Neil Bettez will take the office of New Paltz town supervisor on January 1, and with it he will achieve the quirky distinction of being the first supervisor to also simultaneously serve on the village’s Shade Tree Commission. It’s another first — one that is still not guaranteed — which is likely to be more memorable: Bettez could be the first town supervisor whose office is down the hall from that of the village mayor. Building a new Town Hall is an absolute must for the town government, but Bettez is one of many elected officials who’d like to see the dream of a joint municipal center realized in this project.
The supervisor’s office at the moment is in the trailers housing town offices since the old Town Hall was evacuated as a “sick building” in late 2014. While the supervisor-elect joked that those trailers are nicer than the ones he worked out of near Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, he understands the costs associated with maintaining those temporary structures. They are costly to heat, inconvenient to most residents, and taking up space next to the town highway garage while the Town Hall lot serves no benefit to the taxpayers. Building a new Town Hall is an urgent issue, but making it into a joint municipal center is how he’d like to see it resolved. The main benefits that he sees are in terms of cost savings and quality of life for residents.
Cost savings seem evident on the very face of it, he thinks: “We could share a copier,” for example, and save money on it and its maintenance, as well as sharing such fixed costs in many other ways. The sale of the Village Hall property will yield an immediate boon only to village residents in the form of the proceeds, but returning it to the tax rolls means another lot to share in town taxes, as well. Quality of life means, in part, not expecting residents to understand how the two governments divvy up responsibilities. “You don’t have to keep track of where you live,” he said, in order to know where to get a particular question answered.
At the same time, as someone who is a somewhat new parent who has worked entirely outside of government until now, he thinks more can be done to get input from the public on the project, which could officially have the village as a partner as early as January. He’d like to answer the question, “What does the whole town want?” but he thinks that despite the amount of news coverage, the idea of a joint municipal center may catch many people by surprise. “They’re busy,” he said, working their own jobs, taking care of their families and leading their lives, and might not know even now that something of this magnitude is in the works. “We need to do a better job of getting the word out.” That will involve more public information sessions as well as other strategies, including an expanded social media presence. Enhanced outreach is also one of the ways he hopes to transform town government more generally. It was on Facebook, he pointed out, that the questions first arose in the Sewergate affair, when the idea of building a treatment plant next to the high school proved to be a floater with staying power.
When it comes to the details of a joint building, Bettez’s background as a scientist and college professor peek through. Capability for virtual meetings would bring up the level of public access higher than previously imagined, he believes, which could in turn encourage more engagement by town residents. A projector in the main meeting room would make it easier for anyone tuning in or attending to see what board members see, part of what he calls the “democratization of town information.” Likewise, consideration as to the placement of cameras is something he does not want left to chance; the viewing public ideally will see what those there in person can.
One issue where Bettez feels there is an easy fix to concerns about transparency and democratization is in reinstating the Police Commission as an independent entity. The Town Board absorbed its duties two years ago, and hold short meetings monthly just prior to regular board meetings. It’s a system that Police Chief Joseph Snyder has said he feels works quite well, but there’s a potential for conflict of interest which Bettez seeks to eliminate. That question arose when deputy supervisor Jeff Logan called police on Halloween to accuse a neighbor of stealing his campaign signs; that Logan had direct authority over the responding officer and his chief was an area of concern for some town residents. Logan himself argued for the new system, saying that it was inappropriate for board members to cede budgetary authority to an appointed commission. As the commission law is currently written, both budget and discipline fall under the commission’s purview.
Working together is about more than shared space, and Bettez plans on definitive action such as completion of the joint comprehensive plan for the town and village. Such vision documents are unhelpful if the zoning is not then changed to conform, which is something he and his neighbors on Elting Avenue discovered when a developer proposed to add two more houses to that village street. “The comprehensive plan supports no third house, but the zoning did not conform,” he said, and that can mean it’s more difficult to keep out unwanted projects and encourage preferred ones. He stressed that he’s not looking to promote his own vision, but he does not to ensure that the community gets what it wants, down to the zoning level. That disconnect between zoning and comprehensive plan is also hard on developers, because submitting something that complies with the code is no guarantee it will be welcome. The new plan should be “less reactive,” Bettez said, and instead direct developers to appropriate areas for their projects, such as industrial corridors. “New Paltz has a reputation for vocal development involvement, which may scare some businesses away,” he said. “If we put out what we want, we’ll have less controversies.” One example of a proposal caught in that web is the CVS/Five Guys project for the vacant land near the Thruway.
Likewise, Bettez would like to make sure that all safety requirements for rental units are the same throughout the town, and have students living in the village limits enjoy a higher degree of security in that regard. “Students don’t always know where they live, and they shouldn’t be less safe because of it,” he said. “I don’t want any students to die while I’m in charge.” Such potential deaths could result from common practices such as excessive use of extension cords and the blocking of legally-required exit doorways, he said by way of example, and the young people who are the most common renters don’t always understand the risks or the law. “The role of government is to look after people who can’t look after themselves,” he added.
Also along the Thruway, there is the possibility of the Pilgrim Pipeline being constructed. Lead agency status for that process is being shared by the Thruway Authority and the Department of Environmental Conservation, and it’s a process Bettez will be watching closely. “We need to make sure that our first responders have the equipment they need to deal with any issues,” he said, and to do that he needs to understand both the project and the needs of those first responders better. “We’re not getting anything out of this but more responsibility,” he said, and he’d like to see the Thruway Authority helping the town’s services maintain the higher level of readiness which will be needed. Before the town council agrees to anything, he said, it expects it to be vetted by the police and fire chiefs, as well as leadership on the rescue squad.
The Park Point housing development is all but certainly dead, and Bettez understands why so many town residents opposed the tax breaks it would have gotten, but at the same time he recognizes student housing is an ongoing need. “‘I came here as a student’ is a common story in New Paltz,” he said. “The college is a huge benefit to the community, and it’s easy to forget that.” While alcohol-related issues such as noise and vandalism can and should be improved, he pointed out that not all town-gown relationships are adversarial. “The college brings a lot to the town,” he said, but it takes good communication to maintain positivity in that dynamic. Setting up a first meeting with SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian is high on the supervisor-elect’s to-do list.
One thing which Bettez knows must be a top priority is to get to know the budget inside and out. Comptroller Jean Gallucci could soon know the new supervisor better than anyone in town, except perhaps for Kathy Preston, the lifelong resident whom he intends on appointing as his confidential secretary. Bettez also knows who will be filling the deputy supervisor position, and will most likely announce that decision during the town’s reorganization meeting on Monday, January 4, 7:30 p.m., at the New Paltz Community Center.