Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan took questions on topics ranging from short-term rentals to environmental issues to the opioid crisis during an hour-long Q&A session in a packed meeting room at the Woodstock town offices at the Comeau property on October 15.
“Listening is something us elected officials don’t do enough,” said Ryan, who has appeared in town hall-style meetings throughout the county since starting the job four months ago.
When asked by Kingston Land Trust Director Michael Drillinger about his thoughts on the illegal dumping by Joe Karolys in Saugerties, Ryan expressed frustration that agencies all the way up to the state level have been unable stop it. Calling the situation “absurd,” Ryan said he will soon sign a bill that strengthens regulations governing construction and demolition disposal. “This is an egregious example of a bad actor who flaunts the law,” Ryan said.
“I believe protecting our environment is protecting our competitive advantage,” he said, speaking of the county’s natural beauty.
Drillinger asked him about a planned cement plant in the town of Kingston off state Route 28 that has angered local residents. Ryan said while it is important not to step on home rule and a municipality’s right to decide on such development, he remains concerned. Ryan segued into economic development by acknowledging the right of a company to build a cement plant, but noting it may be possible to steer them to a more appropriate location.
“We have to have an honest conversation,” Ryan said about economic development.
“The majority of jobs have not been living-wage jobs,” he said, touting a program in the works to teach people the skills needed to get jobs in green technology, such as solar installations, in eight weeks, eliminating the needed to get an associate’s degree.
Getting back to environmental concerns, former Woodstock Supervisor Jeff Moran told Ryan about a friend who lives on John Joy Road who found dioxins in the soil. It was assumed it came from the Karolys operation but it turns out it is coming from the Saugerties Transfer Station. Moran asked what can be done on the county level.
Ryan said waste is a growing problem. “We’re paying a lot of money to ship waste hundreds of miles from here,” he said as an example.
Woodstock Land Conservancy Chair Kevin Smith suggested requiring a full-lifecycle analysis of carbon footprint for all new building projects and urged government, including at the county level, to move faster to address climate change.
Ryan said he is in favor of governments leading by example. The goal in Ulster County is to reach 100 percent renewable energy for government operations.
A big challenge, he said, is the county fleet, particularly the buses. Trying to find vendors to provide electric buses for UCAT has been an issue. Ryan said the county is buying three electric buses next year in hopes of spurring more interest. Another challenge, though, is in finding a reliable supply of parts, training mechanics and having adequate charging stations to keep the buses moving, he noted.
A call for better broadband
Steve Romine, who is on the town’s newly formed Communication Infrastructure Committee, asked for help in getting fiberoptic internet lines installed in town.
Romine is a longtime opponent of 5G technology, the newest form of high-speed wireless broadband. He has spoken of ill health effects from the radio transmissions involved in the technology. He said fiber is a better alternative and asked for Ryan’s help in getting it installed within the county. Fiber direct to the customer is only available to businesses and even then it is extremely difficult to get, Romine said.
Ryan expressed frustration in dealing with Spectrum and Verizon, the two players in the technology. “When we’ve tried to play nice and offer carrots, they’ve taken advantage of us,” Ryan said, acknowledging access to broadband is a big problem in parts of the county. Ryan said he is working on getting the state Public Service Commission to come to Ulster County to hear residents raise their concerns.
Kirk Ritchey noted Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced an initiative to bring fiber to all libraries in the state, but Spectrum has not been cooperative. “We have a lot of people who work from home,” Ritchey said. “Fiber would be a great thing for commerce.
Councilman Richard Heppner, who chairs the town’s short-term rental committee, questioned Ryan about working with Airbnb and other listing websites to share data with towns for regulation and enforcement. Some have even proposed having companies like Airbnb collect room taxes on behalf of the local government. In response, Ryan said he has serious concerns about such an arrangement. “They basically say trust us. Here’s the check,” Ryan said.
The county currently uses software that scans internet listings for short-term rentals to figure out who should be paying the 2 percent room tax. It then shares that information through monthly reports to the municipalities.
Ryan said about 80 percent of the properties are in compliance with the county room tax.
Addressing opioid abuse
Ryan said the county is focused on medication-assisted treatment as an effective way to tackle opioid epidemic. He compared it to treating any other illness with a regimen of medication and noted the program is extending to the jail, where there is a significant population of addicts. Ryan also said the entire county workforce will be trained in the administering of Narcan, a life-saving drug that immediately reverses the effect of an overdose.
Ryan said Ulster was the “worst county in the state in 2018 per capita” in opioid abuse.
McKenna forwarded a complaint from the Woodstock Rescue Squad that while Narcan is available free of charge to individuals who receive training, it is not free for the first-responders. Ryan said he will look into it and come up with a solution.
Help with the library?
Hera, a vocal opponent of plans to replace the current Woodstock Public Library with a new 12,000-square-foot building, accused the library board of ignoring people’s wishes and asked Ryan for help.
“I’m baffled how we’re going to do this,” she said, referring to stopping the plans. Hera further accused the library board of paying the architect without permission and using funds earmarked for personnel. “Is there anyone on a county level that can mediate,” she asked.
Ryan said he doesn’t think there’s anyone on the county level that can help. He did offer to put Hera in touch with the county Planning Department.
Slight changes to proposed town budget
Following Ryan’s session, Supervisor Bill McKenna distributed a revised version of the proposed 2020 budget that includes some changes in revenue projections and funding for grant writing.
Spending is $8,567,687, a $2500 increase over what was announced October 1 and $302,710.28 or 3.66 percent over the 2019 budget of $8,264,976.72. The tax levy is $6,393,562, an increase of $265,608, or 4.334 percent. It is unchanged from the budget presented October 1. It is $18,368 below the cap of $6,411,930.
The $2500 increase for writing grant proposals is offset by a $1000 increase in projected revenue from short-term rental fees and a $1500 bump in franchise fees, allowing the projected tax levy to remain the same.
At Heppner’s request, McKenna included an increase in part-time police hours to help patrol the area around the Village Green and provide assistance with traffic on busy weekends.
“They might even give a ticket or two so it can pay for itself,” Heppner quipped.
McKenna said he discussed it with Police Chief Clayton Keefe, who believes he can absorb it into his budget with no further increase.
The extra patrol details will be on weekends from roughly Memorial Day to Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day, with other weekends as needed, McKenna said.
Water, sewer budgets adopted
Water and sewer rates for 2020 remain unchanged at 42 cents per 100 gallons for water and $1.03 per 100 gallons for sewer in the hamlet district. Also unchanged is the $17 quarterly meter charge for water and sewer.
Costs for the water district are $241,284, to be financed by $164,710 in metered sales, $50,694 in meter charges, $6400 in interest and penalties, $1480 from interest and earnings and $18,000 from the fund balance.
Costs for the On-Site Sewer District are $56,773, to be financed by $500 in interest, $52,273 in assessments on improved properties and $4000 from the fund balance.
Costs for the Hamlet Sewer District are $300,287 to be covered by $243,565 in metered sales, $30,022 in meter charges, $5000 from interest on penalties, $1200 from interest on revenue, $2500 in service to other funds and $18,000 from the fund balance.
A public hearing was set for the remainder of the town budget on November 7 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, 76 Tinker Street.