Before a crowd heavy on small business owners, mayoral hopefuls Ron Polacco and Steve Noble addressed economic issues at a forum sponsored by the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning, including the city’s dual commercial/residential tax system and strategies to retain and attract business.
Noble, who’s coming off a bruising primary campaign that unseated incumbent Mayor Shayne Gallo, offered a few detailed policy points at the League of Women Voters-moderated event, while Polacco painted his vision in broad strokes, pledging a more business-friendly environment at City Hall and lower taxes.
Both candidates answered written questions submitted by the audience. It’s the first time the two appeared together on the debate stage ahead of the Nov. 3 general election; they’re set to meet again Thursday evening at Congregation Emanuel. Noble is running on the Democratic and Green party lines; Polacco holds the Republican, Independence and Conservative lines.
Kingston’s business owners have long complained about the city’s dual tax-rate system. Established three decades ago, the system establishes different rates for commercial and residential parcels. In the three decades since the homestead/non-homestead scheme was established, the commercial tax rate has grown to nearly twice the residential. In the past few years, a greater share of the tax levy has been shifted from commercial to residential taxpayers in an effort to even out the imbalance.
Noble said that he would continue that gradual approach by establishing a 10-year plan to even out the imbalance. Polacco, meanwhile, endorsed a plan floated by Gallo to essentially ask the state to temporarily subsidize a portion of the city’s tax levy so rates could be evened out sooner.
“Albany is there, the state is there,” said Polacco in response to Noble’s statement that tax relief from Albany was unlikely. “We just need to work with them.”
Returning to a theme from his primary campaign, Noble called for the establishment of clear goals and measurable objectives to demonstrate how the city was aiding economic development. Currently, Noble said, it was too easy for local government to simply take credit whenever a business decides to come to Kingston or expand. Economic development metrics, he added, would also give residents more confidence in how their tax dollars were spent.
“You wouldn’t feel so bad paying those taxes if you knew your tax money was actually going to help build business here in Kingston,” said Noble. “But you have no way of knowing that because we have no way of tracking what we’re doing to help.”
Polacco said that he would create an advisory council of local business leaders to consult on economic development. Polacco also tied in economic development with quality of life concerns, saying that he wanted to focus on clean streets and “giving police the tools they need” to fight crime and make the city a more attractive place to do business.
Taxes too high
But the core of Polacco’s message, one he returned to several times during the debate was taxes. Polacco — who consistently cast a minority vote against city budgets during two terms as Ward 6 alderman — said he would end reliance on tax hikes to fund government.
“We need outside-the-box thinking because for 20 years the plan has been to raise taxes,” said Polacco. “That’s the plan.”
The candidates also weighed in on the “Building a Better Broadway” proposal. The plan would use $4.5 million in state funds to revamp traffic signals, plant trees and build new sidewalks. But a part of the proposal that calls for the elimination of driving lanes and about 40 parking spaces to make way for bike lanes has drawn complaints from some business owners. Polacco said that he would oppose any plan that presented a burden to Broadway businesses and questioned the necessity of the bike lanes.
“With all of the infrastructure problems we have going on in the city,” said Polacco. “My administration will focus on grants for that, not bike lanes, regardless of location.”
Noble, meanwhile, expressed support for the reworked traffic patterns, saying new traffic signals and introduction of turn-only lanes would ease congestion on the corridor. Noble faulted City Hall for not reaching out to business owners earlier and noted that there had been changes in the bike-lane proposal to avoid the most congested area of Broadway — around Kingston High School. Noble said he would hold off on running bike lanes past the high school until there was a more comprehensive solution to the neighborhood’s parking issues.
“Clearly there needed to be more outreach to business owners,” said Noble. “There needed to be more leadership from City Hall in terms of how to work together to create an environment that’s more pedestrian-friendly but also is going to allow their businesses to thrive.”
Water referendum backed
Both candidates said that they support a referendum on the November ballot that would change the city charter to give the Common Council final approval on the sale of city water outside of city limits. The initiative was proposed after Niagara Bottling proposed building a production facility in the Town of Ulster that would have used up to 1.75 million gallons of city water per day. Currently the charter gives the quasi-independent Kingston Board of Water Commissioners the exclusive right to approve contracts for the sale of city water.
“The water supply belongs to us, not Woodstock, not the Town of Ulster,” said Polacco. “We want to make sure that we have control over how it’s used.”
Noble echoed Polacco’s support for the charter change. He also called for a closer working relationship between the mayor and the water department and the appointment of well-qualified people with experience in business and water issues to the water board.
Answering a question about experience and qualification for office, Polacco mentioned his degree in business administration and his two terms on the Common Council. Public office, Polacco said, had left him frustrated at the over-reliance on taxes and unwillingness to work creatively.
“There was no outside-the-box thought process on reining in spending,” said Polacco.
Noble, who has worked for the city’s Parks & Recreation Department for the past 10 years, cited “on-the-job training.” Noble said his position has given him a working knowledge of the city’s finances and governance structure. Noble also praised aspects of Gallo’s revitalization efforts and said that he was already familiar with many of the players and programs.
“I know the budget, I know the department heads,” said Noble. “I know where our strengths and weaknesses are.”