It could have been a town hall meeting just about any place in the region, or upstate, for that matter — leaders of a political party grilling candidates on their views and records. This event took place this week in the new senior center next door to Ulster’s town hall in Lake Katrine, hosted by the small-but-influential town Conservative Party.
Most of the cards that town governments everywhere in New York State are being dealt were on the table: what to do about rising costs and stagnant revenues, crumbling infrastructure, attracting new businesses and residents, public safety, ethics in government, jobs.
There were lots of questions, but not many answers.
The town hall where the meeting took place was built on the cheap in 1976 on a flood plain hard by the Esopus Creek. The town has thrown good money after bad on a building that probably should have been blown up 10 years ago. “The roof started leaking the year we moved in,” former councilman Bob Crane said.
Worse, the basement, which should have built at least two feet higher according to architects, has flooded repeatedly, even when the DEP isn’t releasing torrents of water from the Ashokan Reservoir. The creek flooded out the police department, which has been operating out of nearby $3,000-per-month rented trailers for the past three years.
Crane headed a town hall study committee which surveyed numerous nearby vacant buildings — two-thirds of the old IBM complex is still empty after 20 years — before concluding that the best place to build a new town hall was about 100 feet upland on town property from the present edifice. Crane estimates an 11,000-square-foot building (two floors, with the cops on the first floor) would cost about $10 million or about $60 a year per household over a 20-year bond issue.
“The fire department [Ulster Hose No. 5] is spending almost $3.6 million on an addition and a new truck for almost a million and we’re not spending a dime on town hall,” Crane pointed out.
Let the people turn it down
Town Supervisor Jim Quigley III, after some prodding, called replacing the town hall his top priority, but remained ever the realist. “Let the people decide,” he said. “Put it on the ballot with a $10 million price tag. It will never pass.”
And so they’re back to square one.
Don Wise, a recent convert to the Conservative Party who didn’t have much luck as a Republican, is now town chairman of his party. He sees potential in the Conservative cause.
“As best as I can gather from board of election records and calling people, there are about 160 Conservatives in the town,” the chairman said. “There’s a lot of conservatives among the Republican majority. Our job is to get those folks to join us.”
Wise ran for Assembly on the Republican ticket fresh out of college 30 years ago and has been active politically for most of his life.
The meet-the-candidate session featured candidates for town supervisor, town council, highway superintendent, town clerk and town justice. The two-hour format allowed candidates to present themselves individually and then field questions from a panel of six Conservatives. In a notable departure which I hope catches on, they allowed members of the media (me) to participate. Wise, who seemed well-informed on a host of town issues, asked most of the questions.
It appears that the Town of Ulster, which had its heyday back when IBM was booming and giant box stores were erupting from the ground along Route 9W, is now in serious trouble. Its major property owners have been successfully challenging assessments to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. It faces daunting challenges in infrastructure repair.
Quigley puts the repair tab at about $20 million. The town government’s annual budget is $17 million, including highway and special districts. The town will save some $630,000 over a 20-year period by consolidating $4.5 million of high-interest debt, thanks to a Quigley initiative. But $630,000 barely covers half the total salary and benefits of a single career police officer.
Ulster’s budget-making, like all towns and school districts, is an annual exercise in frustration, juggling rising healthcare and pension costs against a state-mandated tax cap which next year will restrict property-tax increases to less than 1 percent. Municipal cost-sharing on things like equipment may help, but is really only a Band-Aid.
The immediate future does not look promising.
Pensions and checks
“What I hear going door to door from [elderly] people is ‘who’s going to buy my house when it’s time to move?'” Quigley said. “Retail is important, but there are no good jobs for the young people. How can they buy these houses? We’re a community sustained by IBM pensions and Social Security checks.”
Town councilmen Eric Kitchen and Joel Brink, seeking new terms on the Republican line, spoke to the same issues.
As a candidate for a third term, Quigley wasn’t all doom and gloom. He’ll leave that perspective to his challenger, former supervisor Fred Wadnola. Quigley spoke to numerous “small projects that collectively add up to something” during his almost six-year tenure. Left unsaid was that just one tax abatement and tax refunds for a big-box store could wipe out years of hard-fought progress.
The failed Niagara Bottling project on vacant land on the TechCity campus was much the topic of discussion among candidates, all of whom thought the scheme the best thing since plastic water bottles. The property taxes from the $50 million project would have provided significant revenues and probably ameliorated at least a 30 percent increase in Kingston Water Department rates to the town. The city, under a 99-year contract Wadnola signed in 2002, is obligated to buy 700,000 gallons from Kingston (it was 300,000 originally) whether it uses the water or not.
As is often the case, this election is about the incumbent. Wadnola said he stepped up when Quigley declared (three times) that he wasn’t running for a third term. “You want stability on the town board,” Wadnola said. He said town government was a team effort, and that Quigley doesn’t communicate with town board members.
“I take on the tough assignments,” Quigley retorted when it was his turn. “If I didn’t do it, a lot of things wouldn’t get done.”
Quigley is currently trying to pass an ethics law that would apply to town GOP chairman Jim Maloney, the town assessor. It would ban any elected or appointed official from holding party office. Kingston, New Paltz and New York City have similar restrictions. The amendment to the town is scheduled to come before the town board this week. The board could set a public hearing for a formal vote in September.
Leave it to the lawyers
The discussion for town judge took an interesting turn beyond the usual lawyer-versus-layman debate. Marsha Weiss, a lawyer who has held the position for a dozen years, says lawyers are better qualified to serve as judges. She noted that lay judges were required to take 50 hours of legal training (about three weeks of law school) before ascending the bench. Candidates for a state license to manicure nails need 500 hours of training.
Weiss said Ulster’s is the 22nd busiest court in the state. If the metropolitan area and big-city counties are excluded, that probably puts it in the top 10. Questioned by the panel about her availability, she said she has no other commitments other than being a judge.
The contender for her job, court clerk Annie Raskoskie, said that based on her experience and training she could do a better job than the incumbent. With those heads knocking in a confined space, I imagine Ulster Town Court will be a most unpleasant place for the next few weeks until the yet-unannounced Republican caucus chooses candidates early in September.