Hugh Reynolds: Water, water

Liana Turner at a 2014 Town of Ulster planning board meeting concerning the Niagara proposal. (Photo: Fionn Reilly)

Liana Turner at a 2014 Town of Ulster planning board meeting concerning the Niagara proposal. (Photo: Fionn Reilly)

I expect Kingston voters will overwhelmingly approve a charter change in November that will give their elected officials authority over the sale of water outside city borders.

Why stop there? The city gets its water piped from Cooper Lake in Woodstock via a treatment plant in Zena. As demonstrated by the Niagara Bottling battle last winter, Woodstock has a proprietary interest in how “its” water is dispensed. (Legally, the city owns the water.)


From what I saw at a public hearing at the city hall in February packed for the most part by Woodstockers, always ready for a rally to defend their interests. The Woodstockers were instrumental in mobilizing public opinion against selling 1.75 million gallons of water a day to a $50 million bottling plant to be built in the Town of Ulster.

Niagara got the message. Even with the active support of Kingston’s water board, they pulled out.

The history of autonomous control over the city’s water supply is a long one. Kingston was created by the 1872 merger of the villages of Rondout and Kingston and the hamlet of Wilbur. Rapid development brought a huge demand for potable water. Backyard wells adjacent to outhouses were insufficient. The Kingston Water Company, founded in the early 1890s by a consortium of local moguls, was chartered by the state in 1895, giving it authority to tap Cooper Lake in Woodstock for city water. Kingston was a forerunner to the early-20th-century expansion of the vast New York City water supply system.

A regional water authority?

Key to the process was that city government — then and now a hotbed of political intrigue — was limited to only a minimal role in water policy and operation. The mayor would appoint members the water commissioners and the common council would approve departmental bond issues. And that was it.

Between the lines we read the true propose. Community leaders, wealthy businessmen for the most part, did not want politicians, whom they usually controlled, meddling with a vital necessity such as water. Water boards make long-term investments for generations yet unborn. Politicians are more concerned about the next election.

Other than the Niagara hiccup and the revelation that the 100-year-old water system will need tens of millions in repairs over the next few years on the ratepayers’ dime, the general perception has been that the independent water board did a pretty good job over the last dozen decades. But revelations from the Niagara fallout, which included sharp criticism of city water management, gave pause.

It goes without saying that Woodstock and Ulster won’t get a formal voice in water policy, at least for now. The notion of a regional water authority could take root, however. These days, people are more concerned with protecting their water supplies than selling them for profit, even only, as the water board asserts, to pay for expensive upgrades to a decaying system.

Hailing to the past probably won’t cut the mustard with voters. Things evolve. What seemed reasonable to generations of Kingstonians is now controversial. Today’s residents demand a voice in government. They believe their concerns will be better heard by an elected body than one appointed solely by the mayor.

It’s more democratic, of course, but Kingstonians should carefully consider what they are wishing for.

I wonder just how committed this city government is to this fundamental change in city government. The mayor and council have scheduled the public hearing on the proposed charter change for 10 a.m. Thursday morning. Long experience suggests that when government seeks to avoid public input it schedules hearings or meetings at inconvenient times. Recall the Dutchess County Legislature meeting in regular session for years at 4 p.m.? A 10 a.m. hearing indicates the politicians want to steer clear of this controversy from now until Nov. 3.

Numbers, please

Jeanette Provenzano, candidate for the Democratic nomination for Kingston alderman-at-large on the Gallo-Provenzano ticket against two guys named Noble, announced last week that she secured “almost 700” signatures on her nominating petitions. (The number of “over 600” had been reported earlier.)  She didn’t announce that her opponent, incumbent alderman-at-large Jim Noble, and his nephew, mayoral candidate Steve Noble, had an unofficial 937 names on their petitions. About 250 valid signatures were required.

The Nobles were endorsed at convention in June as the party’s unofficial nominee over Provenzano and running-mate Mayor Shayne Gallo.

In asserting that her more than 20 years in the county legislature as a majority and minority leader will serve the people well, Provenzano is assuming voters care what quasi-anonymous legislators have been doing over the last few decades. It’s a different kind of experience compared to Jim Noble’s 14 years as alderman-at-large and six years as alderman.

Given arcane election laws and corporation counsel/Gallo’s right-hand man and private attorney Andrew Zweben‘ s acknowledged expertise, there may be some way for the mayor to salvage a primary run on the Independence and Conservative party lines. (We expect a ruling by a judge on Gallo’s status on those lines by the middle of this coming week.)

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

If Zweben’s appeal fails, Gallo’s uphill battle just went over the hill. A popular scenario among pundits had Gallo (narrowly) losing the Democratic nomination to Noble, but then soldiering on as the Con-Indy minor party candidate. In a three-way split between Noble and Republican Ron Polacco, assuming Polacco could rise into the low 30-percent range, Gallo could prevail. And now? The days of the last Gallo mayor, assuming Hizzoner’ s 20-something son Evan doesn’t pop up in the next decade, are winding down.

I stand corrected on a recent misstatement that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Town of Ulster by almost two to one. The board of elections shows 2,386 Republicans in the town, 2,156 Democrats, and 2,733 voters attached to no political party. The town board seats three Republican councilpersons and one Democrat, with the Republican supervisor endorsed by both parties. On paper, that should work out to a 3-2 Republican town board. It doesn’t. Despite all their infighting, Republicans are better organized in Ulster town than their Democratic counterparts are.

I read where Ulster County claims it did some $525 million in tourism last year, quite a large number for a county with only about 180,000 people and no major tourism site, like the FDR home and library in Hyde Park. Maybe I missed some of those tour buses.

Democratic County Exec Mike Hein, with over $280,000 in the bank on the heels of this month’s well-attended birthday fundraiser at Wiltwyck Country Club, enjoys a huge advantage over Republican rival Terry Bernardo, who boats $1,200 and change.

The figures are misleading. Hein has been collecting donations for years while Bernardo announced only about six weeks ago. The Bernardos have deep pockets and will spend lavishly, as Len Bernardo did against Hein in 2008. Terry Bernardo will be sufficiently funded, and Hein knows it. Whether the former legislature chairman brings compelling issues to the table and appeals to voters remains to be seen.

The county’s five-member compensation review committee seems in no rush to pass judgment on a request by legislators Ken Ronk and Dave Donaldson to increase legislative salaries to $14,000 from the current $10,000 a year for the body’s rank and file. The advisory committee, appointed by the executive, can also make recommendations on the salaries of executive, comptroller, clerk and sheriff, now frozen at about $102,000 ($133,000 for the exec) since the charter went into effect in 2009. There’s no indication any have asked for a raise, though Hein, after six years, gave his executive team and department heads modest raises in this year’s budget.

The panel, headed by former legislator Glenn Noonan of Gardiner, has until September 30 to make recommendations. It will meet again on Aug. 17.