New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez set many goals for himself and New Paltz town government during 2016, and if there’s one lesson he learned, it’s that “the year goes fast.” Looking back at what he’d hoped to accomplish, however, he doesn’t believe anything that hasn’t gone according to his original plan is worse off for that fact. Rushing in before understanding the complexity of a given issue would have been the worse choice in many cases, the supervisor believes.
Some goals Bettez has managed to get in under the wire, such as revisiting the police commission structure. Police Chief Joseph Snyder is much happier now that the commission has the same membership as the town council, because that means he’s actually talking to the people who make the budget decisions directly. However, Bettez was not alone in feeling that there is value in appointed citizens reviewing complaints against officers, and to that end town council members are now considering a proposal to create a review board for that purpose.
Regarding town hall, Bettez said, “I’m proud we did not jump right into building a new one.” A new town hall is needed, and last January town and village officials were ready to pull the trigger on a joint building in hopes of securing more state funding or otherwise saving taxpayer money. It turned out that plan would have been far more expensive than anyone predicted, and would have resulted in a far greater tax hike for town residents than the eight percent already in the 2017 budget. “We need a cheaper way to do that,” he said, and like village mayor Tim Rogers, he’s hopeful that adapting the town court/village hall complex may be the ticket. Not only is adaptive reuse frequently less expensive than building new, it’s also the most likely path to securing any state funding for the project. “You have to ask the right questions to get the right answers,” he’s learned.
That big tax hike was the highest in some years for the town budget, but even council members who frequently disagree with the supervisor, such as Jeff Logan, lauded him and comptroller Jean Gallucci for doing the best they could under difficult circumstances. For his first budget, Bettez had lower revenue than his predecessor and a number of union contracts which had just been negotiated to include long-overdue raises. That, plus massive increases in health-care costs, forced a budget increase far above the one proscribed under the tax cap. Bettez, who was a member of the union-friendly Working Families Party when he ran for office, has made it clear that he doesn’t blame town workers for the fiscal challenges. Nevertheless, those rising health-care costs are not sustainable, he warned.
Even with the town being financially strapped, Bettez is committed to making sound fiscal decisions. The 2017 budget begins the process of saving for new highway trucks, to minimize how much must be borrowed when each one needs to be replaced. The supervisor also recognizes that amenities such as the youth and recreation programs, athletic fields and pool are valued by town residents, and he wants to make sure none of them are seriously underfunded.
The idea for the village to give its part of Moriello Park to the town, for example, came from the town comptroller as a way to streamline keeping the pool operational. County legislator Jim Deluane has been helping find money to repair the Springtown rail trail bridge, a key link in the county’s trail system. Bettez is also looking for grants to build more soccer fields in the town. Capital planning for assets from pools to plows is all the more critical in times of financial stress, the supervisor believes.
Another dream that is still deferred is that of a new comprehensive plan, this one done jointly with village officials. Just $25,000 had been budgeted for that purpose, meaning that with village officials chipping in just as much they could have afforded one that cost $50,000, but the bids came in at twice that much. Grants will need to be secured to make such planning possible, with or without village participation; the current plan is to leverage the Climate Smart Communities program. Money to complete that certification was awarded to New Paltz during the most recent round of competitive state funding; with that designation, the community could be eligible for further grants, which Bettez hopes could be used for comprehensive planning. It’s that kind of labyrinthine strategizing that’s needed for a town supervisor to find ways to pay for needed programs when the community pockets aren’t as deep as might be necessary.
As with the village, infrastructure questions hang heavily over town officials. Sewer district six has just 30 homes in it, but needs a complete overhaul. That means a $2 million project being funded through tax increases on only those users, which is unsustainable. With state department officials looking to reward shared-service projects and the village plant having more than enough capacity, the supervisor hopes to work out a deal that will take sewer six offline and replace it with village treatment.
There’s also the thorny issue of proposed water district five, being created as part of the backup water supply plan for the village system. Some residents of Plains Road feel strongly enough that the idea is unjust that they have filed multiple lawsuits; only one remains in process at this time, and Bettez hopes to settle that last one. He also agrees with village officials that the plan relies on a very narrow margin of error and could result in problems if there’s an issue like a water main break during a shutdown. Village trustees voted to cancel their maintenance agreement for water district five to protest what most of them felt was a dangerous situation. While Bettez is sympathetic, he said that town officials can’t legally release them from that agreement. He hopes the New York City decision makers will pony up more cash for water exploration rather than having town and village in court against one another.
Bettez has a lot of pride in the progress made at Mill Brook Preserve. State funding will also be paying for a multi-use path through that parcel, which the supervisor acknowledges garnered some resistance. That’s because, as with national parks, there’s an inherent conflict between recreational access and preservation. Bettez, a biologist by training, believes that giving people access to wild lands is the best way to preserve them. The path will also provide an additional escape route from Duzine Elementary School, he pointed out.
2017 is also the year that a new fire station will be built, if the supervisor gets his wish. Much of the NY Rising money earmarked for New Paltz is going into that project, and he said that he and Mayor Rogers are “pushing hard” to ensure that ground is broken before 2018 is rung in.
Bettez plans on running for reelection this year. “Two years is not enough to get anything accomplished,” he said, and there’s much he’d like to finish. That includes a zombie-property law (allowing town workers to mow lawns and otherwise keep empty homes safe while billing the mortgagee for that work), updating storm water management laws, and of course getting the water and municipal hall issues resolved. Voters this year approved a doubling of the supervisor’s term, meaning that if Bettez does win a second term, he will have four more years in which to complete those unfinished projects. In fact, his greatest regret thus far is that he didn’t get to some of those projects sooner, because, as he observed more than once during the interview, “the year goes fast.”