vance and me,” he recalls.
Other current initiatives to enhance communication within town government include a return to regular meetings among the chairs of the town, planning and zoning boards; reconvening the Zoning Advisory Commission to streamline vague or contradictory language in the town’s 2008 zoning law; and plans to publish a guidebook to the building permit approval process for novice property-owners.
A challenge to any town supervisor in these times is making sure that strapped taxpayers know that they are getting their money’s worth. “My goal is to balance fiscal responsibility with our responsibility to provide essential services and the quality of life that citizens of Gardiner have come to expect,” says Zatz. “Coming out of the last budget season, the town is committed to organize its budget in a way to prepare for larger-ticket items in the future: updating our accounting systems with new software, addressing increased health expenses, water, sewer, highway and other essential services.”
Equipping the Town of Gardiner Highway Department is one area where, in Zatz’s view, “The desire to be fiscally conservative precluded some prudent decisions” in the past. “I believe that the Highway Department is as essential to the Town of Gardiner as the Fire Department. It’s incumbent upon the Town Board to ensure that our highway equipment is top-of-the-line, meets the highest safety standards and has the ability to respond to our highway maintenance needs. The department has a great team of employees; the Town Board just has to provide them with the tools to excel.”
The supervisor and the Town Board have already taken decisive steps to make that vision of well-maintained Gardiner roads a reality. Five pieces of heavy equipment no longer in use by the Highway Department were recently sold, and a multi-year bond initiative is just getting underway to replace them with three new trucks and associated equipment such as new snowplows. By staggering the purchases of the new equipment, Zatz and the Town Board managed to keep the tax increase for 2013 down to 5.5 percent in spite of significant new expenditures. In the supervisor’s view, such long-term, big-ticket infrastructure investments are essential to keeping Gardiner a great, safe place to live for the foreseeable future.