The town supervisor race includes two of the three candidates who ran in 2013. Greg Helsmoortel, running with the endorsement of the Independence and Democratic parties, regained the position that year after ceding a term to Republican Kelly Myers, due in large part to Gaetana Ciarlante pulling 23 percent of the vote with the Conservative line.
With Ciarlante and Myers splitting the vote on the right, that election was Helsmoortel’s to lose. The same is true this year. Some said he sealed the deal in August when he defeated Ciarlante at the GOP caucus, giving him both major party lines.
Ciarlante realizes the odds are long. “I made a commitment to run on the Conservative line and I’m doing that,” she said. “I just think people deserve a choice. There would be no choice if I didn’t run.”
Her campaign echoes the one she ran in 2013, and the lines of attack are similar to those mounted by both herself and Myers— that is, that Helsmoortel does not run a tight ship, especially regarding finances, and the board seems to be of one mind about every issue and does not debate issues or give proper notice of the issues it will be discussing at meetings.
Helsmoortel, who, aside from 2012-13, has occupied the supervisor’s desk since 2000, has also struck similar chords with this campaign as he did in previous years. His top priority continues to be economic development, although he says crafting the budget has become a coequal priority because state mandates and the tax cap make that process more difficult. Regarding economic development, his main goal continues to be finding more businesses willing to relocate to the town’s designated industrial corridor on Kings Highway and the Winston Farm property, site of Woodstock ’94. He spent his first few terms seeking the grant money to fund the extension of water and sewer for 3.4 miles along Kings Highway south of Rt. 212, and believes the economy has improved to a point in which that investment will pay off with new tax-paying, job-creating tenants. (So far, new development has included the Army Reserve Center, which relocated from Kingston and is, of course, tax-exempt; a storage facility for Craig Thomas Pest Control; and a testing site for Kapsch, a manufacturer of E-ZPass equipment.)
He cites the Town Board’s relationship as his greatest accomplishment.
“The ability to have the whole Town Board work together in a cohesive atmosphere… no matter the party, no matter the political persuasions, especially the last six to eight years, I think the Town Board is working together for the betterment of Saugerties and not political agendas.”
Ciarlante sees things differently. She doesn’t like that the board seems to be so often in agreement. For example, she continues to criticize the board for adding agenda items just before and even during meetings. She particularly objects to non-emergency items, such as hiring, being added in this way.
“Their solution was just that they would all be in agreement to discuss items that were added on,” she said. “But they have totally left the public out of the process. They all colluded and said we don’t need necessarily to inform the public. We’re in agreement that we can do it so let’s go ahead and do it.”
She said if elected, the deadline would be the Friday before the board’s Wednesday meeting date. This would allow residents interested in town business to have time to peruse the agenda and attend the meeting if they’re interested in any items.
Helsmoortel has defended the practice, saying it is permissible according to the state’s open meetings law, and that the number of items added in this manner is not large and items really do come up too late for inclusion on printed agendas.
Ciarlante has also pointed to the fact that four of the five Town Board members are financially involved in property— Helsmoortel as a realtor, Jimmy Bruno as a developer, Fred Costello as a landlord and William Schirmer owns a title insurance business. She said this is alarming because Saugerties has a high number of tax foreclosures, and had suggested that board members may be profiting from having a first-hand knowledge of which properties are in distress. She said she can’t prove any particular wrongdoing, but she finds the situation inherently suspicious. “If it quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” says Ciarlante.
Helsmoortel bristled at the insinuation.
“She’s being irresponsible in her comments,” he said. “She’s making statements to fit her needs or to help her with her platforms and has no idea whether they’re real or not.”
He denied the charge vehemently.
“If I wanted to do that, I would have made a lot of money in the last 15 years,” he said.
Presumably, Costello, Bruno and Schirmer would also be angered by such a statement. Bruno and Schirmer are both Republicans, both popular, and both not up for re-election this year. Presumably, one would think Ciarlante would be seeking their support.
Helsmoortel believes this is indicative of a disagreeable streak in his opponent. When asked if Ciarlante is qualified to be supervisor, he replied, “No, she doesn’t know how to work with people.”
That’s one interpretation. Another is that Ciarlante has less to lose than conventional wisdom would suggest because party enrollment doesn’t mean what it used to. Indeed, the largest overall and fastest growing group of Saugerties voters belong to no party. After losing the Republican nomination, Ciarlante began railing against what she calls the “Demo-publican Cartel.” While some feel she’s being a sore loser, and would have been happy to join the cartel had she been picked, perhaps attacking the collusion of the main two parties in support of the status quo is worth a shot in 2015.
Helsmoortel says party divisions aren’t significant for local elections.
“I think I’ve shown to many Republicans that I supervise impartially and for the betterment of Saugerties and not for the betterment of the Republican Party or the betterment of the Democratic Party.”
A State Comptroller’s report released last month listed Saugerties as one of 44 municipalities in fiscal distress, mainly due to its low fund balance. The state says a municipality should have at least 10 percent more money available than its expenses. In fiscal year 2014, Saugerties has .9 percent. In household terms, a family bringing home $5,000 a month should have at least $500 left when the bills are paid, while the town of Saugerties would have $45.
Helsmoortel says the town’s fund balance is low because the town used it to offset tax increases during the recession years, when other municipalities raised taxes sharply to meet expenses as contributions to pension funds increased and town income from other sources dried up. He pointed out that the main drawback to having a low fund balance — that a municipality might have to borrow money to meet expenses — has not happened, and now that the economy is improving, the fund balance will be restored, though slowly.
What does he say to residents who are concerned about the issue but aren’t interested in a long conversation about public accounting?
“You’ll have to take my word for it,” says Helsmoortel. “I’ve never lied to you, I’m always honest and forthright, and their rating system is unfair and I’ll be proven right. The rating will improve.”
Ciarlante believes it’s only a matter of time before an unexpected expense will require the town to borrow money, which of course, carries interest, which would act as a drag on the town’s fiscal situation. She pointed out that the town’s credit rating was downgraded several years ago, which will mean higher interest, and that the Comptroller is projecting the town will move from “moderate” to “significant” fiscal stress next year, although that projection is based on past trends, not the 2016 budget, still being developed.
Her solution is to cut the town budget. She said she would sit down with all department heads and find areas that could be cut without affecting the “day-to-day salaries of the workers.” If department heads didn’t agree to cuts, she would ask for cuts across the board of a certain percentage.
“There are always cuts,” she said.
She said the town is “addicted to grants” from higher levels of government, and such grants usually either require a matching contribution or bring equipment that will need to be maintained. She cited field lights at Cantine Field and new water meters in Glasco as examples.
Like Helsmoortel, she also cited the need to entice businesses to relocate to Saugerties to grow the tax base.
At a glance
Qualifications— As a seven-term supervisor, Helsmoortel is clearly qualified for the job. Ciarlante, who has never served in public office, points to her administrative experience supervising a drug treatment program when employed by the county. She said she knows there will be a “learning curve” but is willing to learn and will attend all necessary training workshops provided by the state.
Looking up— Helsmoortel says the local economy is improving. He cites the purchase of the vacant Vertis building behind the Big Lots shopping center by local businessman Kevin Pitcock, who plans to move part of his wholesale rigging business, Peak Trading Corp., there, and attract several tenants. He also said a new precision manufacturing business would be moving into the former Adirondack Stairs building on Kings Highway.
Role of government— With her skepticism of grants, which most public officials view as Manna, and likening of the town’s Comprehensive Plan to communism, does Ciarlante have a fundamentally different view of the role of government than her opponents and the board in general?
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I believe that government should be least intrusive into people’s lives and that’s not the belief of a lot of the members of the Town Board. Laws [should be passed] when they’re needed not just because they would make things nice.”
However, when asked for an example of a recent local law that was intrusive, she wasn’t able to provide one.
Final term— Helsmoortel says this will be his final term, but denies Ciarlante’s assertion that he plans to step down before it’s over and appoint either Fred Costello or James Bruno to fill the term and run for office in 2017 as incumbent. “Absolutely no truth to that whatsoever,” said Helsmoortel.
Long odds— To win, Ciarlante would need to win more than double the number of vote she received in 2013, when she also had only the Conservative line. She realizes the odds are against her but feels voters need an alternative. Helsmoortel said he’s working just as hard as he did in 2013.
“Never take an election for granted,” he said.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.