The race for the District 2 seat in the county legislature, to be vacated by incumbent Joe Maloney, is both complicated and well-populated. The first stage of it takes place this coming Tuesday, June 25, with a number of primaries.
In the Democratic Primary, Chris Allen, who held the seat before losing to Maloney two years ago, will contend with Saugerties Town Councilman John Schoonmaker for that party’s line on the Nov. 5 ballot. Schoonmaker will appear on the primary ballot for the Working Families Party, but WFP members will have the option of writing in a member of that party. Al Bruno, veteran of numerous local boards and committees who has already secured the Republican line for the general election this fall, will appear on the Independence Party primary ballot but party members also can write in another name.
We reached out to Schoonmaker, Allen and Bruno and asked them all the same five questions; Allen replied via email and Schoonmaker and Bruno were traditionally interviewed. Their answers, edited lightly for space, appear below. The responses are given in alphabetical order.
What achievements are you most proud of in your career as a public servant?
Chris Allen: during my four years in the legislature, I wrote the Lyme disease awareness policy that the Ulster County Department of Health applies, and I wrote three memorializing resolutions that called for reforms and protections in state and federal healthcare laws that would improve upon your ability to have control over your own healthcare records and for improvements to be made within our healthcare system. I was very supportive of the move of the Ulster County Family Court from Kingston to the Town of Ulster, as this saved the taxpayers of Ulster County around $11 million of bonded money relative to the options that were available in the City of Kingston, and the project came in $500,000 under cost projections and six weeks early. I was able to vote on policies that created the veterans homeless shelter in Kingston and for the construction of the Sophie Finn satellite campus of Ulster County Community College in Kingston. During my first year in office I worked with my two fellow Saugerties legislators to inform residents of Saugerties about the reconstruction of the Sauer Bridge in Mount Marion, and I was known for being a very amicable legislator who treated all of my legislative colleagues with professional courtesy and respect. Also in my first year in the legislature, I was able to facilitate for the appointment of a Saugerties small business owner onto the county IDA board, and he successfully lobbied for more natural gas lines to be installed along the Kings Highway corridor which ideally will attract new business development in the area. During my second year in office, I successfully put pressure on CSX Railroad to clean up dangerous construction stone that they had left behind for five months along the second most dangerous railroad crossing in Ulster County. Locally, I was able to work with the village mayor, the town supervisor, and the town highway superintendent and with members of the town and village boards to facilitate for the repairs of numerous roads, and to also have truck-idling laws enforced within the village when delivery trucks were idling too long near second-story apartments along Main Street. In my third and fourth years in office, I was able to have seven dangerous trees removed from three different residencies. I gained a reputation of assisting residents quickly when called upon even if I received calls from constituents from other legislative districts who I assisted out of professional courtesy to my legislative colleagues in District 1 and District 3.
Al Bruno: The Saugerties Transportation Advisory Council [of which Bruno was a member] came up with a solution for kids walking down Washington Avenue to the high school. The sidewalks were never finished and kids were walking in the street. We brainstormed it and came up with an idea of, rather than building sidewalks and taking people’s property, we came up with the idea [that the] road was wide enough that we could move the sidewalk into the lane and delineate it with a raised surface and markings. We were, as a committee, we were very instrumental in getting the speed limit lowered to 25 mph in that area. It was a town and village collaboration that made it all happen, and being part of it, I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the people in the town having the faith in me and allowing me to sit on the committees that I do. The board of assessment review is a pretty big responsibility, because people’s assessments directly affect their taxes. I know that what we do directly affects how much it costs people to live in this town. It’s a big responsibility that I don’t take likely, and I’m proud that they have trust in me as the chairman. I’m not a paid politician, I’m not exactly a public servant as defined typically.
John Schoonmaker: Overall, the direction that we’ve taken the town in terms of pushing a green agenda. We’ve received a hybrid and an electric vehicle, we’re beginning the process to become a Climate Smart Community, we’ve found a way to utilize a capped landfill that wasn’t generating any income — now that we’ve leased it … we can see revenue come from it. And getting away from the whole green movement, something that I’m very proud of that we accomplished early on in our administration was partnering with RUPCO for a grant for low-income families to finance home repairs through interest-free loans. We’ve actually done an excellent job of managing the town’s finances on top of it — we’ve increased our town’s bond rating to an A-minus over the last budget cycle. We were also able to save the town $100,000 for switching to another health insurance plan that had no impact on our employees. That’s the kind of foresight and thinking that we need to see in government — where can we see savings without compromising the services that we provide to residents and employees.
Do you have any ideas for new legislation?
Allen: In my third term in office, I will write several policies that will call for improvements to be made within the Office for the Aging and within the Department of Social Services. I will recommend to the county executive’s office that we add a position in order to further assist elderly patients of nursing homes and hospitals when they receive termination notices from their insurance plans. Fiscally, there are specific (vacant) budget-line positions that can be utilized to pay for such additional services without raising taxes. In addition, I will continue to serve with logical votes and due diligence and help those in need.
Bruno: I think Pilots [payment in lieu of taxes agreements] and the whole process of issuing Pilots definitely needs to be looked at and revisited. I think that, if a Pilot is issued, there should be some kind of guarantee for the county that a [company] will have to produce a certain number of jobs. We all see when Pilots are issued to small startups of hotels or motels or industries that are only creating three four or five jobs but they’re getting millions in tax relief to do it. In my opinion, if what they’re bringing to the town and the county is such a viable effort, it should stand on its own merits. A Pilot should be considered an extra bonus like a grant, but it shouldn’t be the sole reason that a business comes to our town. If we give a break to a business that doesn’t help the taxpayers, I don’t see the benefit of that … I also think, this is going to sound opposite, but I think the county needs to come up with a five-year, 10-year or 20-year plan to put electric charging stations in more locations. I’m a firm believer in the adage ‘build it and they will come’ — the more accessible the technology is to everyday people; the more you’ll see those electric vehicles. I say this more because of their efficiency than their footprint… These jobs that we bring, I want them to be decent-paying jobs where people can make a decent living and stay in New York. … I’d be more likely to give Pilots to a company that has a history of treating their workers [well], whether it’s through unions or their ways of doing business. … I’m not saying that the county can tell businesses how to operate, but with the right incentives we can keep people in good jobs.
Schoonmaker: I want to bring in a very green agenda. Ulster County is already considered a leader in the environmental movement. You just have to look at how the plastic bag ban started in this state, we implemented the ban first and other counties followed suit, and then the state considered the ban and enacted it as well. The idea that I’m bouncing around would be to implement a complete ban on any future fossil fuel projects in the county. I’m hoping, if that were to pass the legislature, that we would see a similar effect on the state as we saw with the plastic bag ban. People are wondering how they can have an impact on their town, county and state, how they can address the climate crisis, and I’ve been telling people that a lot of what happens starts in your town. In terms of other ideas, I’d like to form a countywide force to combat invasive species. Many people don’t realize that they can have effects on the ecosystem and even on the economy — a great example is at our beach in the village. You have water chestnuts and Eurasian milfoil and because of how thick those have grown in, it’s having impact on the beauty of the beach as well as practicality of using the beach. … If we had a task force in place, we could tackle these invasive species before they arrive. Our country is very good at reacting, and we need to become more proactive.
Why did you decide to run for county legislature? What can your bring to the body that isn’t already represented?
Allen: I want to improve upon the services that the county provides to our elderly population through making improvements in the Office for the Aging. I would like to make some improvements within our Department of Social Services. I want to work with all of my legislative colleagues and the new county executive to make county government less drama-filled and more professional in how we interact with one another and in how we conduct business. I know that I am the most experienced and well-qualified candidate out of the three in this year’s election. I will continue to help those in need and serve with due diligence and continue to have an outstanding attendance record for all of my meetings as a county legislator.
Bruno: First of all, I’m a right-wing conservative Republican and I consider myself fiscally responsible. I’m not saying that my opponents are not fiscally responsible, however, their side of the platform is more into a socialist way of thinking that mine is. I have more of an individualist and capitalist way of thinking, and I think those are two different sides of the fence. I was thinking about running for a number of years, and I think that taxes are exorbitant, not necessarily from the town, but from the county the state and the country. I think that my efforts will help Saugerties and the entire county. It’s a great middle ground, I can stay in touch with my family and friends and enact change. I wanted to become involved in the decision making of why I pay what I pay where I live, and why my neighbors are paying what they’re paying. I’m not a politician, I’m a citizen, and I see politicians doing things for the sake of the politics of it and not the value of it. I’m not doing it as a politician, I’m doing it as a representative of District 2. If the small things that I can do in the legislature can make the town and the county a better place, that’s what I want to do. I see a lot of people moving out of Saugerties, of Ulster County, of New York State because they can’t afford to live here anymore. If I can do something to make it a little easier to stay, that’s what I want to do.
John Schoonmaker: The reason why I decided to run for county legislature was that I thought it was about time we started bringing more youth to local politics. In my opinion, we should start seeing an influx of younger people in local governments — it’s where you learn how to be an official and run a government, and I think it’s important to have young people there so that in the future we have experienced people who can step up to higher offices. … When you’ve held public office, even for a little bit, it conveys how important it is to be chosen to represent a community. It gives you that sense of responsibility and accountability to the people. I think I can bring a very forward-thinking mindset. As I had mentioned, I am looking at creating a task force on invasive species, that’s an issue that no one talks about. And the background that I bring isn’t typical for an elected official. I studied biology, I worked at an animal rescue, I worked night shifts at Bread Alone and I think that gives me insight into how our average citizen in this county, how our citizens live. I’ve been there, I’ve struggled having to stretch each paycheck to meet the bills and feed myself. I’m still there. On top of that, I’m not afraid to bring bold ideas to the legislature. I know there are a lot of people pushing a green agenda, but none of them have made any steps to limit fossil fuel projects. That’s the sort of step we need to make to safeguard our planet for future generations.
Can the county keep taxes under the tax cap?
Allen: Ulster County government receives one-third of our revenues from sales tax receipts. Unfortunately this makes the receipt of our revenues excessively reliant upon steady tourism, the shopping industry and other sources of consumer spending such as gasoline and home heating oil purchases. If we have a slow tourism season, a poor shopping quarter or (strangely enough) if the price of gasoline and heating oil goes down too much, then sales tax revenue decline. In addition, depending upon the fiscal year, between 24.3-26.8 percent of all revenues coming into Ulster comes from federal and state grant monies and other state and federal aid. Unfortunately, the proposed New York state budget calls for some cuts to local municipal funding including some cuts for Lyme disease awareness that filters down to the County Department of Health. … In the last six years, Mike Hein was able to deliver us budgets that were able to modestly reduce property tax assessments on the county level. During this time, Mr. Hein did have the luxury of being able to utilize the proceeds of the sale of Golden Hill nursing home as a means of drawing from the fund balance in order to present the legislature with balanced budgets. Pat Ryan will not have this same luxury. Ideally, unfunded state mandates will not increase, and we will continue to experience steady increases in our receipt of sales tax revenues and all sources of federal and state monies will not decrease. These are the variable factors that will determine our fiscal future and what further adjustments we have to make as elected officials in order to keep property tax assessments from increasing on the county level.
Bruno: I think they can and I think they should. There should be no reason why they can’t. It may mean making some tough and unpopular decisions, and I for one am ready to make those decisions. We have a budget — this is how much money the taxpayers of Ulster County have to spend. You have to work within that — if that means making cuts, that means making cuts. That means not buying everything on the wish list. That’s one of the reasons I want to run, to make those decisions. We owe it to the taxpayer. Now, what each and every one of those decisions are going to be, I don’t have that information yet, but I guarantee that I will look at every dollar sign that comes across my desk. As far as lowering taxes, I think that every [public servant] has the intention of making taxes lower. The problem, though, is so multifaceted that there isn’t one answer. I think that eventually taxes can come down, but it won’t happen overnight. … I will work to lower taxes. It’s a goal, it’s not an end.
John Schoonmaker: I believe it is possible. It will take looking over what is an extremely sizable budget with a fine-toothed comb, look to see if there’s any duplication of services in there. What you really need to do is find ways to bring new revenue sources to the county. … TechCity just went through foreclosure and the county should be doing everything it can to ensure that the property doesn’t sit idle, go into disrepair, and that good job-creating businesses take its place.
What’s the future of garbage disposal in Ulster County?
Allen: The future of garbage disposal is a complex issue as our arrangement to bring solid waste up to Seneca Falls outside of Syracuse will expire in the following year. The cost of shipping solid waste some 243 miles each way is costly and environmentally unfriendly as we leave behind a large carbon footprint from trucking this waste to a burn facility that is so far away. Nobody wants a solid waste burn facility in their community within Ulster County. Within Ulster County, we have too many underground aquifers and open waterways that could be contaminated from a solid waste burn facility. Ideally, we can find a solid waste burn facility that is closer than Seneca Falls. At this point in time, the proposed tri-county solid-waste management commission between Ulster, Greene and Sullivan counties does not seem to be coordinating well together or making any decisive decisions. This has to be improved upon … . Ideally, a positive outcome and closer burn facility can be a positive outcome of such an arrangement between our three Counties. At least the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency and the county legislature has implemented some new composting mandates for local restaurants and applicable businesses, and they have allowed for exclusions to such businesses that are within remote parts of Ulster County. Improving upon our usage and increasing upon our tonnage of composting and recycling can assist in alleviating upon how much solid waste we are processing out of Ulster County.
Bruno: Personally, I’m not in favor of a mega dump in Ulster County at this point. I really want to see us push and push hard on the recycling end of it. A huge portion of what we send to the landfills don’t need to be sent to a landfill. Food garbage and organic garbage should be composted. On a smaller level, I think it should be created on a county level. As a county, I think we can come up with a means. What the exact answer is I haven’t figured it out yet, but I think that we could have foodstuff materials, constructed out of materials that won’t attract animals. I think that could reduce a big footprint, along with all of the cardboards and metals and plastics that are being [thrown away]. I’d like to explore the shared services options, too — I know that’s been on the burners as we speak. I don’t know all of the things that have been accomplished, but I think that we assertively need to reduce the amount of garbage that we’re creating. I’m all for the bag bans and for paper straws.
Schoonmaker: I was recently appointed to the Ulster County recycling oversight committee. In terms of the garbage situation, the most pressing concern is figuring out where we are going to put our gardens considering Seneca Falls is going to be closed down in the near future. I would like to see us implementing programs that would reduce the total amount of garbage that we produce. One way that we can have a huge impact on that is by impacting a very robust composting program. Ideally, for me, I would like to see something similar to what happened with recycling where we got curbside pickup. When recycling became more available, people were more willing to participate in it and I think that doing so with composting would have the same effect. One thing that I do not see as the future of garbage disposal: bringing any sort of incinerator.