Saugerties was founded as a mill and mining town. IBM provided thousands of jobs for the post-war middle class. For a long time, the economy didn’t need any help from local government. But that’s no longer the case: watching last week’s Republican Meet the Candidates night, one could be forgiven for mistaking the panel for a right-leaning economic development think tank. Again and again, candidates returned to the same theme: Saugerties needs to attract new business to broaden the tax base and create jobs so the next generation can make a life here. That means wooing prospective businesses through networking, marketing, tax breaks, designating someone to shepherd businesses through the review process, scaling back regulations — whatever it takes to convince a business to set up shop on Kings Highway or Malden Turnpike instead of someplace else offering a better deal. (Indeed, candidates and party members often look to low-tax, low-regulation southern states as role models, citing former Saugertiesians who abandoned their hometowns in high-tax New York for tax-lax Dixie.)
The party is united in its ideals but unlike the Democrats, it hasn’t lined up behind presumed general election candidates; the GOP Caucus on June 19 will feature many comers for town office — including several bold challenges to incumbent Republicans. That could signify (a.) a divided constituency, which could result in third-party candidacies and lack of enthusiasm for the eventual Republican nominee; (b.) all the energy is on the Republican side and whoever gets the nomination will ride that wave to victory; or (c.) just a bunch of Republicans giving it a go in June, with the result having no bearing on the fall elections. In any case, this year’s campaigns are already shaping up to be more interesting than 2011.
The supervisor: who can win?
Highway superintendent is a non-political job usually sought by experienced contractors who have observed public works in action for decades and think they can run it better. Town Board members stay informed about the government between meetings and work closely with their liaison department but their main function is to deliberate and vote at the biweekly meeting.
Town supervisor is the big cheese.
The supervisor, more than anyone, sets the tone for the town’s municipal administration and the way the board goes about its business. On the Democratic side, former six-term Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel has been the nominee-in-waiting since January. Now a member of the Independence Party, he’ll draw on a wide base for support. So perhaps the most important quality in a Republican nominee for the office is the ability to beat him.
Kelly Myers understands that, and said as much during her statement at the candidates night: she unseated Helsmoortel, then a 12-year incumbent, on her first try. Her message is that now, after a year and a half of accomplishments, she’s an even better candidate. She cites: rescinding the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with Dickinson’s Keep, a controversial proposed affordable housing project in Glasco that was never built; improving oversight of town finances (bill-paying); making sure all town contracts go out to bid; and two tough laws banning synthetic drugs.
Dickinson’s Keep was arguably the decisive issue in the 2011 campaign: Helsmoortel’s explicit support for the project (he pointed to studies showing the town needed housing for lower income people) proved to be unpopular with many residents, particularly in Glasco. The woman at the center of that fight was Gaetana Ciarlante, and she’s challenging Myers for the nomination. When asked why she would be the strongest nominee, she said that although Myers received the credit, it was Ciarlante who led the movement at the heart of the anti-Helsmoortel coalition, so she was really more responsible for his defeat than Myers.
Candidate Jim Uhl has been a familiar face at board meetings for some time. He said he was asked by numerous Saugerties businesspeople to run. His issue: restrictive legislation being passed by a board that’s unaware of its implications. He mentioned a recent water resources protection law that was presented then tabled after critics pointed out that offset requirements would make it hard to build anything new in town. Uhl said the June 5 village and town hearing on the Comprehensive Plan didn’t include the most recent draft of the document, so if the board took any action it would have been invalid. He also said the plan includes limits on slope construction that would dramatically limit the options of property owners.
The issue seems to be more a matter of municipal literacy than governing philosophy.
“It seems like we have to go before the board and show them what’s going on,” he said.
Uhl mentioned last-minute additions to the board’s agenda, which prevent residents from knowing ahead of time what will be discussed. (Myers has said items are often not ready until Wednesday afternoon.) Uhl also talked about the budget process last year. The board passed a budget with a small tax increase following an uneventful public hearing, then weeks later passed a new budget that included social services charges, which pushed the increase well over the state’s two percent tax cap – but it never held a public hearing on the new budget.
“I don’t see the transparency that’s been promised to us,” he said.
Uhl believes high taxes aren’t the main issue inhibiting economic growth.
“It isn’t so much taxes that drive businesses out,” he said. “It’s the cost of doing business.” He said if a town government seems disorganized, passing several budgets during one season, and releasing legislation without understanding its impact on business, that perception prevents businesses from locating here.
He said the town needs to be run more smoothly and work on something proactive — like investing in natural gas service on the west side of Kings Highway and developing the Malden Turnpike corridor.